Online education” may have lost its inferiority complex. For years, courses delivered via online and distance formats were perceived as being of lesser quality than those delivered in brick-and-mortar classrooms. But that stigma is lifting as faster Internet speeds, sophisticated mobile devices, and robust collaboration platforms support more nuanced and interactive online learning experiences.
At schools like the University of Florida in Gainesville, which has offered some form of distance education since the 1970s, online courses are integrated into those offered face to face, not presented as separate offerings. For instance, one introductory undergraduate entrepreneurship course enrolls 720 students, 100 of whom take the same course remotely. Those 100 students access content via a mix of simulcast and recorded lectures, as well as interact with face-to-face students through the learning management platform and other tools, explains Tawnya Means, director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at the university’s Warrington College of Business Administration.
“Most of the time, educators ask, ‘What can we do to leverage what we do on campus for the online student?’” says Means. “Here, we ask, ‘How can we leverage what we do online for our on-campus students?’ The technology is now so amazing, it supports activities that aren’t possible in the classroom. Why don’t we take what we do online and give that to everyone?”
That kind of “reverse innovation” from online to brick-and-mortar classrooms is quickly moving online programs from the margins of higher education straight into the mainstream, says Kathleen Ives, CEO and executive director of the Sloan Consortium, based in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The consortium is an alliance of institutions that want to promote online learning.
“When some colleges and universities first get into online education, they try to patch an online component onto the legacy system that has served their traditional students in the past,” says Ives. “They don’t ask, ‘How can we integrate the two?’”
Successful online education providers won’t just train faculty in the latest platforms and pedagogies, says Ives. They’ll also bring online and onsite education together into a single system. Moreover, emerging trends and best online practices promise to transform how business schools deliver higher education—both online and on campus—for good.
Michelle Weise, senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute in San Mateo, California, is part of a team exploring disruptive innovators in the higher education market. She says that several forces have converged to raise online education’s profile so significantly:
Technological advancement. Increases in broadband speed and innovations in learning platforms have allowed schools to offer more nuanced, interactive, and satisfying online experiences to student populations at all levels.
More “nonconsumers.” In their turn away from career-oriented training, colleges and universities have unwittingly left unattended a niche of nonconsumers, says Weise. These are people who are underprepared for the workforce or who seek lifelonglearning pathways that are briefer, more affordable, and more targeted.
Disruptive innovation. Because disruptive providers aren’t hamstrung by tradition, they’re more willing to experiment and take risks. Demand among nonconsumers has made room for the earlier online providers such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, as well as newer organizations such as Capella University, Western Governors University, and Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America.
Emphasis on competency-based education. Over time, major employers will likely value competency- based learning over degree completion, which could have the greatest disruptive potential for higher ed, says Weise. “More companies want identifiable outcomes— they want to know that their employees will come out of school with specific core competencies,” she says.
She points to Udacity, a forprofit MOOC provider that has partnered with companies like Google and Facebook to create custom programs in areas such as big data and data science. She also mentions the emergence of computer coding boot camps, where students pay up to US$20,000 to spend six to 12 weeks learning multiple computer languages. Once students finish these programs, employers such as Google and Adobe hire them at six-figure salaries. “Employers are validating such nonaccredited learning pathways because they know these students have exactly the set of skills they’re looking for,” says Weise.
And what about MOOCs? Even with so many headlines focusing on MOOC providers such as Coursera and edX, experts don’t see them as game changers yet. “As they stand today, MOOCs aren’t a disruptive force in the way we define disruptive innovations,” says Weise. “However, they have the potential to be, and Udacity is the closest to figuring this out. Instead of just offering one-off courses, MOOCs need to bundle courses more strategically for the right set of nonconsumers—in this case, people who want to ‘skill up’ in a particular area.”
Even if MOOCs haven’t yet found their niche, Means of the Warrington College appreciates how MOOCs are changing the way educators think about their role in the classroom. “We’re having fabulous conversations about online pedagogy that we’ve never had before. MOOCs are pushing us to rethink what we do,” says Means. “They’re also great resources for our students so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we teach. I’m really excited about that.”
Many faculty are finding that welldesigned online courses offer benefits to students that face-to-face courses cannot, says Ken Hartman, a principal analyst with Eduventures a Boston-based consulting firm that works in higher ed. Online courses allow students more time and opportunity to reflect, engage with content, interact with classmates, and progress at their own pace. In online formats, faculty can use simulations, gamification, and social media more seamlessly.
That said, faculty also must do more online to actively manage students’ learning experience and keep them engaged. Hartman, Ives, and Means advise faculty to adopt certain best practices that have been shown to improve students’ online learning experiences:
Establish an ongoing presence. “It’s important for instructors to establish social presence in the class, whether they’re posting photos of themselves, uploading weekly video clips of themselves, or making sure they know something about each of their students,” says Ives. At the beginning of her own online classes, Ives asks her students to post introductions of themselves. When she interacts with them, she then can ask about their new baby or recent vacation. “Students need to feel recognized,” she says.
Think about engagement, not just content. Online education is about more than uploading recorded lectures and materials to a learning management system. “That’s an online filing cabinet, not an online course,” says Means. “Faculty need to think about how they want to teach this content online and what kinds of interactions they want students to have.”
For instance, to teach students how to use Microsoft Excel and Access, one Warrington College professor asks students to check concepts on a handout as they hear it presented in each online lecture. Such an intellectual “scavenger hunt” helps them focus on what the professor wants them to learn, says Means. Means asks her own students to write blog posts in an assignment she calls “Muddy- Clear.” Students write about concepts from each week’s discussion that most confused them (muddy) or enlightened them (clear). They then hit the discussion boards to talk about the blogs. “Requiring them to reflect on what they learn deepens their understanding,” she says.
Embrace adaptive technologies. Hartman is a big believer in the power of self-paced adaptive learning. “Given what we know about how people think and learn, we’re seeing tremendous advances in adaptive assessment and learning, which allows students to progress at different rates, and only after they’ve demonstrated mastery of a competency,” he says. “You can’t do that very well in the face-to-face classroom. Online there’s no place for students to hide.”
Try just one new tool. It’s easy for faculty to feel overwhelmed by the avalanche of the new online tools as they hit the market. But Means stresses that innovative online teaching is not about trying everything—just one or two things at a time. “Sometimes faculty think, ‘I’ll never catch up, so I’m not trying anything.’ But I advise them to pick just one thing, and use it well. At the end of the semester, if it worked, keep it. If it didn’t, drop it.”
Join the community. Traditional higher education often fosters what Means calls an “isolationist attitude.” Although face-to-face faculty have their courses externally approved and evaluated, they often don’t talk to anybody else about how they teach. Online education has compelled educators to connect and collaborate. “It helps to talk about how to engage students in discussion or apply a concept,” says Means. “This mindset also spills over into their on-campus courses. Teaching content online helps them realize how they can better organize and present their material face to face.”
Lobby for support. One major challenge to online educators is one of resources, says Ives: Some schools don’t invest in the necessary infrastructure because they don’t appreciate the effort it takes to design and deliver online and blended courses. If schools want these programs to thrive, Ives stresses that they need to invest in instructional designers, dedicated tech support, and ongoing training to help faculty hone their online teaching skills. Faculty need that support, she adds, so they can focus less on “acting as their own technology troubleshooters” and more on creating dynamic online classrooms, inspiring meaningful discussions, and integrating multimedia effectively.
WHO'S DOING ONLINE RIGHT?
For schools looking around the industry to see these best practices at work, there are several good models. Ives points to Penn State’s World Campus, where “the administration has made sure online is part of the school’s mission and vision.” In addition, World Campus lets students know what they’re getting into before they enroll. On its website, the school explains the nature of its online classroom and platform, interactions with faculty, and time commitment required. It also offers a student orientation webinar and a readiness assessment tool, which helps prospective students determine how prepared they are for the online classroom.
Weise is impressed by UniversityNow, a San Francisco-based startup that calls itself a social venture whose mission is to “make a quality college education available and affordable to people everywhere.” So far, UniversityNow has launched two regionally accredited online schools, Patten University and New Charter University. Patten University offers a competencybased MBA program with six concentration options, including finance, general management, healthcare, human resources, sales management, and strategic leadership. Under the UniversityNow tuition model, undergraduates pay US$350 per month; graduate students, only $520 per month. That cost covers as many courses as students can complete in a term.
“At UniversityNow, they’re incorporating frequent online assessments to make sure students are graduating with the right kinds of learning outcomes,” says Weise. “They’re making sure students progress in the program based on mastery, not just based on time.”
Hartman likes Southern New Hampshire University, which has adopted a competency-based learning model, as well as Arizona State University, which provides students with a thorough introduction to the nature of online learning on its website and makes no distinction between its online and traditional degree on graduates’ diplomas.
Hartman credits the leadership of the presidents of these colleges—Paul LeBlanc at SNHU and Michael Crow at ASU—with building such deeply entrenched online programs. “Show me a college doing online learning well, and I’ll show you a college president who ‘gets it,’” says Hartman. “When I consult with schools, I always start with the president and trustees. Based on my discussions with them, I’ll know where they stand.”
While some schools are seeing their online programs flourish, Hartman cautions that the model might not be for every institution. His firm recently has seen the number of older adult learners in the market begin to flatten, after a long period of growth. That means that business schools should be certain that demand is there before they make the leap into online degree programs.
“There is no shortage of online MBAs today, and there are starting to be more providers than there are students looking for this option,” says Hartman. “The key will be for each institution to find its niche that targets a specific audience, such as the pharmaceutical or healthcare industries.”
On the other hand, Hartman also sees growth in the number of traditional 18- to 22-year-old undergraduates who want to take online courses. Many of these students want the flexibility of online classes so they can work more hours and graduate earlier to offset the rising cost of tuition.
Weise stresses that the brick-and-mortar classroom will always have its place in higher ed. But as students ask for more flexibility, affordability, convenience, and skill-based training, the four-year undergraduate degree format might become less relevant. Even the most elite institutions will need to take care not to overemphasize the demand for traditional and costly educational experiences. “If they do,” she says, “they could be making more space for disruptive innovators to thrive.”
Ives advises other educators to pay close attention to developments in K–12 education, where teachers are starting to integrate online components. “Future growth in online education will be fueled at the K–12 level,” says Ives. “These students will be well-versed in technology, and if they believe a university doesn’t meet their expectations in that regard, they won’t go there.”
Whether schools are elite private institutions or regional providers, the evolution of online education promises to transform what they do and how they think about higher education. In fact, the industry may now be at a tipping point where the word “traditional” may well be dropped before the term “face-to-face.” Students and faculty alike are increasingly viewing online and face-to-face delivery as two equally feasible—and now conventional—pathways to the same educational outcomes.