Online Higher Education: How To Plan, Execute & Succeed

Feb 11, 2022

The Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the already struggling higher education. The sudden rush to "remote learning" exposed fragmented adoptions of high-quality education technology across thousands of universities and colleges.  

Before the pandemic, it was widely recognized that the traditional higher-education business model was seriously under threat. The Fall 2020 period marked a significant turning point for students, educators, and government officials as they examined higher education's value proposition and price using the new lens of the traditional classroom versus multiple digital delivery modes.  

Many elite institutions, such as American University, Williams College, and Spelman College, significantly discounted tuition for fully online experiences unprecedentedly. This highlighted pricing pressure opened up Pandora's Box. This came after a decade-long period of growth in post-secondary alternatives, such as "massive open online courses" (MOOCs), industry-driven certification programs, and coding bootcamps. This moment is remembered as a pivotal turning point in the transition from analog, on-campus degree-focused learning to digital, online, career-focused learning.

Revisiting the model of higher education

Education leaders must reconsider the conventional wisdom as they consider their options in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. The United States is currently at an inflection point in education. The core mission--instruction, research, and service--has not changed along with the need for higher education to help people live a fulfilled life and drive the knowledge economy. Individuals still see the economic benefits of a college education. On average, college graduates are more financially secure, happier, and healthier over a lifetime.

However, even before the COVID-19 crisis, the higher education sector faced significant challenges. For instance, let's consider student completion. Only 60% of those who began college earned their degree in 2017. It is at 39.9% for black students and Hispanics at 54.4 percent. Other troubling disparities persist. For example, 69% of white high school graduates enroll in college compared to 59% of Black high-school graduates and 61% of Hispanics. In addition, students face a potential unsustainable burden because of rising debt and falling repayment rates.

The pandemic exacerbates the already disrupted situation while creating new ones. Students and their families are dealing with campus closures. They question whether it is worth paying for on-campus experiences when so much instruction is being done remotely. The coronavirus has confirmed the need for fundamental and rapid change in the education sector and proved that change is possible. Many colleges and universities in the United States quickly adopted online learning and other delivery methods, created affordability programs, and devised creative ways to support students after the pandemic. This is the moment to take these lessons and reimagine the next five- to ten years.

Why is online the future of education?

Online learning is more flexible and does not require that you be at a particular place at a given time. This flexibility makes education more accessible for people who may not dedicate much time to attend classes.

Key Dimensions of Learning:

To engage most effectively with students, the leading online higher education institutions focus on eight dimensions of the learning experience. We have organized these into three overarching principles:

  • I) Create a seamless journey for students.

  • II) Adding an engaging approach to teaching

  • III) Build a caring network (exhibit).

I) Create a seamless journey for students

Early adopters of online education have demonstrated that a seamless learning experience is essential. They use easy-to-use learning platforms, which can be accessed from any device, and provide engaging and personalized content. In addition, some early adopters integrated their learning platforms with other resources and services of their institution, such as libraries or financial-aid offices.

1. Create the education roadmap

Because they are often physically separated from traditional classroom environments, online students may need more guidance, motivation, and discipline than in-person courses. Therefore online programs for higher education that allow students to create their education roadmap using standardized tests, digital alerts, and time-management tools should be the norm. This helps students reinforce their progress and remind them about their goals.

2. Facilitate seamless connections

Students might struggle to learn if there are no learning platforms to connect with. The online higher education pioneers offer a single sign-on through which students can interact and collaborate with their classmates and access crucial support services. Traditional institutions looking to adopt a similar model need to remember that high-speed internet is not always available. Courses and program content must be designed to be accessed in low-bandwidth settings or downloaded offline.

Technology is only one aspect of creating seamless connections. The online higher education revolution allows students to learn at their own pace, through various media and channels. Online courses may be more appealing to remote students than in-person courses because they are less distractible. For example, Coursera allows students to log in to a personal home page to view the status of their coursework and complete unfinished lessons. They also have access to recommended "next content to learn" units. Brazilian online university Ampli Pitagoras provides content that is optimized for mobile devices. Students can listen to lessons, consult tutors, and take quizzes wherever they are.

II) Adopt an engaging approach to teaching

The pioneers in online higher education pair the "right" course content with the "right" formats to capture students' attention. They incorporate real-world applications into their lesson plans, use adaptive learning tools to personalize their courses, and offer easily accessible platforms for group learning.

3. Offer a variety of learning formats

The online higher education programs should incorporate group activities and collaboration with classmates--essential hallmarks of the higher education experience--into their mix of course formats, offering both live classes and self-guided, on-demand lessons.

The Georgia Institute of Technology augments live lessons by faculty members in its online graduate program for data analytics with a collaboration portal where students can interact outside of class. The platform allows instructors to answer students' questions immediately or endorse their students' answers to questions from peers. Likewise, Zhejiang University, China, uses live video conferencing and chat to communicate with over 300 students, collect homework, and set goals.

4. Ensuring a captivating experience for students

Online education has the potential to transform curricula into interactive and engaging journeys. Online education leaders are investing in content that is as high-end as entertainment. Strayer University has, for instance, hired Emmy Award-winning film producers to produce multimedia lessons. Initial findings by Strayer University show that the university is seeing a return on its investment in the form of increased student engagement. Eighty-five percent of learners report that they have watched lessons from beginning through to the end. There has also been a 10 percent drop in student dropout rates.

5. Use adaptive learning tools

The online higher education revolutionaries offer adaptive learning with AI and analytics. They can detect individual student needs and provide real-time feedback. They can provide relevant content based on past searches and questions. These should be done in accordance with the privacy regulations applicable to the country where the institution operates.

Cognac Education has created a personalized, real-time tutoring system for over 500,000 online students. Minerva University used a model based on analytics that allows instructors to access recorded lessons and give feedback on student participation during class.

6. Inclusive of real-world applications of skills

Online higher education pioneers have used virtual reality (VR) simulations and games to allow students to practice real-world situations within controlled virtual environments.

Arizona State University has, for instance, partnered with many companies to create a completely online biology degree. This program uses VR technology to give online students direct access to a state-of-the-art laboratory in their biological sciences program. Students can zoom in on molecules to repeat experiments, all from the comfort of their own homes. Meanwhile, students at Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas use 3-D games to solve real-world problems, such as designing the post-COVID-19 campus experience.

Some institutions have introduced online internships to expand the real-world experience. For example, Columbia University's Virtual Internship Program was created with employers throughout the United States. It offers career counseling and skills workshops, as well as one-on-one guidance.

III) Build a caring network

Establishing interpersonal connections may be more difficult in online settings. Leading online education programs provide dedicated channels to help students with academic, personal, technological, administrative, and financial challenges and provide a means for students to connect for peer-to-peer support. Such programs also use technologies to recognize signs of student distress and extend just-in-time support.

7. Offer academic and non-academic support

Online education pioneers combine analytics and automation with personal interactions to provide students with the support they require.

Southern New Hampshire University uses a system that alerts students and sends them communication nudges to detect low student engagement. In addition, AI-powered chatbots provide quick answers to student questions and requests. Strayer University's virtual assistant Irving is available 24/7 from any page on the university's website. In addition, they offer administrative support for students, from suggesting courses to making personalized graduation projections.

Many of these pioneering institutions combine digital assistance with human support. For example, SNHU matches students with tutors and coaches who regularly monitor their progress and check in on them. They can assist students in navigating the program and foster a sense of belonging. Arizona State University also pairs students with "success coach" mentors who provide personalized guidance and counseling.

8. Nurture strong communities

Most students feel connected to their academic community. However, building a solid network with professors and peers online can be challenging.

Leading online programs often combine in-person and virtual social events to alleviate this problem. Minerva University hosts online events to promote school traditions and rituals for students online. It also encourages students to visit its locations to meet its diverse student population. The Connect social gateway from SNHU gives access to online activity to over 15,000 members and allows them to interact in a university social network. You can also join affinity clubs and student organizations online.

How to design an online journey

It takes significant effort and financial investment to create an online experience that is unique for students.

These three steps can be helpful for institutions that are just starting to rethink their online offerings. Each step will involve a variety of functions within the institution, such as marketing, IT, and academic management.

1) Evaluate your online offerings

A preliminary diagnosis can help you understand how satisfied students feel with your current online offerings, what their expectations are, and what the competition is like.

Focus groups or quantitative surveys could be used to diagnose. Participants should represent different student segments. These students are likely to have differing expectations. This includes young-adult, full-time undergraduate students, working-adult part-time undergraduate students, and graduate students. The above outlined eight dimensions can be used to structure surveys and groups and self-evaluation of institution performance.

2) Create a vision for your online education experience

This vision should be student-centered and linked to the institution's overall manifesto. To ensure that costs are reasonable, function leaders can evaluate the benefits and costs of each component of the online experience. Each school's market, target audience, and tuition price point will affect the online model. For example, an institution with high tuition is more likely to provide student support and coaching. However, a lower tuition institution may rely on automated tools and asynchronous interactions with students.

3) Plan the transformation journey

Some institutions may choose to outsource program management and design. However, developing these capabilities internally as online learning becomes mainstream can provide long-term strategic advantages. Expect a multi-year journey for students.

Mckinsey's research shows that the best organizations start with small wins that improve the student experience, such as better student support, integrated technology platforms, and structured course roadmaps. They also begin incrementally redesign courses and delivery models, often focusing their attention on the most popular programs and tapping into advanced analytics to improve these experiences.

Institutions must address key enabling factors such as instructor onboarding, online-teaching certification, robust technology infrastructure, and advanced analytics programs. These programs enable institutions to identify which online education features are performing well, thus generating outstanding learning experiences for students.

Improvements to IT infrastructure are needed

Teachers will continue to use hybrid learning models, which means they need to access the internet and take lessons without interruptions. Therefore, it is crucial to invest in flexible IT infrastructure to support remote learning, especially in this pivotal period in human history.

Investment in agile technologies will facilitate a smooth transition from a traditional educational environment to a virtual one. This will allow IT teams, to quickly respond to changes and leverage programs to meet the changing needs of students. Although the future of education is still unclear, the ECI survey found that 54% of respondents cited digital transformation, and 49% cited making the organization more agile as a priority due to COVID-19.

For instance, they must also implement hybrid learning methods quickly. Students and teachers have access to their data and applications from a secure Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) platform, which can be scalable like the one implemented by Texas Klein Independent Schools District. Furthermore, onboarding individual laptops to the service takes only a few minutes per user.

Teachers and students must be equipped with the right tools to enable remote, interactive lessons. This will allow institutions to continue to serve their communities and ensure that students have the same academic experience they had in the past. These evolving student and teacher experiences are crucial, so they must be part of educational IT teams. They need to invest in cost-effective, flexible solutions that support all aspects.