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Flexible Learning & Working Options Are Here to Stay in Higher Education

By August 18, 2021

The accelerating pace of change across the education landscape requires that higher education institutions provide more flexible learning and working options. Additionally, the types of learners higher education serves are no longer just four-year, in-person, full-time students ages 18-to-24, as has traditionally been the case. More and more, learners are working and caregiving while earning a degree, and they expect their educational institutions to provide flexible options that can seamlessly fit into their day to day lives.

To examine trends in higher education, commissioned a global survey fielded online by Ipsos in Spring 2021 and written in collaboration with The Chronicle of Higher Education, to gain a better understanding of how to improve both the student and staff experience. The findings highlighted in the second edition of the Connected Student Report explore how institutions are engaging learners throughout the education journey — from recruitment and admissions to alumni engagement. The survey included 1,128 students and 1,076 staff members (2,204 total respondents) across 10 different countries.

Father with child at laptop in kitchen
Learning options that fit students’ busy schedules, which often include caretaking and/or working, are more important now than ever.

Why Flexibility is Important

Learning options that fit students’ busy schedules are more important now than ever. In some nations, especially the United States, a large number of students are working full-time as they learn: 42% of U.S. students surveyed were working full time while studying, compared to 22% globally. While many students and staff prefer a high level of face-to face engagement, many students have seen the value in taking courses conveniently from their homes. In fact, one in four students said that having more flexible courses and part-time offerings would help them succeed. When asked about the resources they need to be successful, 26% said more flexible courses/part-time offerings.

Hybrid courses can do a good job of offering the in-person experiences that need to happen in a classroom setting — such as chemistry labs — with the convenience of online offerings. Part-time courses mean that today’s learners can continue their education while taking care of other responsibilities, like working or caregiving.

Indeed, flexible learning options make it easier to juggle career and family, which also undoubtedly make it easier to manage mental health and learning. Forty percent of students surveyed said their institution can best support their wellbeing by providing more flexible learning options. Staff are also seeking more flexible work schedules, with close to half (47%) anticipating more remote work in the near future.

The Connected Student Report, 2nd edition cover image
The Connected Student Report, 2nd edition cover

What Flexibility Means

Flexibility means offering part-time courses, shorter programs, evening and weekend support services, and hybrid courses. In short, “flexible” learning and support options help make it possible for students who are caregiving or working while studying to earn credentials. For example, consider Arizona State University, which was named the nation’s #1 most innovative university for the 5th year in a row. ASU has taken flexibility and combined it with scale to offer over 200 degrees and certificates to learners of all kinds — all offered 100% online.

On the student success side, students who are learning online may not be able to get to a university office in person to pick up paperwork, or go to office hours in person due to pandemic-related restrictions. So it’s even more useful to have self-service options like chat bots to get questions answered 24/7. Additionally, 33% of staff surveyed said that they see their institution investing in self-service tools — like online concierge or chat bots — for faculty and staff.

Students & Staff Prefer Flexible Learning Opportunities

Students expect 50% of their courses to be online coming out of the pandemic. In fact, 54% of staff prefer hybrid courses, and so do 43% of students. The second edition of the Connected Student Report also found that nearly half of institutions are implementing new business models due to the pandemic. The most popular business models are part-time learning options and shorter term courses — both of which are options that offer added flexibility.

Flexibility Drives Results

For many institutions, the pandemic has accelerated years of digital transformation in just a few months. Similarly, flexible learning and working options are becoming the new normal, not just within education but across many other industries as well. As more institutions continue to invest in new business models for part-time learning and self-service options, students and staff alike will be set up to not just survive, but thrive in the years ahead.

Learn more about trends in higher education in the second edition of our Connected Student report.

About the Author

Katharine Bierce, Content Project Manager at
Katharine Bierce
Content Project Manager at
Katharine Bierce is a thought leadership content project manager on the research team. Her work includes trends research reports for higher education and non-profit industries, internal and external surveys, message testing, and research knowledge-management.
Katharine is a lifetime member of Net Impact and a StartingBloc fellow, and she produced tech for good events with the SFTech4Good Meetup (a NetSquared community) from 2014–2018. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago and holds Agile Scrum Master and PMP certifications.