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 U.S. Department of Education (DOE), roughly 20.1 million students were enrolled at Title IV institutions in the fall of 2017, down slightly from 20.2 million in the fall of 2016. Forty-nine percent of students enrolled at for-profit institutions were enrolled exclusively in online courses, which is the same percentage as recorded one year earlier. Nineteen percent of students enrolled at private, nonprofit institutions opted for online education programs, a slight increase from 18 percent in the fall of 2016.

Public institutions report similar changes in enrollment stats. Approximately 11 percent of public higher education’s fall 2017 student base identified as exclusively online learners. In the fall of 2016, 6.3 million college students took at least one online class, according to federal government figures cited by U.S. News & World Report. That figure represents a 5.6 percent increase from the previous year. It was also the 14th consecutive year of increased online college enrollment.

As such, it’s hard to deny that distance 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 distance 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 between 2012 and 2016, the number of students who were studying on campus dropped by more than 1 million — a 6.4 percent decline.

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 distance 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.

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.

Artificial intelligence has also started to play a key role. In January 2017, U.S. News & World Report found that some 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. According to the professor, many of the students didn’t realize they were chatting with a computer.

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 distance-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 distance 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.

<Online Education at Maryville University

The trends in higher education are changing quickly, but not all institutions have been quick to adapt. Maryville University offers a plethora of accredited online learning programs designed for students of all ages, including bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, in many areas of accounting, technology, business administration, healthcare, and other fields. We have designed each of our programs to prepare students for the next steps in their careers in flexible, on-demand learning formats. For more information, visit the online degree programs page.


The Advocate, “What Is the Future of Online Learning in Higher Education?”Babson Survey Research Group, “Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States”

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”