Scaling Up: Deconstructing the Best Practices of Online Education

Sep 24, 2020

Expanding the reach, access, and proceeds of online teaching and learning.

A closer look at the recent changes in education reveals some powerful trends with the potential to change the way we knew teaching and learning. A report from Burbio shows that nearly 60% of students will attend schools virtually this year, while 18% will split their time in remote learning and in-person attendance, and a mere 19% will opt for complete in-person attendance.

The psychological barriers to online instruction are at an all-time low among stakeholders – students, parents, faculty, and leaders. A new generation of digital technologies is coming of age – from mobile and cloud computing to AR and VR. And the public outcry around the skyrocketing costs of education and rising student debts are louder as ever as the need for lifelong reskilling and upskilling becomes a reality for the future workforce.

While an overnight shift to the digital threw many curveballs at educational organizations, the current crisis also presents an unparalleled opportunity to remake and rebuild our institutions. As the education agenda changes in favor of remote learning, we look at the best practices of virtual learning to help education leaders develop strategies and lead in the new digital era.

The Question of Scaling: Opportunities & Impediments

Online education can provide wide-ranging access of learning to all. However, for all its growth and reach, the course completion rates remain low, and student engagement a concern. Adequately supporting remote learning requires more than a basic intervention from institutions.

To excel in online education, leaders need to bring it to the mainstream and recognize it as a long-term survival and differentiation strategy. The question is: does the user-directed, self-paced, and individualized undertaking that is digital learning become more complicated as it involves a large group of people, or does it become simpler? It depends on your approach.

Certain common factors underlie the success of eLearning initiatives and can provide a dramatic level of scale to meet the needs of potential learners. They are a function of devising a clear online education strategy accompanied by solid administrative support, strong faculty buy-in, investment in skills, robust support system, continuous communication, and more. A rundown.

Education 4.0: Five-Point Action Plan to Scale eLearning

When planning a digital transformation, education leaders rightly wonder about how to get started. What change should be targeted first – tech or culture? Can it work out if teachers become distant from examinations? Which tools would give the most valuable returns? To sort through the cacophony, education leaders can use the digital wheel. The wheel comprises of five value drivers and several success levers that can help edu-leaders cover the essentials required to fruitfully plant and scale up their online initiatives.

1. Institutional Support

A strong institutional support from all levels – department chairs to deans to presidents to provosts to trustees – is important to scale online education. Bringing on board senior leaders who can pronounce vision and mission can have a make or break impact on your eLearning plans. A few levers to garner management backing:

  • Fully self-supporting programs & Institutions Closures (in terms of revenues) gain institutional and leadership support more readily than others.

  • Integrating online education strategy with institution’s missions goes a long way in receiving administrative assistance.

  • An informational campaign can reach out to the leaders and educate them about the long-standing merits of online approaches to education.

  • Involving Deans and department chairs in the development of programs from inception can foster willingness and a change in perception.

2. Special Unit for Online Program Development

Architecting a clear online strategy is paramount to digital transformation and scaling up. Dedicating one or more specialized units to the development of online programs can help in pursuing a disciplined and methodical approach to online program development and web varied components of online education in one tune – faculty development, marketing teams, technology, training and development, and more. Some success levers for this unit:

  • Develop high-quality, high-in-demand courses that can be delivered by quality faculty.

  • Build a strong technical skeleton with a purposeful tech stack and a good learning management system.

  • Outsource functions such as helpdesk, and IT, and the delivery of a few online programs to the third-party providers. These partnerships can lead to wider participation, better reach, and shedding of unnecessary responsibilities.

  • Plan to identify, hire, and train high-quality faculty, say involving adjunct or emeritus professors.

  • Effectuate interactive pedagogy and rethink course design. Communication remains a major cause of failure and concern in online courses. It must be reflected in the program design and delivery. Emphasize on increasing student-teacher interaction and a creating community within the courses.

  • Focus on not only individual courses, but also programs. Many degree programs are related and thus a few courses within one program can be used for another.

  • Develop a blended model of learning. It entails choosing between asynchronous and synchronous course delivery. The former helps in scaling, but the latter is pertinent for student engagement.

3. Robust Support System

To make online education work, both teachers and students need to get better at digital learning. It calls for schools establishing a robust support system for students as well as faculty for advising, tutoring, etc.

For faculty, a strong training program is fundamental to make them adept in using online tools, adopting interactive pedagogy, and create their “online persona” to engage students. It involves:

  • Development and training in behavioral science. On digital medium, younger students need a lot more care than adult learners. Thus, imbibing distinctly human qualities – of empathy and support – become valuable.

  • Communication and collaboration training. As getting people to interact remotely is difficult by orders of magnitude, special training can help.

  • Preparing teachers for student support. Faculty should be in constant reach of students and provide individualized attention to their needs.

  • Guide to video conferencing. Video is way better than a phone call as it demands more attention. It can train faculty on the best practices of conducting virtual classes.

  • Changing faculty perceptions. Faculty reservations toward online education can be assuaged by involving them in course design. The practice will also move their focus from teaching to student learning.

  • A helpdesk to handle faculty complaints or challenges. This will keep faculty engaged and encouraged to work to improve the quality of programs.

  • Recruiting best online faculty to develop other faculty for online education.

For Students, an array of support services is needed to keep them engaged and thriving. Student support services can be created as a one-stop-shop for all student concerns. This will ease them into reaching out when needed. It involves:

  • Placing academic advisors, career counselors, and tech support staff in constant touch with students.

  • Providing financial aid to those in the need of it.

  • Giving access to online library resources and bookstore.

  • Online access to registrar and business office.

As your online courses and enrolments grow, move your support services to 100% online to scale.

4. Financial Model

Whether you are on a shoestring budget or have received public financing, a sound financial model can increase the life of your online programs. Its levers include:

  • Reinvestment strategy to plough the revenues from online programs back into it to make them self-supporting.

  • A move to market-driven rates for online programs to expand student enrolments and encourage faculty and departments.

  • A model to incentivize based on offering the surplus from online education initiatives to the relevant faculty or department.

  • Cutting expenses from fixed cost functions such as IT support or helpdesk.

  • Discounts for certain communities (by profession, region, or others) to invite more student enrolment, and provide support to special groups.

  • Technology feesfrom students to provide tech infrastructure support such as providing devices on a rental basis.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to developing funding and financial model for online education. Taking different, and even contrasting approaches (than mentioned above) can yield impressive results. Determine what fits your needs.

5. Marketing and Promotion

This is one of the highly neglected, but most valuable aspects of scaling online programs. Good marketing and promotion efforts can drive student enrolments and get a broad recognition to online education initiatives. Its levers include:

  • Significant human and financial resources for lead generation and branding activities.

  • Affinity marketing to advertise online programs. Reach out to professional societies, companies, or alliances – to give discounts or outsource the delivery of certain courses. It goes hand in hand with the program development and financing model.

  • Regional, national, and international level campaigns for promotion.

  • Expansion plans to increase the number of courses by increasing the faculty to grow and drive enrolments.

  • Focus first on the willing. Begin with involving faculty and departments that are inclined to go online, instead of working with skeptical units. With initial success, it becomes easier to motivate others to get involved.

Positive Externality: eEducation and Future of Work

It is said that pandemic has increased the gap between education and future job requirements. The reality is it has accelerated the gap that was already closing in well-before. According to a report by WEF,

Every employee will need 101 days of reskilling and upskilling in the period leading up to 2022; with each skill having a shelf life of 5 years.

eEducation provides a recuse to learners for the speed and frequency of skilling required in this age of digitization and automation. Many future learners would typically work, have families, and try to make education fit into their work lives. As lifelong learning becomes a new norm, online education with accountability toward learners would be vital to meet the demands for professional development and training. Institutions that recognize the challenges and needs of the future of work will find it easier to scale.

A Message for Edu Leaders

COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to online education but the success of larger-than-life learning processes relies on getting the small details right.

Keep it simple and focus on getting through to one task and prepare your online programs with distinctly human qualities of empathy and support. As the idea of ‘learning anywhere, anytime’ gathers force, institutional and leadership support will go a long way in facilitating technology adoption and scaling online learning.