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The Synchronous Opportunity: Wiley’s 2022 Voice of the Online Learner Report

One of the more useful series of research on online education over the years has come from Wiley University Services (essentially Wiley’s OPM division) via its acquisition of Learning House (a smaller OPM). The survey series Online College Students has been very useful in getting the perception of students – both undergraduate and graduate – that are in, considering, or recent graduates of fully-online programs in the US. Last year I covered the split of this annual survey due to Education Dynamics (another OPM provider) acquiring the the survey administration company Aslanian Research in “After the Breakup: Comparing 10 years of the Online College Students survey”. Read that post to get a deeper description of the survey history and methodologies, but there are two notes worth highlighting.

  • From 2021 and 2022, Wiley’s survey series is named Voice of the Online Learner while Education Dynamics retained the Online College Students name in the divorce proceedings.

  • Prior to 2021, the Online College Students surveys were not biased by Learning House’s or Wiley’s OPM clients – the surveys were “drawn from an actively managed, 100% market- research-only panel that represents the U.S. Census Bureau, which enables the selection of groups that prove difficult to source.” With the 2021 and 2022 Wiley surveys, they now mix roughly 53% from “an external, national panel” with 47% from “an internal panel of prospective, current, and recently graduated students at Wiley partner institutions.”

New Wiley Survey Report

Wiley released the 2022 Voice of the Online Learner report last week, and the central finding is that despite plenty of complaints about emergency remote teaching and media coverage of pushback to the pandemic-driven shift to online, the students in fully online programs have a more positive view of online modalities than before. From the press release:

The vast majority—94%—of online learners in the survey said they have a positive or very positive view of online learning, up from 86% before the pandemic. And 83% said they would learn online again.

Furthermore, this report highlighted two segments of students in online programs over the past 2+ years, and how they have different characteristics.

Last year’s report identified a new group of pandemic-driven online learners, who hadn’t considered a fully online program before the pandemic forced many institutions to shift to remote instruction in early 2020. This segment of online learners persisted this year, representing a third of the respondents.

There are doubts, however, about whether this group will stick with online learning moving forward. Pandemic-driven learners in the survey, who skew younger than traditional online learners, were more likely to prefer in-person than online instruction, and around a third expressed a likelihood to return to campus-based learning in the future.

Nevertheless, commitment to online learning remains strong among respondents overall. More respondents reported a fundamental preference for online learning this year than previously, and 77% said the fact that it was online was the most important factor in their decision to learn remotely this year. In fact, 60% said they’d choose an equivalent remote program at a different school if their preferred college or university didn’t offer the program online.

There are other findings worth exploring (read the whole report), including:

Nearly half (46%) of online learners say they’re very likely or likely to go back to the same school for another program. Of those learners, 68% would want that program to be entirely online, with 27% preferring a hybrid experience.

The Asynchronous – Synchronous Spectrum

In my coverage last year I noted the preference of students to have asynchronous over synchronous courses when faced with an either-or choice (68% in 2021, 69% in 2022).

I was somewhat surprised by the high number, 68%, of students that prefer fully asynchronous courses. Clearly the anywhere / anytime aspects of fully-online asynchronous courses trumps the problem of poor faculty and peer interaction mentioned above. But another way to look at this finding is that nearly one out of three fully-online students would like to have some synchronous components of their courses.

This year’s report asked an additional question that showed my interpretation to be too conservative. Far more than one third of students would like some amount of synchronous sessions within their online courses.

Although most online learners prefer asynchronous class formats, synchronous sessions are not out of the question. As of this year, 79% of respondents reported they’re open to some form of synchronous online learning.

79% of learners would take at least one synchronous session per course

This finding could and should have major implications in online course and program design, especially with the mass adoption and acceptance of Zoom and Microsoft Teams in education enabling easy setup of synchronous video sessions. Far too many programs consider asynchronous – synchronous as a binary choice based on instruction method, with the latter assuming lecture-based courses, but we should increasingly view asynchronous – synchronous as a spectrum, with the latter focused on methods to increase student-faculty and student-student interactions, and therefore to increase engagement.

Given the importance of this finding, it’s worth double-checking the data and the indirect language of “would you be willing”, and to see if this finding is based on the pandemic-driven students mixed into the survey results.

Wiley provided the crosstabs on these questions to help me tease out the differences between pandemic-driven and traditional online students. Pandemic-driven online students are more open to synchronous, but not by a lot. 76% of traditional online students would be willing to participate in some amount of synchronous sessions.

Cross-tab of willing to log in to synchronouse sessions question against pandemic-driven and traditional online students

I also checked previous surveys, and in 2017 the responses from the Learning House Online College Students report showed an even greater openness to synchronous sessions.

2017 response

I’m not sure why this openness to synchronous sessions is lower in 2022 than in 2017, but it is clear that the preference seems to be persistent.

Furthermore, I think there is a real preference for synchronous sessions with the asynchronous courses, not just a willingness. In our consulting work, MindWires worked with a statewide college system and asked a similar question: “As you select a specific online course section, how important are the following attributes to you? – Availability of live online meetings with the instructor and/or other students.” The results were remarkably similar, with roughly 79% of students who answered Very Important or Important.

A Real Opportunity

I don’t think this finding is an anomaly or a fluke. There is a golden opportunity for more online programs to increase student engagement by adding course sections that have some amount of synchronous sessions, and a strong majority of students appear to want this option. 1

I’ll end this post the same way I ended it last year.

I think that the challenge, or opportunity, over the next few years is for schools to figure out how to combine asynchronous methods that preserve anywhere / anytime access with synchronous methods, increasingly with video, that meaningfully increase student engagement. That’s not a new concept, but as William Gibson noted, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” How do we increase the large-scale adoption of the methods that work? That is the key opportunity.

Update 9/14: Changed from “Wiley Education Services” to “Wiley University Services” due to company rebranding earlier this year.

1 To be clear, I don’t think the lesson is to require all online course sections to have synchronous sessions, but there should increasing options for students to choose.