Nov 07 2019

Are Colleges and Universities Meeting the Online Learning Challenge?

Online learners deserve the same engaging experience as traditional learners — and colleges have good reason to make it happen.

As we all know, a college education isn’t cheap. For institutions of higher learning, there is a massive opportunity to expand potential enrollment to students who might not have the time or financial resources to attend brick-and-mortar institutions on a full- or even part-time basis. There is also the benefit of enabling students to extend their digital lives into their education.

Unfortunately, however, many colleges and universities are squandering this opportunity. For the past several years, many of these institutions have somewhat begrudgingly embraced the idea of rolling out online education programs, mainly because they must in order to survive and meet the expectations of students today.

Statistics indicate the global online education market is expected to top more than $130 billion in the next few years. Meanwhile, on-campus enrollment is dropping, and the number of students turning to online education is steadily growing. But there is more to these trends than meets the eye.

While colleges and universities are investing in and offering online programs, they are not taking them as seriously as they could. This may stem from a lingering misconception that online curricula are not as rigorous as their face-to-face counterparts. Even when universities do create something innovative, such programs are often buried so deep in the organization that almost nobody knows about them, including the students.

This must change if colleges and universities hope to compete for students and deliver the kind of education they desire and deserve.

When we look at the changing demographics of incoming students today, it’s clear why:

  • 28 percent of students now have children
  • 62 percent of students must work
  • 40 percent of students are 25 or older
  • 33 percent of students come from families earning less than $20,000 per year
  • 28 percent of students are taking some or all of their classes online

Today, students are not sold on the value of taking on $200,000 in student loans for a degree. Moody’s Investors Service reports that net tuition growth continues to fall. According to Moody’s, 25 percent of private colleges operated with deficits in 2017, and research indicates expenses are outpacing revenues by 2 percent at state-run colleges nationwide. Unless institutions of higher learning make meaningful investments in online learning now — even when faced with budget and time constraints — their future viability will be in doubt. They’re going to be left in the dust by universities that do go down this path.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Discover how online education is evolving. 

How to Deliver Superior Online Learning 

Colleges and universities have two basic options when it comes to online learning. First, they can opt to build the online practice themselves, committing staff and resources to developing these new products, implementing marketing strategies to identify and recruit students, and adapting infrastructure (online registration, payments, financial aid, student records) as they plan for more online students.

The second option is to outsource the entire operation. There are online program managers that are happy to offer this service — if they believe your specific degree will be marketable. But they will take a sizable portion of the revenue generated for the course, requiring your college to keep online tuition rates just as high as in-person classes. As other institutions launch their own online programs, and the battle of supply versus demand prompts them to lower tuition rates, institutions that rely on OPMs will not be in a strong position to compete.

Regardless of the model chosen, it’s important to embrace pedagogies that leverage synchronous (live) instruction. Merely depositing reading assignments and an occasional video lecture in a learning management system treats online learning as second-class education compared with the types of active debates and discussions you get with in-person or synchronous online instruction.

Online learning should be treated as another business or school within the institution to provide best-in-class modeling for academic departments and faculty, as well as delivering operational efficiencies for the college to thrive in recruiting and supporting students. Many institutions remain unable to make that migration, and most still have their asynchronous content buried in an LMS.

But there are examples of universities and institutions that are getting it right. At Arizona State University, for example, online learning isn’t viewed as substandard to traditional education; it’s just different from it. The university actually has an entire organization dedicated to building innovation into its online education offerings. Indeed, the EdPlus program has its own CEO, a former ASU dean, as well as a team for designing and scaling effective digital learning models. From 2012 to 2018, the university reported that the number of its students graduating with online degrees increased nearly 600 percent to more than 7,000 annually, and the number of programs scaled from 33 to more than 170.

Key to those results is ensuring that online students don’t slip through the cracks. ASU assigns every online student a “success coach,” and the university staffs over 60 of these coaches to support 30,000 students. In fact, EdPlus has several hundred employees. But that journey began with a commitment, a modest investment and a top-down desire to innovate. ASU hired the right people, who may or may not have come from traditional higher education backgrounds, and then empowered them to make the changes necessary to thrive. While decades ago, other colleges may have looked down at online learning and the efforts ASU was exerting, the proof is in the results. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find any institution out there that doesn’t wish it could have the same type of online results that ASU is delivering.

So, one might ask, why aren’t other universities doing this?

MORE FROM EDTECH: Structure your university for demand-driven education.

Online Learning Must Be Engaging and Interesting

One of the reasons is that the type of technology needed to enable truly meaningful online education hasn’t been there. But I think a more likely reason is that, perhaps, we’ve become too comfortable as educators. Many of us believe that students are willing to accept substandard learning modes, so when we deploy online learning tools, we just do what we’ve always done. We give them books to read, videos to watch and some generic set of activities and pretend it’s all quite sufficient.

In reality, it’s not adequate at all. Just as you had rock star professors in colleges drawing big crowds because they were informative, compelling and entertaining, you also need those fundamentals in online education. Web-based learning must be interesting, engaging and give students the ability to learn their materials in a hands-on and interesting manner.

The technology is being created to make that happen, blending physical and digital components such as augmented and virtual reality, HD cameras, and even 3D printing. But even if you have the greatest technology in the world, it still won’t be enough if your institution doesn’t also accept the idea that online learning is here to stay. It must be a part of your culture. It should be at the forefront of everything you do.

During tough times, the organizations that make the difficult decisions and focus on strategic growth will ultimately have the best chance for future success. Those that choose to do the minimum when it comes to online learning programs are setting themselves up for failure. Those who get innovative and creative with web-based learning, on the other hand, stand to earn a reputation as flexible, modern educators.

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