Chapter 1: A Guide to Online Bachelor’s Degrees Post Pandemic

Differences Between Online Degrees and Emergency Virtual Instruction

In spring 2020, as schools, colleges, and universities abruptly closed their campuses in response to COVID-19, they had to scramble to implement virtual instruction to finish the school year. Undoubtedly, this transition represented the best efforts of school administrators and teachers facing a crisis—but despite those efforts, the overall quality of instruction suffered. Students were left feeling understandably disillusioned.

For a huge percentage of high school seniors, current undergraduates, transfer students, and others who planned to make an enrollment decision to attend college in the fall of that year, emergency virtual instruction was for the most part their only exposure to any form of online learning. Virtual instruction prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in forming false perceptions about the integrity of online learning. Overnight, a widespread view emerged that online learning is a backup plan—better than nothing in an emergency, but not as good as an on-ground education with face-to-face instruction.

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Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, an established online degree program is radically different from ad hoc emergency virtual instruction. In order to make informed decisions, students who are weighing their options need to understand how degree programs that were designed to be delivered online work.

In-person programs were not prepared to move online.

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, there was a rapid scramble for educators to move online with limited resources and little opportunity to prepare—all at a moment when students, parents, and faculty were also facing numerous personal and professional difficulties.

COVID-19 made it clear that many K–12 schools lacked sufficient plans to serve students if a crisis interrupted traditional teaching methods. Likewise, universities and colleges rushed to find a way to move their on-ground programs into an online format. Even higher ed institutions with a proven track record in online learning had to navigate unique challenges.

While this shift represented the best efforts of teachers, administrators, and students, the result was frustrating: endless questions, concerns, and confusion about assignments, due dates, and expectations. For many families, online learning tools were rolled out quickly, with different systems and expectations for students at different grade levels or various programs.

Moreover, most of the tools used during the crisis were intended primarily for business meetings (e.g., Zoom), rather than dedicated learning management systems built solely for online learning. The level of student support, engagement, and assessment teachers were able to deliver in this format was limited.

The whole experience fell far short of what students needed. But that’s not the case in a planned, organized online degree program.

Online degree programs are built with student success in mind.

An online degree program may have superficial similarities to emergency virtual instruction, but they are very different. Unlike programs that are launched quickly or created during a crisis, the best online courses are developed in advance by experienced faculty and course designers over the course of several months—and optimized, using well-studied best practices, for the distributed, technology-mediated online learning process.

Classes that suddenly went online as a result of COVID-19 weren’t intended, nor designed, to be taught this way. They were an improvised experience delivered by and for people who didn’t choose to attend school online and who had little support or prior experience in it.

Most online degree programs adhere to an asynchronous learning approach. This model allows students to access course materials, lectures, and complete assignments on their schedule while adhering to some fixed deadlines and due dates. This provides a highly flexible learning experience that is resilient against changes to a student’s schedule, living conditions, or even infrastructure.

Unlike emergency virtual instruction in which students had to familiarize themselves with the learning environment on the fly, online programs are built to help students expedite their technology learning curve, allowing them to focus entirely on course content and positioning them for long-term academic success. Many online programs offer introductory training sessions to help students become familiar with the online learning environment (often referred to as the learning management system or LMS). 

Due to the number of schools transitioning to virtual instruction during the pandemic, there was widespread confusion and misinformation about which online tools are best suited for different circumstances. Overnight, classroom teachers had to research which teaching methods were most effective online and how courses should be structured. Teachers and administrators were learning how to teach online as they experienced the crisis. Online degree programs, in contrast, are based on extensive and carefully organized research and experience, with carefully selected tools and teaching methods built to maximize student engagement and outcomes.

89% of college students

with experience in both online and in-classroom learning stated their online instruction was the same quality as— or better than—education they gained from a traditional classroom.

The key takeaway: when courses are designed and taught from the beginning with online learning in mind, there is no loss of educational quality. In a 2019 survey, the overwhelming majority (89%) of college students with experience in both online and in-classroom learning stated their online instruction was the same quality as— or better than—education they gained from a traditional classroom.

Due to the pandemic, millions of American students have experienced the plan B version of online learning. The evidence is clear: this is not at all comparable to established online education programs.

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