Online education was once hyped as a silver bullet for revolutionizing education, providing broad access to high-quality learning tools to all regions and bringing down the high cost of college. But while it didn’t transform education completely, the online format is booming, as schools expand their offerings to reach students everywhere, and benefiting people like adult learners who can’t stop their lives to go back to campus.
Digital Learning Grows
How big is it? Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, about a third of college students were enrolled in at least one online course, and one in six were taking fully online programs. Once the pandemic arrived, nearly 6 million public P-12 students transitioned to online learning, and while some students preferred the digital format, others were eager to get back to the classroom. However, it was clear that some version of digital education was here to stay. The digital learning market is projected to grow by at least 9 percent annually even in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, one estimate indicates.
Research has found that online education works better for some students than for others. The format has proven particularly difficult for students with less educational preparation. In addition, the digital divide has impacted many students, with some finding challenges in getting the technology required of it, and internet access not consistent across regions.
Digital Learning in Higher Ed
Online programs aren’t always cheaper than in-person ones. In the higher education space, as demographic changes mean that there are fewer kids of traditional college age, higher education has turned to online programs as a way to find new students (like those working adults), and new sources of revenue.
Employers have also increasingly turned to online education as a way to offer professional development opportunities. Corporate giants including Starbucks and Walmart now offer tuition assistance to employees who study at a select group of online college programs. That has helped places like Southern New Hampshire University become a new kind of mega-university, serving more than 135,000 online students.
Online higher education is still growing and changing, making it ripe for coverage. Among the topics to explore are whether online programs are working for students they serve; how online programs could lead people to continue formal learning throughout their careers (though in shorter spurts); and how traditional colleges are adapting to online offerings.
P-12 Digital Learning
In the P-12 space, online education has not only changed the format of how educational resources are delivered, but it has also altered how student achievement is measured. The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) evaluated whether students learned as well during remote learning as they did in the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic, and released the results in November 2020.
The findings indicated that both reading and math scores fell during the remote learning period, and that many students from low-income communities didn’t test at all in the fall of 2020, which the group noted was a concerning statistic, further reinforcing the need to narrow the digital divide.
This topic will continue to be a high priority for coverage. Areas worth exploring will include the digital divide; how specific age groups respond to digital learning; where the biggest gains and most significant issues are happening; and what the future may hold for digital learning.
The following modules will help you explore resources and the history of digital education in U.S. schools.