Published on 2016/05/16
The EvoLLLution | What Form Does Online Take in Your Institution’s Future?
The online education market is richer than online-only programming; there are numerous opportunities available for institutions willing to step outside the box.

Distance learning has been a part of education in the United States for over a century—whether it meant the individual coming to the institution or the institution going to the individual.

In addition to remote/satellite campuses, there were correspondence courses delivered via US Mail, microwave courses sent dish-to-dish and then bounced off satellites, videotape/CD/DVD courses sent through overnight delivery (courtesy Federal Express), and finally—the blockbuster of them all—online/internet course delivery. Where other distance education vehicles serviced hundreds or thousands of students per year, online now serves nearly 6 million per year according to the most recent IPEDS data.

For those of us who were early adopters of online programming—my institution started with online in 1998—the benefits have been tremendous. Without cannibalizing our campus-based programs, we have seen online enrollments grow significantly and now have students in almost every state in the US and 85 foreign countries. Although our enrollments continue to increase, many of our counterparts have seen this growth slow from double to single digits. But online as we know it is really in its nascent stage and will present many opportunities in the future.

I believe that the growth in online education has just begun to be realized in the education market, writ large, so long as we do not try to replicate what created growth in the past.

To be successful in online endeavors, the next group of adopters needs to think quickly, integrate solutions into what makes them successful already, realize their limitations and maximize their strengths, revisit markets that were previously rejected, and be first with a new model that will be attractive to a student population that is already evolving. Technology adoption rates are increasing at a phenomenal level. In an MIT Technology Review article, Michael DeGusta published some of his research concerning this subject. According to DeGusta, it took 30 years for electricity to reach a 10 percent adoption rate in US homes and telephones took 25 years for the same 10 percent adoption rate. Smartphones, on the other hand, reached a 40 percent adoption rate in only 10 years.

In her book “The End of Competitive Advantage,” Columbia Business School professor Rita Gunther McGrath talks about transient competitive advantage where organizations rapidly take advantage of opportunities, take what they can get from them, and move on to the next thing before the specific market stagnates or declines. I believe that this is where the current online opportunities reside – not in becoming a major online degree institution, but in leveraging it for early adoption across an institution’s offerings to existing students and beyond.

Traditional Programming

In some respects, schools that do not have a robust online program are in an advantageous spot—they have no investment (developed courses/programs/income stream) to protect or depend upon. They can start from a clean sheet of paper and create an online plan that will assist the entire student body—both current and future. They might map a well-thought out, blended undergraduate program that combines campus-based courses to be taken during the normal residential term and online courses that can be taken during breaks, resulting in a bachelor’s degree program that can be completed in three years instead of four. Tuition could be reduced somewhat, but the real savings to students and their families would be in the reduction of housing for one year and getting into the job market earlier. Since most students will have taken at least one online course during their high school years, the prior resistance level we experienced with first-time online folks will be greatly reduced. And since it is supplemental, you are not asking the 18- to-22-year-old students to become online-only and forgo the socialization that underpins the traditional undergraduate student experience.

In addition, there are emerging online learning tools that could be transformative for assisting underperforming students. There are technologies that have adaptive capabilities to adjust for different learning styles, real-time accessibility tools for hearing and visually impaired students, modularization designs for competency-based programs that can also be repurposed as support tools for other students. We need to use everything at our disposal to help increase campus-based, first-time full-time student graduation rates that are currently at 59 percent. If we improve student retention, persistence and success (graduation) we can lower marketing expenses, increase tuition dollars, and reallocate this to additional institutional initiatives (i.e., improved academic facilities, career coaching and placement, experiential learning, advising, tutoring, etc.).

International Programming

For many years, the international student adoption rate for online programs was very low compared to that of American students. Sometimes this was the result of government edicts, and other times it was because students wanted to physically come to the United States for their education. However, it was also the result of having poor internet access in areas that had the fewest options for higher education. All of the above is changing. Governments recognize that the quality of online programs—like on-ground programs—is based more on the institution offering the learning rather than the instructional methodology utilized, and that they need this education pipeline in order to fulfill the educated worker needs of their country.

Since travel to the US has become challenging for some and expensive for all, online offers them a viable solution. And most countries are trying to increase internet access by using either traditional methods (fiber, wire, etc.) or experimenting with creative options such as converting pay phones into Wi-Fi hubs, Virgin Galactic’s One Web (600 tiny orbiting satellites), Google’s Project Loon (high altitude solar powered balloons), and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org efforts (using Eutelsat’s Amos-6 satellite to supply internet coverage for sub-Saharan Africa).

The Potential for Online

IPEDS reports that there are over 20 million undergraduate students alone in the US being served by 4,700 degree granting institutions. Currently less than 30 percent of these students are having an online experience. That leaves 14 million potential new online enabled students. If you could gain an additional .00025 percent of that population, you would increase your enrollments by 3,500 students. And we haven’t even begun to discuss the corporate market for online modules developed by higher education.

You may be too late to the traditional online market, but why not take the lead in a new area rather than be a follower in a flat market?

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