Teaching Students in the Future of Higher Education

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Students working together in a study group at the library

Overall enrollment in colleges and universities may have declined in recent years, but enrollment in online education programs continues to trend upward.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, roughly 17.9 million students were enrolled at postsecondary institutions in the fall of 2019, falling below 18 million for the first time in a decade.

Some 2.3 million students, or 14% of total undergraduate enrollment, exclusively took online education courses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Seventeen percent of students enrolled at private, nonprofit institutions also opted for online education programs.

Public institutions report similar changes in enrollment stats. In the fall of 2018, 34% of enrolled college students, or 5.7 million, took at least one online class, according to the NCES. It was also the 14th consecutive year of increased online college enrollment.

As such, it’s hard to deny that online learning is the future of higher education.

According to the Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG), enrollment in online education programs has been rising steadily since 2002. Julia E. Seaman, BSRG research director and co-author of the study, said the increase in online enrollments has been relentless: “They have gone up when the economy was expanding, when the economy was shrinking, when overall enrollments were growing, and now when overall enrollments are shrinking.”

Trends in Higher Education

The metamorphosis in learning methodology is causing teachers and educators to reconsider the ways they design coursework, especially considering that Fall 2019 enrollments were more than 2 million less than peak enrollment in 2011.

Advances in digital content, technology, and institutional practices have been a catalyst for online course enrollment. Email, instant messaging, message forums, and the expanded use of web-based video provide e-learners with access to a growing number of computer- and device-based educational tools.

To meet the demand for online education, colleges and universities are refining their mobile and project-based learning methodologies. They are always looking for more effective ways to design relevant, engaging online lessons. Some institutions are incorporating live and interactive online courses in addition to allowing off-campus students to audit massive open online courses (MOOCs) at no cost.

For those seeking career expertise quickly, some universities and colleges are also creating short courses, which can be “stacked” into transferable credit and applied toward a degree program.

Expanding Online Education

Educators understand that expanding online education is about more than simply adding more courses. Today, a growing number of colleges are working to ensure that online course material is just as easy to access on a smartphone or tablet as it is on a computer.

Some additional benefits of online education include:

  • 100% online coursework that can be complete anytime, anywhere
  • Personalized student support services and greater faculty availability
  • Enhanced engagement opportunities within the virtual classroom to mimic that of on-campus programs
  • Flexible start dates
  • Networking opportunities with current students and alumni

Artificial intelligence has also started to play a key role. According to EdTech, several schools had already begun to incorporate AI into their courses. For example, a professor at Georgia Tech used a virtual teaching assistant, “Jill Watson,” to communicate with students in her online AI course. In addition, the University of Iowa has used AI to connect campus buildings to computer systems, and IBM Research and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have partnered to use AI to help students learn Mandarin.

Students as Lifelong Learners

Online coursework isn’t just for those who are looking to launch their careers. A recent study at Columbia University’s Teachers College found that most students who are taking advantage of open online courses are college-educated, employed adults between the ages of 30 and 44.

Students in this demographic are using online-based learning to expand their skill sets to improve their job performance and augment their earning potential.

Courses in Computing, AI, and Other Technologies Are Expanding Quickly

Consumers have largely driven the future of higher education. As the demand for online learning grows, colleges and universities are expanding their course offerings. Many schools have created new departments and degrees focused on computer science, artificial intelligence, and other burgeoning technologies.

These courses have become increasingly popular among college-educated working professionals who see on-demand education as a means of accelerating their career trajectories. Online learning also helps some professionals change careers entirely.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Colleges and Universities

With the global spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, higher education has had to fundamentally shift its delivery by moving all on-campus courses to 100% online platforms during the first quarter of 2020.

The impact of the global pandemic has not left universities and colleges unscathed: numerous challenges have hampered the sudden move online, such as technical difficulties, access to technology, communication difficulties between students and faculty dispersed across different time zones, and changing daily schedules.

Based on these events, thought leaders have called for a reimagining of higher education to better serve students into the future. Some suggestions have included:

  • Removing the barriers of access
  • Creating more resilient institutions to deal with unexpected circumstances
  • Enhancing the overall quality of online learning
  • Offering alternatives to traditional degrees

The pandemic revealed many of the problematic areas in higher education, which thought leaders, deans, and university presidents look to solve to better serve students.

Online Education at Maryville University

Life is busy, so choosing to pursue your degree is a courageous decision. We’ve got your back. For nearly a decade, Maryville University has leveraged technology and innovation to enhance online education for students like you: the hard-working and persistent. The brave.

We have a path for you,  including bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, in many areas of accounting, technology, business administration, healthcare, and other fields. Each of our flexible, on-demand learning formats are designed to prepare you for the next steps in your career, wherever you are.

For more information, visit the online degree programs page.


U.S. Department of Education, “The Condition of Education 2020”
Columbia University, “Benefits and Costs of MOOC-Based Alternative Credentials”
EdSurge, “How the Future of Work Will Influence the Future of Learning”
Forbes, “How Online Learning Platforms Can Support Lifelong Learners and Drive Business”
Inside Higher Ed, “MIT Announces Plan for $1B Effort on Computing, AI”
Inside Higher Ed, “Who Is Studying Online (and Where)”
Psychology Today, “What Is the Purpose and Future of Higher Education?”
The Washington Post, “The Future of College Education: Students for Life, Computer Advisers, and Campuses Everywhere”U.S. Department of Education, “Enrollment and Employees in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2017”
U.S. News and World Report, “5 Online Education Trends to Watch in 2017”U.S. News and World Report, “Study: More Students Are Enrolling in Online Courses”
Inside Higher Education, “Reimagining Higher Education Post Coronavirus”
EdTech, “Successful Examples In Higher Education that can Inspire Our Future”