Program Innovation

CHLOE 7: Is Online Higher Education’s Future Hybrid?

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What a difference a pandemic makes.

The CHLOE 7 report, published today, based on a survey of online learning leaders at colleges and universities nationwide, sketches a near-future for higher education unimaginable just a few years ago. Catapulted by the pandemic, chief online officers—our term for these leaders—anticipate that as soon as 2025 online learning will play a much bigger role in the typical student experience, not only among adult learners and graduate students, but also traditional undergraduates. Hybrid learning will be the norm.

Are they right or is this just a pandemic fever dream?

CHLOE, which stands for the Changing Landscape of Online Education, a joint initiative of Eduventures and Quality Matters, has tracked online higher education operations and practices since 2016.

Do other CHLOE 7 results suggest that institutional online infrastructure is

Online Leaders Look Ahead

The CHLOE 7 survey, fielded in early 2022, asked leaders about online learning arrangements the previous fall and what they saw on the horizon. These chief online officers were in the vanguard of institutional crisis management during the pandemic—still in full swing as of fall 2021—that used online learning to fashion precious academic continuity.

From where online learning leaders sit, the pandemic significantly increased student interest in the modality. Regardless of student type, about 70-80% of online leaders considered students at their institutions, as of fall 2021, to have been at least somewhat more interested in online learning compared to two years prior. About a fifth judged student interest unchanged, and fewer than 5% saw lower interest.

Online leaders were then asked to describe what they expected the typical student experience to be at their institutions by 2025. The survey offered five points on a modality spectrum between fully campus and fully online, inviting chief online officers to pick the one they thought most likely.

Figure 1 offers an intriguing vision, in many respects quite different from the pre-pandemic baseline and today. The CHLOE 7 sample spans public and private, two-year and four-year institutions, and many stages of online learning development.

Figure 1.

What is most eye-catching in Figure 1 is that very few online leaders anticipate that online learning will play only a peripheral role, even for traditional-aged undergraduates. With the proliferation of digital textbooks and online tutoring, “majority on-campus, some online” was already the pre-pandemic status quo for young undergraduates. But, if online leaders are right, in just three years a small majority of such students will study at least half online.

For students, enhanced experiential learning opportunities, off-campus learning, internships, and combinations of paid work and study are among the rationales for hybrid learning. Institutions are attracted by stronger enrollment and retention, better student outcomes, and (potentially) lower cost operations.

The headline for adult undergraduate and graduate students is that most online leaders do not foresee a fully online near-future. Instead “majority online, some on-campus” and “balance”—forms of hybrid in other words—are pivotal.

Ready or Not?

On a host of measures, CHLOE 7 positions higher education as more online-centric than ever but also operationally challenged, suggesting that the road to realizing Figure 1 is strewn with obstacles. Here are some examples:

  • Support Staff. Numbers of instructional designers, educational technologists, and online advisors grew during the pandemic but at most schools there are still hundreds of online students for every support professional. The majority of chief online officers is concerned about adequacy.
  • Faculty Development. The typical school still does not make faculty development for online learning mandatory for every faculty member using the modality.
  • Student Services. Online student services (including Internet access, library services, and career services) were scaled up rapidly during the early months of the pandemic, but more than a year later many online leaders cited little or no further development.
  • Student Orientation. At most schools, online class orientation is optional for students despite evidence that lack of preparation can set many students up for failure and undermine a sense of community.
  • Operational Models. Across multiple online operations—from marketing to financial aid—CHLOE 7 respondents painted a picture of online operational flux and variation, with schools occupying a wide range of coordinates between centralization and decentralization, integrated and separate, and in-house versus outsourced. Trade-offs between effectiveness and cultural fit remain common.

It is not surprising that online arrangements, spanning hundreds of diverse colleges and universities, should be under development and lack uniformity. Mission and operational diversity are strengths in online learning as for higher education as a whole. At many schools, the pandemic forced the first significant exposure to the modality, under highly charged circumstances.

The mainstream “hybrid” of Figure 1 might be achieved bottom-up, driven by student, faculty, and departmental preference, allowing decentralization to retain the guiding hand. But greater operational coherence and centralization—making the most of finite resources—are arguably essential if online leaders’ visions are to be truly strategic.

The Bottom Line

The pandemic experience raised the stock of online leaders, moving them to the institutional center. Internal beacons of online strategy and immersed in day-to-day online operations, chief online officers are bound to see the future through that lens.

What resonates about the vision of online leaders is that they did not imagine online as all-conquering, instead recognizing the limits as well as potential of the modality, and the same for campus-based learning. This points to hard-won sophistication about how best to navigate innovation through institutional culture and the pros and cons of different modalities in different circumstances.

Clearer hybrid definitions will emerge at the local level. My Eduventures Summit keynote, Debating Delivery Mode, citing some promising efforts, argued for the strategic importance of transcending modality as mere habit or personal preference. A recent Wake-Up Call makes a similar case.

Reconciling student perspectives on delivery mode—perspectives which certainly for traditional undergraduates can be conservative, at least on the surface—with those of institutional leaders is another crucial part of the discussion.

Chief online officers can see the future but still must figure out how to get there. To realize “hybrid” as strategy—rather than fragmentation or student or faculty choice—both campus and online learning assumptions need to evolve. Institutions must lead the conversation. Future CHLOE surveys will chart progress and pitfalls toward this resonant but still hazy hybrid tomorrow.

You can download the new CHLOE 7 report—From Mainstream Acceptance to Universal Adoption—from the Eduventures and Quality Matters websites. Many thanks to the hundreds of online leaders who took the time to complete the CHLOE 7 survey.



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Eduventures Chief Research Officer at Encoura

The seventh Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) report offers a detailed view of the online learning landscape in higher education at a pivotal point in the field’s development. The results — available in CHLOE 7: Tracking Online Learning from Mainstream Acceptance to Universal Adoption — show both ongoing growth in the adoption of online learning modalities and a gap between the application of quality assurance (QA) standards and institutional strategies to evaluate efficacy.

The Program Strength Assessment (PSA) is a data-driven way for higher education leaders to objectively evaluate their programs against internal and external benchmarks. By leveraging the unparalleled data sets and deep expertise of Eduventures, we’re able to objectively identify where your program strengths intersect with traditional, adult, and graduate students’ values, so you can create a productive and distinctive program portfolio.

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