The COVID-19 pandemic upended business as usual for higher education. In April 2020, campuses moved to virtual settings, minimized summer events among admitted students, shifted financial needs, and focused on understanding what enrollment outcomes would look like for the fall term.
About a third of higher education was entirely online before the pandemic. At the same time, 84% of all undergraduates experienced some or all of their classes moving online only during the pandemic, according to the research company Bay View Analytics.
Although higher education institutions saw an increase in face-to-face learning in spring 2022 compared to fall 2020, in-person instruction remains below pre-pandemic 2019 levels.
Many educators today consider virtual learning inferior to in-person learning or ineffective. Others see it as a great new path forward and here to stay. There is great potential for virtual learning technologies to create more pathways for students to interact and learn the material in diverse ways.
The impacts of COVID-19 and the shutdown of education triggered a degree of social isolation among university students. A June 2021 BMC Public Health study revealed that 90% of students and staff were affected by the shutdown and could not perform routine work or studies at their institution for one week to two months.
Students of all ages need community and human connection support to maintain their mental and behavioral needs. But the increased use of remote learning throughout the past few years forced everyone to rely on communication through technology rather than in-person socialization.
Therefore, many students developed an increased level of loneliness. A 2022 Frontiers study found a clear association between loneliness and mental health problems in young adults (ages 18-26) with a prevalence of depression.
About 58% of the students characterized an increased stress level, 56% showed symptoms of depression, and 18% had suicidal thoughts. The most significant predictor of depression was high-stress levels and factors related to e-learning: isolation from friends and acquaintances, negative impact on knowledge level, reduced motivation to learn, and worsening grades.
This social isolation results in various health and mental issues, such as stress, poor sleep, anxiety, depression, and negative thoughts. And online learning, in general, can also decrease the chances of cognitive growth.
“Our standard model is still in person. Retraining individuals to think of the digital world beyond a place to play but also as a place to learn is not a small task. And students are aware of this,” Campion said.
“Many will tell you that they are happy to be back in the classroom and that they learn better in person, where there is increased accountability, frequent check-ins, an opportunity to get to know their classmates and instructors, continued development of their social skills, and so on,” she continued.
Low Academic Performance
One of the most significant disadvantages of online learning during the pandemic was students' low academic performance. When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 pandemic, educational systems became constrained, and universities implemented timely amendments to provide education while maintaining safety and efficiency.
As a result, learning and teaching activities transferred to complete e-learning. The abrupt shift from face-to-face online learning put stress on students and directly affected academic performance.
During online activities, students were left alone with no real motivation. Most students would have to master subjects in their own time, leading them to fall short of their optimal academic performance.
Overall, students participating in online higher education did worse than when in in-person courses, with lower grades, higher dropout rates, and poorer performance in subsequent classes.
Early in the pandemic, Duha T. Altingdag, associate professor of economics at Auburn University, and his peers conducted a study to separate the impact of online versus in-person education from COVID-19-related confounding factors.
The overall results indicated that students in face-to-face courses performed better than their online counterparts concerning their grades, the propensity to withdraw from the course, and the likelihood of receiving a passing grade.
Specifically, college students still taking face-to-face courses in Spring 2020 were 2.4 percentage points less likely to withdraw from their course and 4.1 percentage points likelier to earn a passing grade.
But Altingdad also emphasized universities and instructors adopted a more flexible approach to grading during the pandemic. In turn, these developments increased students' grades, and those in face-to-face courses benefitted more generously.
Now, online college courses are a rapidly growing feature of higher education. One out of three students currently take at least one course online during their college career, and that share has increased threefold over the past decade.
A recent American Economic Association review found that the estimated effect of taking a course online is a 0.44 grade point drop in course grade, approximately a 0.33 standard deviation decline. In other words, students taking the course in person earned roughly a B− grade (2.8) on average, while their peers in online classes earned a C (2.4).
Additionally, students taking a course online also reduces grades in future courses by one-eighth of a standard deviation and reduces the probability of remaining enrolled a year later by over ten percentage points (over a base of 69 percent). And researchers found differentially larger adverse effects of online course-taking for students with lower prior GPAs.
These results align with prior online education studies showing that in-person courses yield better mean outcomes than online courses in student test scores and overall grades.
Virtual instruction is here to stay, but generally as a supplement to in-person schooling. The strain remote learning has put on young adults, especially in social development, makes it untenable as the primary opportunity in most cases.
However, added flexibility makes e-learning an appealing option for students to expand access to a wide range of courses, accelerate learning for students that can manage their own learning experience, and create more options for students who have fallen behind.
Best Practices for Remote Learning
Technology tools allow colleges and universities to offer students the best learning environment. Today, everyone expects 24/7 access to information, and schools shouldn’t ignore the benefits a successful virtual learning environment can provide.
“Pivoting online was an excellent solution to an immediate problem during the pandemic,” Emily Campion, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management & Entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa, told Student Select in a recent interview.
“There is still absolutely a place for online learning in our higher education system because it offers increased flexibility and accessibility. But to succeed, we must ensure teachers and students are adequately prepared,” she continued.
The following are three best practices of a virtual learning environment:
Ensure Access with Devices
Since online learning requires web-based tools, all teachers and students must have access to learning resources. In addition, a remote learning environment must be accessible on any device and OS. Otherwise, some students may struggle to achieve the full benefits due to device incompatibility.
Encourage Discussions and Participation
Many students don’t feel comfortable speaking in class or raising their hands to participate. In a virtual learning environment, teachers can use online forums for class discussions to encourage everyone to participate.
For example, a professor might provide a series of discussion questions at the start of the forum that they will ask at the end. This gives students the time and space to process the questions before responding so they don’t feel put on the spot.
Personalize the Learning Experience
Professors can also improve classroom engagement by personalizing the learning experience and giving students options regarding content formats, allowing them to pick content that fits their learning styles. For example, a student who prefers reading over visual learning will benefit from scripts of video content.