Published on 2016/03/30
The EvoLLLution | Keys to Competing and Expanding Online (Part 1)
The online business education marketplace is crowded, competitive and challenging but institutions that effectively communicate their brand promise, programmatic model and differentiators to prospective students have the opportunity to stand out.

Increasing numbers of education providers—both accredited and unaccredited—are entering into the online space. This is especially true in the business education market, which is already well developed and crowded. Standing out is an immense challenge for all institutions in this space, and that includes institutions with strong brands. In this two-part interview, Alex Sevilla reflects on the challenges of competing in today’s online business education marketplace and shares his thoughts on the value and limitations of innovative and diverse programming.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the most significant challenges to differentiation in the online business education market?

Alex Sevilla (AS): For the online space, one major challenge is perception—what people believe online education to be. Online education has not been around nearly as long as traditional classroom education and the way people perceive what online is can be difficult to overcome for the different participants in the market. One of the things that we try to do as best as possible is differentiate on some of the quality dimensions. There can be a challenge with people thinking they know what online education is based upon, either a dated model from 15 to 20 years ago or what they hear from people who have had an unsuccessful experience with online education.

The other challenge, when there are so many free and high-volume options out there like MOOCs, is defining what a high-quality online degree program is. We try to define quality in terms of rigor, the level of interaction with faculty and other students, the deliverables and the expectations of faculty. Some people assume that doing a course online means that it is less strenuous and more casual, which is not the case in a high-quality learning environment.

Flipping that question, though, there are some exciting opportunities around differentiation. The opportunity is in some ways greater with the online space because we can compete on numerous fronts. Online programs can compete in all the traditional ways, like faculty quality, student quality, metrics, ROI, facilities and things of that nature. In addition, though, you also have all of the technology, which can be a competitive advantage. A technology platform can be a differentiator as can the delivery method, and the level of engagement that’s happening between the participants and the instructors. In some ways there are more things that differentiate us in the online space, so long as you get enough traction with people that you’re talking to understand the significance of those differences. After all, the perception is that we’re more similar than we are different.

Evo: How important is it to offer a customer experience that mimics what students are used to seeing outside the academy?

AS: We’re trying to deliver a customer experience that matches what Amazon is offering. Business schools and universities in general are not historically known for being cutting edge in their user interface or creating user experiences that are at the top end of the customer experience food chain, and that’s one of the ways online programs have an opportunity to be better.

For most people, when they close their eyes and they think of an academic classroom setting, they already have a pretty good indication of what it looks like. There’s not a ton of variability beyond the features of the building, where it’s located, how many seats there are, whether it’s a Socratic pit. Online education on the other hand is more interactive. Seating is more similar than different.

Institutions all aspire to define their models before people are in it, and to make sure prospective students see that, although it can be challenging. How you use technology, how you brand your program, how you work with instructional designers and with the faculty and with technology vendors goes a long way to determining an important part of your brand cache. This all plays into the experience for students.

The more the student experience can be interesting, dynamic, thought-provoking and supportive of creating the types of interactions you want to have in a robust academic experience is absolutely mission critical for a program that wants to deliver high-quality education.

Evo: What are the most important factors prospective students are looking for in an online business school experience?

AS: Most of the factors prospective online students line up fairly similarly with those of a traditional candidate looking for a more traditional program. Reputation is always going to matter, whether or not the school or program is ranked and well known. Prospective students also definitely are going to look at the quality characteristics of the program and implicit characteristics of the student population. These factors are magnified when looking for an online program because some people fear that an online program has been outsourced by the university—they don’t always think that the faculty and institution are truly there.

Rigor is also an important piece of what students are looking for in an online business school and this is heightened in the online space. People know the reputation of high quality MBA and graduate degrees from well known institutions. They understand that it requires a certain amount of work and there are some stigmas in the market leading prospective students to think that online means more flexible, less rigorous, less intense, more time and not cohort structured. Someone who wants to get that lesser experience is going to seek it out, but at our institution, we want to find people who are looking for a really rigorous experience. Someone who doesn’t want that is a bad fit for the program. Rigor is important for any program but it’s a definitive factor in the online space.

Probably the most important factor is this generic concept of the experience itself. It’s easy for people to define what the student experience is going to be at a residential program, regardless of where it’s offered. This is even the case for on-campus executive education program. It’s going look and feel very similar from place to place and the differences can be easily defined by looking at the program format, the features, the curriculum and things of that nature.

In the online space the differences in the student experience are less clear for people. For folks who have not pursued a degree in the online format, they don’t know what to expect. For others, they’re uncertain whether they’re going to feel like they’re part of the program as opposed to being a satellite participant who is disconnected from the place or the people. I’m not sure that every candidate understands how to define the experience in the online space, which puts the onus on the program to clearly define and differentiate the experience they offer. They need to frame the experience as a differentiating factor for prospective students, so they can have a clear understanding of what the program entails and what sets yours apart.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is the first installment in a two-part series on the differentiating value of innovative credentials in the business education space.

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Key Takeaways

  • Defining and communicating the advantages of a formal online degree program with so many non-credit, low-cost options clouding the market can be a challenge.
  • It’s critical for institutions offering online programming to match the “Amazon experience” students have come to expect from service providers.
  • Institutions competing online can differentiate themselves on program quality, rigor and technology.