Five Trends in Online Learning

Five Trends in Online Learning

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With the enrollment of 18- to 24-year-old students on college campuses declining for several years in a row, online education — with the number of students enrolling in online courses continuing to grow — is a bright spot in higher education. Having worked in online education for more than 20 years and having been an online student myself, I have observed that online education often leads the way in changing and improving how students learn. Currently there are several exciting trends in online education that hold great promise for improving learning.

Although video is nothing new, it has been underused for years in online education, likely because it has been difficult to produce and easy-to-use tools have not been available for busy faculty. Thanks to the growth of educational video that is both freely available through the Internet and through academic libraries, it’s now easy for faculty to add video to their online courses. Many free tools are also available for faculty to create their own videos. Most course-delivery systems, including the ulearn system that we use at Johnson & Wales, have built-in tools for faculty to record themselves talking to the class or recording their computer screen with a voice over.

Student benefit:
The benefits of adding video to online courses are numerous. For students that are visual learners, video can bring a concept to life. For students that prefer to hear explanations instead of reading them, the narrative in a video can be very helpful. Instructor-made videos can help students feel more connected to their instructors and can clarify course concepts and expectations. Videos can be watched multiple times to help a concept stick. It’s exciting to see video finally taking hold in online courses!

Open educational resources (OERs) are high-quality educational resources that are freely available through the Internet, including textbooks, learning modules, videos, simulations, and other types of content.

Student benefit: Many institutions are starting to use open educational resources in lieu of traditional textbooks to reduce costs to students. In addition, they are often more up-to-date than textbooks and are easily customizable for faculty who want to repurpose them for a specific class. A recent study has found that students do just as well or better when OERs are used in place of textbooks. At Johnson & Wales, we are starting an initiative to convert some of our online courses to using OERs.


Since the inception of online education, having students take exams has been a challenge. Some institutions have required students to go to campus for exams, others have asked students to find a testing center or independent proctor, and others have used open-book exams or avoided exams in favor of projects. The exam issue has caused online education to be subjected to concerns about cheating. The online education environment is now seeing several new online proctoring services enter the marketplace. Using webcams, these services typically require that the student shows an ID and a 360-degree view of their environment before starting an exam. Through the webcam, the student is monitored for cheating behavior, such as talking to others or reading notes or a textbook.

Student benefit: Online proctoring has the ability to finally bring greater validity to online programs by reducing concerns about cheating. At Johnson & Wales, we are currently considering online proctoring options.

Gamification refers to the use of game-based activities to engage learners and promote learning. Similar to video games, educational games require students to solve problems and reach new levels. Often the games are scenario-based, having students complete tasks or solve problems related to a topic covered in class.

Student benefit: Research has shown that students engaged in scenario-based gaming have better overall performance in classes and students report that games are useful for their learning. The gamification trend is just starting in online education, but look for it to be more widely used within the next five years.


The need to teach practical, hands-on skills in the sciences and other lab-based disciplines has limited online offerings in those fields, but some institutions and vendors are starting to tackle this problem. Virtual labs that use games, such as the ones mentioned above, and virtually-controlled lab equipment are starting to be used to allow students to practice skills. The Virtual Labs at California State University are being used to engage students and reduce the demand for laboratory facilities.

Student benefit: The use of online labs is projected to grow, benefiting students by providing a greater range of course and program options that include lab-based disciplines.

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