Wayne State students

WAYNE STATE College students are shown in the library in 2020. While an increase in online learning at wasn't so much due to the pandemic, Wayne State is retaining some tools used over the last year for future classes this fall.

Any increase in online learning this fall at two Northeast Nebraska colleges isn’t so much caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but by a rise in online education that’s been trending for the past decade.

But some virtual tools that were introduced did stick around and will enhance classes this upcoming fall semester — as well as for years to come.

Michele Gill, vice president of educational services at Northeast Community College, said the institution would be keeping some virtual classes — something it hasn’t offered before — to help online learners.

“It enhances that off-campus experience and meets people where they are,” Gill said. “If you are truly not an online learner, it gives the flexibility to have guided instruction.”

While registration is still occurring, Northeast is planning to offer 74% of its classes in-person this fall, an increase from 37% this spring, according to the institutional research department. The fall semester will also consist of 21% in online classes, a decrease from 37%.

The college is keeping 5% of courses virtual, down from 26% last semester. Gill said she sees this number increasing in the future as it becomes more popular.

The difference in this fall’s numbers to those of recent years shows that online education has been steadily increasing, no matter the pandemic, Gill said. In the fall of 2018, only 15% of courses were offered online.

The trend can also be seen at Wayne State, where student enrollment in online degrees and programs has been especially high over the past five years, said Steve Elliott, vice president for academic affairs.

“We are offering courses based on an increase in demand for classes, not just online, but face-to-face,” he said. “But it's not a result of the pandemic. Steady enrollment has precipitated us to offer more courses in the (online) degree programs.”

Growth in 2017 and 2018 led to the addition of online programs like criminal justice and business administration. Other online degrees can be found in graduate programs and in human resource management.

“One takeaway is that students and faculty are much more familiar with online platforms now,” Elliott said. “It has created a learning opportunity for folks who maybe weren’t interested doing online learning to teach online — that has a been benefit.”

The pandemic did equip Northeast and Wayne State faculty with different ways to facilitate learning, something that will be incorporated into the 2021-22 school year.

Elliott said COVID-19 required all classes at Wayne State to have a component in the college’s online learning management system. Even though students might be taking an in-person class, they had access to all of their assignments, syllabi and calendars on their computers. Going into the next school year, the tool is an added benefit for students to track their progress.

Instructors at Northeast have said they will make more use of videos for recording courses.

“What the pandemic has taught us is that we don’t have to just rely on coming to class and having a lecture,” Gill said.

Students also will do more work on their own to allow time in the classroom to be used for more projects. Some grading also changed — for instance, students can upload a video of them performing a task, and it can be graded without doing it in person.

“Online learning is going to be here to stay, it's going to get better and we have learned how to make online learning a better experience through what we learned in the pandemic,” Gill said. “It has shown a lot of different ways to teach and has made us innovative.”

In other news

Editor’s note: Diandra Polt is a 2020 graduate of Osmond High School who worked at the Daily News as part of an internship program. After the COVID-19 pandemic, she decided to take a gap year before attending college. She details her experiences here.