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Demystifying Online Education in Higher Ed

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Much of higher ed’s future lies in online learning, but delivering quality offerings requires strong student engagement, fine-tuned course development and proper resources.

In recent years, online education has emerged as a transformative force in higher ed, reshaping traditional learning models and expanding access to knowledge. But it’s important to understand all the components of this model to best serve learners. In this interview, Kristin Mulligan discusses the evolution of online education, the stigma that continues to surround it and how to leverage online education to drive student engagement.  

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have you seen online education evolve over the past few years? 

Kristin Mulligan (KM): Online learning has been serving mature-aged students for many years. It is particularly well suited to working professionals who need flexibility as they balance their careers, personal commitments and educational goals. An exciting trend in recent years has been the increased interest in online learning from traditional-aged undergraduate students. We are now seeing more 18- to 22-year-old students looking for digital courses and programs. The Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) 8 report notes that 59% of traditional-aged undergraduate students have an increased interest in online learning, which signals to postsecondary institutions the need to adapt.  

Aligning with that need is a rise in multimodal scheduling, as students look to take a mix of on-campus and online courses to create a flexible schedule that meets their needs. Here at the University of Alberta (U of A), over 90% of undergraduate students complete one to three online courses each year as part of their on-campus studies. Online enrollments are growing steadily. In addition, we heard directly from our students that they want more agency and flexibility when it comes to their learning. Because of this demand, the U of A has prioritized the development of online courses and programs to be a good partner in our students’ success. 

Evo: Do you feel there’s still stigma around online education, or are there any myths you want to bust around what online education is? 

KM: There can be a misconception that it is easy to move courses online. While it is true that classroom-based materials can be readily uploaded into an online course shell, the goal of online learning is not to simply replicate a classroom experience. Developing an online course is a transformation of the learning experience, leveraging digital pedagogies and instructional design principles to create engagement using a different delivery mode. We like to describe this intentional process as the development of purpose-built online learning.  

At the U of A, we use three industry-standard classifications for fully online courses: asynchronous, synchronous and bichronous. For each model, 100% of the learning takes place online, with no face-to-face requirement. The fully asynchronous model offers the most flexibility for students, enabling them to study on their own time and in their own space. This type of learning requires the most upfront planning and development lift. It is a deeply collaborative process between the instructor and the instructional designer, resulting in a highly structured, interactive online course that sets itself apart from the on-campus offering. Faculty we have worked with will attest that it is not an easy process. It is a big investment of time but with a very rewarding and worthwhile deliverable at the end!  

Evo: What are some of the characteristics of high-quality online education? 

KM: There are many aspects to developing and delivering high-quality online learning, including sound digital pedagogy, a modern learning environment and tools and online-ready instructors. In addition to these components, what has really elevated the quality of our online courses has been the definition and implementation of a robust course development process. It includes a detailed course development guide and templates like a project charter, course map, assessment and media matrices, content template and maintenance plan. Each online course follows this process to ensure consistency across projects.  

Additionally, the recent finalization of our online learning style guide ensures our courses are accessible, engaging and learner-centric. The style guide addresses quality standards, content and structure, imagery and media, and editorial guidelines. It outlines the foundational conventions and principles for our online courses and is agnostic to the learning management system or course authoring tool in which it is built. The style guide also includes EDI and accessibility considerations to support inclusive, high-quality learning. 

Evo: What are the challenges to delivering high-quality online education? 

KM: There are the usual challenges that most postsecondary institutions face like time, budget and human resource constraints. These can all have a minor to significant impact on the quality of online courses, from course development to ongoing delivery and maintenance. However, these are administrative challenges. From a learner perspective, a key challenge to quality lies in the engagement strategy.  

Whether the online course is delivered asynchronously, synchronously or bichronously, there must be a strong engagement strategy in place to support learner-to-instructor, learner-to-learner and learner-to-content interaction. If the engagement strategy is lacking in one or more of these areas, there is a high risk of student isolation, frustration and overall dissatisfaction with the online course.  

Additionally, the engagement strategy must be accessible. A high-quality course does not preclude students or groups of students from interacting with the content, peers or the instructor. For large institutions in particular, it can be challenging to ensure hundreds or thousands of online courses follow accessibility standards and best practices.  

Evo: What are some best practices to overcome these obstacles and drive student engagement? 

KM: I would always recommend consultation with an instructional designer (ID) or a related role like a learning experience developer (LXD) to support the development of an engagement strategy for new online courses. Ideally, these roles are part of the online course development process from start to finish, but that is not always possible. In a self-serve model, instructors are tasked with developing online courses using a curated set of support resources, tip sheets and videos. However, if an instructor is new to or unfamiliar with digital pedagogies, teaching online and accessibility, some type of upfront consultation support with an ID or LXD is invaluable to the course’s success.  

For online courses that are already live, we provide a course review service to instructors. Using a quality checklist or scorecard, an ID can provide recommendations to enhance engagement and accessibility and to enrich the existing online course in other ways. This element is particularly useful for online courses that were not developed with an ID as part of the original creation process. Engagement recommendations might include things like adding a welcome video, incorporating different learning activities or providing opportunity for reflection. At the U of A, the course review service has been a well-received way to elevate existing online courses and support the student experience.   

Evo: How do you expect online education to evolve as higher ed continues to figure out the balance between online on-campus education? 

KM: Postsecondary institutions will continue to see an increase in the number of online courses that on-campus students complete as part of their studies. As the demographic of our online student population shifts and more traditional-aged students enroll in online courses, the way we design courses, our digital infrastructure and the provision of online student services will need to evolve to support this change. 

Online learning is also an opportunity to open up access. Without the geographical barrier, we can reach so many more students; and without physical capacity limits, we can increase enrollments quite rapidly. Exploring new ways of delivering scalable programming, leveraging stackable short-form learning and implementing performance-based admissions will provide even more flexibility to learners in the years to come. 

The key to online student satisfaction will continue to be through engagement. As we enable more access, we must be even more inclusive. As more students take online courses, postsecondary institutions will need to focus on intentional learner engagement strategies to support online success.