Tonya Drake. Courtesy of WGU Washington.

The year 2020 has been a year unlike anything anyone could have predicted.

Cities, states, and countries went into lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some college campuses sent students home; most rushed to implement strategies to facilitate remote learning, leading to a dramatic rise in the adoption of technology to facilitate online learning.

The technology-driven approach has been essential to universities and colleges delivering learning to students, ultimately enabling students to continue working toward their goals of earning a degree.

Many students and universities are wondering how the disruption to traditional classrooms and rapid adoption of online learning will impact higher education in 2021. Based on the current state of the virus and how educational institutions have adapted during this time, there are four key trends likely to occur in the coming year.

Online Learning is Here to Stay

The COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted online learning into the spotlight, prompting many people to question online learning’s ability to deliver quality education to post-secondary students. However, online learning has been consistently meeting educational needs and preparing students for the workforce for many years. Seventy-three percent of WGU graduates, for example, currently work in jobs related to what they studied in school, compared to the national average of 42 percent.

In recent years, many students have realized that being physically present in a classroom is no longer the only (or best) learning option for everyone. With technology, learners have access to a quality education whenever and wherever they want, as long as they have access to a computer and broadband internet. Online higher education delivers a variety of benefits, including increased accessibility and flexibility, decreased costs and time investment, and customized learning experiences.

These benefits are drawing individuals to embrace online education. In 2021 and beyond, online learning will continue to grow and become a leading approach to delivering education.

Greater Focus on Equitable Access

The increased reliance on technology during the pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide and highlighted racial disparities affecting communities of color. For example, the tech gap has put Black and Hispanic communities 10 years behind the white community for the last 20 years. This could result in large numbers of Black and Hispanic American workers being disqualified or underprepared for 86 percent of jobs in the U.S. by 2045.

Efforts to bridge the digital divide are already underway nationwide; educational institutions, civic leaders, and communities are coming together to make digital tools (e.g., internet, devices, etc.) more accessible and affordable to students and underserved communities. If these efforts are effective, the negative ramifications of the divide will be curbed and digital equity will increase, which will create more economic opportunity for historically underserved communities. Delivering broadband access to underserved communities will be top of mind for educational and civic leaders in the coming year.

Employers Will Partner with Universities to Develop Talent

A common critique of higher education is that it struggles to deliver graduates that meet rapidly evolving workforce demands. According to the Harvard Business Review, “the reality in today’s digital-first world is that we need to teach every generation how to learn, unlearn, and relearn so they can transform the future of work, rather than be transformed by it.”

To ensure talent is sufficiently prepared to meet industry needs, we will see more businesses form strategic partnerships with universities. In 2021, more companies will take part in creating industry-specific courses and hands-on learning environments, while also supplying their current employees with more educational opportunities through trusted partners.

Increased Demand for Non-Degree Credentials

As businesses rethink their labor needs in light of the global pandemic, the reskilling revolution has picked up steam. With continued economic pressures, businesses are prioritizing the jobs and skills that will help them navigate recovery in the new world (e.g., digital and cognitive capabilities, social and emotional skills, adaptability, resiliency, etc.). Likewise, people who were laid off and looking for work want to onboard quickly.

Unlocking a skills-based labor market will give power to individuals, allowing them to articulate their capabilities and potential to employers. Focusing on skills will also expand the talent pool for employers and more efficiently match individuals with opportunities.

In 2021, we will see individuals supplement their current or past post-secondary degrees with nondegree credentials and in-demand skills. This will be especially common in IT, where individuals will pursue credentials in computer networking, security, scripting, and programming. Given the flexibility and autonomy online learning affords, many learners will turn to online-based solutions as a means of course delivery. Pursuing skills and competencies online will help strengthen individuals’ competitive advantage in the job market as well as help them add value to their professional teams.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that circumstances can change in what feels like the blink of an eye. Online learning, digital equity, workplace partnerships, and non-degree credentials will shape the future of education in 2021 as the effects of the pandemic continue to permeate learning and change how individuals view, access, and utilize education.