Online learning is a game-changer, both for individuals and at the societal level. It improves access and flexibility while eliminating barriers that once prevented students from fully embracing higher education.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2022 more than a quarter of students were classified as fully online learners, reliant on digital solutions to help them gain new skills and earn degrees or other credentials. At the same time, many others enjoyed the powerful advantages of hybrid learning; well over half claimed to take at least some classes online.

While the prevalence of online learning has been spurred (at least partially) by the pandemic and the accompanying need for remote solutions, its popularity has endured long after lockdowns and other restrictions have given way to in-person opportunities. These days, both students and employers recognize online education as a powerful and reliable tool for upskilling and career advancement.

While more and more students are enthusiastic about digital learning opportunities, a few remain skeptical, worrying that online programs won't be as immersive or feel as connected as their in-person counterparts.

We're here to clear up these misconceptions. To illustrate the advantages of online education, we provide in-depth insights into its expansive role, revealing its professional value and more nuanced benefits. Read on to discover how far online education has come and what is possible in the future.

The Evolution of Online Education

Distance learning is far from new, but online platforms have brought new life to this powerful educational model. Historians believe the earliest versions of distance learning emerged during the 1700s, with Caleb Phillipps often receiving credit for making correspondence lessons available through the mail. His goal: to help students learn shorthand from afar.

In the nearly two centuries to follow, distance learning was, surprisingly, not all that common in the United States. That changed as the postal service became more reliable, allowing a range of people to seek targeted training via correspondence courses. By the early 1900s, this represented a highly respected approach to clerical training, but mail-based courses were also popular for miners and railroad workers.

Online education took another step forward in the early days of the World Wide Web, with students discovering that digital resources helped them easily learn from afar. By the 1990s, there were many accredited internet-based programs, which allowed students to complete a number of degree programs entirely online.

Further changes in online education have reflected the public's growing trust in digital solutions, along with the advancement of the technologies and platforms that underscore these programs. These innovations have made the online learning experience a lot more enjoyable, with surprising findings indicating that more than two-thirds of students actually prefer fully online or hybrid programs to their in-person counterparts.

Accessibility and Diversity in Learning

One of the most commonly cited perks of online learning is that it provides a wealth of global opportunities. No matter where they reside or how busy their schedules may seem, students from all walks of life can access their lessons and interact with their instructors, so long as they have an internet connection and a reliable device.

This ease of access makes online learning especially compelling to those living in rural or otherwise remote areas. Instead of feeling the need to relocate or limited to whichever programs are within commuting distance, students can access coursework when and where they need it. This can help with scheduling limitations, too, especially among working students with jam-packed schedules.

When courses are available and accessible to a greater variety of individuals, the natural result is a more diverse student body. This is valuable, as online students are exposed to a wide array of intriguing perspectives. Through this exposure, they may develop greater cultural awareness and competency, qualities in high demand among today's top employers.

The Role of Online Education in Skill Development

Credentials matter, but increasingly, students rely on online education as a vehicle for swift skill development. This is a reliable strategy for addressing skill gaps that might otherwise hold them back. These can be gained through not only professionally oriented online degree programs but also digital credentials and even microcredentials that emphasize targeted and often technical skills.

In addition to the targeted skills associated with career-driven coursework, online students develop essential qualities such as exceptional organization and time management. It takes personal drive and a proactive approach to succeed in online courses, but those who embrace these unique learning opportunities are better equipped to thrive in today's competitive workforce.

Online Education and the Changing Job Market

The rise of online education aligns with the rapidly evolving job market, in which professionals and students more frequently find themselves working from the comfort of home. While remote work might not be as widespread as in the early days of the pandemic, it remains a highly popular arrangement; many professionals may even accept lower pay for the flexibility and convenience of fully remote working arrangements.

Given these changes, it is important for students to seamlessly navigate numerous platforms and communicate effectively on a remote basis. Like any form of communication, this takes practice—and online learning provides the perfect opportunity to master the nuances of digital interactions in a lower-stakes environment.

Meanwhile, employers cited a growing respect for online learning, including digital credentialing. According to a Collegis Education and UPCEA survey, leaders believe that digital credentials convey both initiative and employee skills.

Similar research from AAC&U indicates that, when seeking entry-level employees, employers prefer applicants equipped with both degrees and microcredentials. Both are readily available online, and as experts tell U.S. News & World Report, employers now view these online options as equivalent to in-person programs. 

Challenges and Considerations

Online learning can be transformative, but it is not without challenges. From motivation to socialization, there are valid reasons why some students still prefer in-person education. A few of the most commonly cited concerns in the ongoing online versus traditional education debate include:

  • Building community – Although online programs provide plenty of opportunities for virtual connection, this needs to be purposeful. Otherwise, students risk feeling disconnected or may struggle to form the strong professional networks associated with traditional, in-person programs. Cutting-edge e-learning platforms facilitate stronger connections, while new, connection-oriented tools and technologies produce stronger online student engagement.
  • Hands-on learning – Some topics are easier to grasp when students are exposed to a truly immersive environment. Many online solutions promise to bridge the gap, but the current technology is not quite advanced enough to capture the essence of certain in-person learning activities. Clinical education, for example, still frequently calls for hands-on training.

Many of these challenges can be overcome by developing innovative strategies that bring the best of in-person learning to the online environment. Otherwise, students may look to different types of programs at different points in their careers. For instance, some may seek hybrid degrees and return later to obtain fully digital certificates or microcredentials.

The Future Outlook

Online learning is ever-evolving, and though we have witnessed big changes in response to the pandemic, emerging technologies promise to bring us into a new era of digital education. Moving forward, we will see the enhanced use of cutting-edge solutions that, while innovative at the moment, may begin to seem commonplace in the context of online learning. Examples include:

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Drawing on a wealth of student data, AI-enabled e-learning platforms will be used to tailor content to match the unique needs and preferences of different types of students. These online educational resources promote a distinctly individualized approach to digital coursework.

Despite this enhanced element of personalization, however, human interactions will remain top of mind. Advocates believe AI will help remove bottlenecks and barriers so instructors can shift more of their focus to working closely with students.

Virtual and Augmented Reality

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are already used to great effect in many online curricula. This is a popular strategy for exposing nursing students to clinical concepts and has also been heavily utilized within many engineering programs. VR and AR bring an immersive element to online learning, allowing students to explore concepts from new perspectives.

In years to come, VR and AR will play a greater role in various programs, moving beyond STEM to include business and liberal arts-oriented programs as well. Through VR and AR, students can gain a more nuanced understanding of complex topics. These online learning tools could also play a vital role in boosting student engagement.

Learn More About Online Education Today

Do you feel drawn to e-learning as a vehicle for continuous professional development? No matter where you are in your educational journey, you have the power to join today's growing online learning community.

The University of Minnesota offers numerous accredited online programs designed to meet the unique needs of the modern student. Reach out today to learn more about our online learning opportunities.