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The Higher Education-During-COVID Riddle

Some woman taking an online education course

Now that the world is well over a year into COVID, many of us expected things to be returning back to normal. COVID vaccines are accessible for the majority, and millions more have contracted the virus and enjoy some level of immunity. But things are far from normal as coronavirus variants continue to emerge, and low vaccination rates persist. This is particular evident as students return to colleges and universities this fall. Educational institutions struggle over the benefits and risks of remote versus in-person learning. Evidence that online higher education is comparable to in-classroom instruction is lacking. But without question, returning to the classroom definitely poses some challenges.

The debate over remote versus in-person learning in college extends beyond academic quality and COVID precautions. Many students have come to appreciate the conveniences that online higher education offers them. Likewise, some faculty prefer to work remotely as well, given new work-from-home trends. For these reasons, colleges and universities must take a very close look at their approach to education this year. Should they offer online higher education courses to everyone or a select few? Are hybrid courses a better option until the pandemic subsides? These are the questions these institutions are asking themselves, yet the answers to these are far from clear.

“The argument in the past, pre-Covid, was, ‘Of course, an online course is fundamentally different than a course in the classroom. Well, Covid changed all that.” – Arlene Kanter, Disability Law Expert, Syracuse University College of Law

The Facts About Remote Versus In-Person Learning

Over the course of the last year, a fair amount of research has been conducted concerning remote versus in-person learning. With so many college students required to participate in online higher education courses, schools had opportunities to evaluate outcomes. But in many cases, when both options were available, students self-selected the types of courses they wanted. This means that inherent biases could have affected academic performance. The actual educational strategies used may not be the cause of academic results. Better or worse performance in online higher education may have simply reflected the types of students who prefer remote learning.

With this in mind, there are some studies that provide some insights concerning remote versus in-person learning. One study was conducted at West Point where professors randomly assigned students to classroom or online higher education courses. The results demonstrated that, on average, online students’ grades were 0.2 standard deviations lower. In Virginia’s community college network, online higher education also resulted in a reduced course completion rate of 8.5 percent. And consistently, male students and those with lower academic abilities tend to struggle more with remote versus in-person learning. In general terms, online college courses do not appear to be ideal for a larger number of students.

“I just learn a lot better when I’m actually in front of the teacher. But knowing that my health could be at risk, especially with the Delta variant, I don’t know what’s going to happen with school now.” – Cory Lewis, Sickle Cell Disease Patient and Biology Major Student, Georgia Military College

Online Higher Education From a Different Perspective

While online higher education may not be ideal for some, that doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial for others. Notably, the research does show that students with higher academic abilities tend to do well with remote courses. Likewise, with continued international travel restrictions, many students continue to rely on online access to college curricula. (Dive deeper into the inevitable evolution of higher education in this Bold story.) In these instances, remote versus in-person learning choices are not necessarily available. Therefore, these students naturally have greater potential by continuing in a remote learning environment. Though this may not be ideal, it is certainly better than in-person options for such students.

A person who lives in a phone is receiving her degree
The “remote vs in-person learning” equation has shifted greatly with the need for more distance-learning.

These students are not the only ones who have benefitted greatly from online higher education alternatives the past year. Many students with disabilities have also been able to improve their class attendance and course access during COVID. Colleges and universities are required by law to make reasonable accommodations and modifications for those with disabilities. But prior arguments that remote versus in-person learning are not comparable have limited remote access. Given that most colleges chose not to reduce tuition for online higher education during COVID, this argument seems less robust. And many students with illness and disabilities hope to see remote learning opportunities increase as a result.

“Maybe in the future they would think about having them hold like a hybrid class where if you needed to attend online, that’d be nice.” – Sophia Martino, Spinal Muscular Atrophy Patient and Senior Student, University of Missouri

Solving the Online Higher Education Riddle

Interestingly, students are not the only ones encouraging colleges and universities to increase their online higher education courses. Many teachers realized that remote versus in-person learning provided them with some advantages as well. While most had to quickly prepare for online student interactions and lessons, they eventually embraced new teaching strategies. This made them more dynamic, and it also broadened their skillsets in the process. In addition, like many other industries, work-from-home opportunities provide many with a better quality of life. As a result, colleges and universities must figure out how to appease professors in an effort to retain their services.

The challenge for colleges and universities today involves knowing what types of courses to offer. In a post-COVID world, the choice is not simply between remote versus in-person learning. (Read more about the importance of digital transformation in the post-COVID world in this Bold story.) Instead, schools must decide whether or not to offer hybrid curricula with both classroom and online higher education. They must also determine which students might actually do better and thrive in a remote educational setting. Certainly, more research is needed before such decisions can be made with confidence. But it’s no longer enough to refute online higher education as a potential alternative based on opinion. The world has changed, and colleges and universities must adapt along with it.


The official Bold Business survey results are clear: most favor work-from-home over going back to the office. Read more in this important Bold story!

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