Quality Online Learning Matters

Our new report highlights ways to improve online learning for all students.
Blog Post
July 15, 2021

This past year and a half showed the world the importance of quality online learning: faculty struggled to keep students engaged, students felt a lack of motivation, and lack of quality technology was a challenge for many. The pandemic also exacerbated many issues in digital education that existed before the pandemic, like equity gaps in access and success in online classes.

While the pandemic is waning, enrollment in online courses and programs shows no signs of slowing down, and it is imperative that institutions invest time and resources in ensuring online education is of high quality. Our report, Back to Basics: Quality in Digital Learning, elevates existing research to make policy and practice recommendations that could help students and faculty have a better online education experience.

Our report highlights five pillars of quality online education as well as a trio of policy recommendations to strengthen the digital learning environment. The report recommends faculty design an organized class with clear learning objectives, frequent opportunities for feedback and connection, and supportive technology. We also offer several recommendations for policymakers, like making the Emergency Broadband Benefit permanent, improving data collection on distance education, investing in a federal research agenda, and starting a grant program for faculty teaching and learning professional development.

Quality digital learning is important because it is one way we can make progress in closing equity gaps in higher education. Enrollment in online classes and programs was on the rise prior to the pandemic. And many low-income students, parenting students, and students of color chose to take online classes because they work better with their various responsibilities and busy schedules. At the same time, non-traditional students are less likely to complete their degrees due to so many external responsibilities. The independent nature of online classes combined with a lack of human connection can make it even more challenging for non-traditional students to be successful online. Well designed online classes can prevent these students from falling through the cracks.

One way to improve the quality of online classes is to bring the human element and connection to the center. Many students in our focus groups felt that it was harder for them to concentrate and retain information in their online classes. Many students also felt lonely and like they lacked a support system to succeed in their class. But little things, like a Slack channel, check-ins or breakout rooms, helped. Students shared that breakout rooms felt more intimate and they felt less pressured to speak in front of others, motivating them to ask questions they might not have asked in a classroom setting. The research-based recommendations we offer in Back to Basics can help faculty re-center human interaction and start to make a difference in their classrooms.

This is why campus leaders and policy makers should focus on investing time and resources into improving the quality of online offerings in higher education--it can really make a difference in a student's short and long-term success. Without this investment, the field could continue offering courses that are less effective than in person and at the expense of the students that need it most. Back to Basics shows that quality online education is within reach, and that the federal government has opportunities to strengthen the online environment for today's students.

Enjoy what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on what’s new in Education Policy!