Higher education distance learning has moved through three eras. Is the surge in demand for online during COVID-19 bringing us to the precipice of the fourth?

First Era: Correspondence Schools

Higher education has been helping students access education from a distance since 1892, when the University of Chicago started offering correspondence courses. These courses adopted new technologies – from radio to computers – as they were popularized.

Second Era: The Rise of the Online Mega-University

The Internet and the learning management system (LMS) at the turn of the century brought the ascendance of today’s largest online universities.

These several dozen for-profit and non-profit institutions discovered an untapped market – and suddenly expanded education access to students whose competing priorities of family and work had otherwise prevented them from getting a degree. Against the protests of traditional higher education (Poor quality! Low retention! Less interpersonal connection!), students flocked online. From 2002 to 2005, the number of students taking at least one online course doubled. By 2010, it had doubled again. Online was here to stay, and as a Harvard Kennedy School study showed, its success was not at the expense of traditional in-person programs.

Third Era: Dissemination and Ringfencing

A broad cross-section of institutions began to take the bull by the horns. Against much internal resistance, they developed online and hybrid programs of quality consistent with the standards of their institution. They experimented with new models along with new modalities – from massive online open courses (MOOCs) to bootcamps to partnerships. Students, who increasingly prefer to get a degree close to home, responded by shifting away from online mega-universities and toward institutions with historically strong brands in their local market. Some were launched and scaled independently. Others leveraged the services of online program managers (OPMs) to launch and grow faster than they could independently. The vast majority remained subscale. As of fall 2018, still only 4 percent of institutions were serving 55 percent of online students through scaled online programs. Nearly half of institutions had no online programs at all.

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Though online/hybrid has been disseminated, it has only rarely been truly integrated. It has been put in a box, ringfenced from the sacred in-person programs. Institutions have a group of graduate programs here, certificate programs there, occasionally bachelor’s degree completion or executive education. These offerings are marketed and operated differently, sometimes under a different name and taught by different faculty. The delivery of education has been outsourced (in some cases, to a detrimental degree). This lack of integration did not serve institutions well during the COVID-19 outbreak, as even those with notably strong online programs struggled to transition traditional students to remote learning.

The Dawn of the Fourth Era: The pervasively hybrid era

After the crisis abates, will the stark distinction between “online” and “in-person” be forever blurred? And what might the implications be for institutions?

Faculty and students will seek the right modality for the right course. The crisis-driven switch to remote learning was not always pretty, and many will be relieved to return to in-classroom learning. Even so, this crisis has delivered a rapid education – for faculty and students alike – in the technology and design needed for successful online learning.

As recently as six months ago, an #Insidehighered survey showed that only 46 percent of faculty had taught an online course. Now it must be close to 100 percent. We know from that same survey that when professors teach online, they improve their ability to teach, and they then tend to believe online courses can create equivalent student outcomes. Online may not be the best modality for a dancing class or a clinical rotation, but what about a large intro lecture course? Students will now have a better idea of when online makes sense and faculty a better idea of when to offer it.

All students will expect the service levels that online students enjoy. Institutions have heard what it takes to succeed with online programs: Respond to an inquiry within minutes. 24/7 student and faculty support. Rolling admissions. Multiple starts. The list goes on. At the same time, residential institutions are now in the position of proving the value of their residential experience. How might institutions meet all these student expectations without skyrocketing costs?

If we are truly in the dawn of the pervasively hybrid era, then all students will be hybrid students, all faculty will be hybrid faculty, and all institutions will be hybrid and online institutions.

What does this mean for an institution?

What to Do Now:


  • Create online courses for fall and beyond.

For courses best suited to online, don’t hesitate to migrate them to a robust online format. At a minimum, this format will be needed to make it through fall.

  • Communicate your institution’s value and differentiation.

Online or not, every institution can present a unique value proposition. Online can support – even enhance – the development of closer interactions between and among faculty and students. This value needs to be made clear to parents and students as they prepare to write a tuition check to your institution – or make the switch to another.

What to Do Next:


  • Use managed services strategically.

It will no longer be possible to ringfence inconvenient programs and outsource their delivery. Institutions will have to take a critical look at how to upend their business model to control delivery of their mission and education in this new era, while carefully considering for which non-core services it makes sense to leverage managed services.

  • Institute a “zero-based” teaching model.

Look beyond convention to develop a teaching model that fits to the demands of the “new normal.” It could mean leveraging a “master teacher” model or considering the role of AI in classroom support. It does not have to mean a sacrifice in quality.

  • Decouple the residential experience from the in-classroom experience.

While many classes might go online, the residential experience need not be diminished. Think of #SNHU, which just announced a fully online curriculum for its fully residential experience.

This is the third in a multi-part series that Jonathan Fry and I are writing on the impact of seven trends that are intensifying as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak and how higher ed can quickly unpack the challenges and seize the opportunities to thrive in the post-COVID “never normal.”

In the next post, we will explore the challenges related to financial instability. In the meantime, let’s stay connected via LinkedIn.

Samantha Fisher

Managing Director – Consulting, Public Service, Education

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