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Five Critical Aspects of Differentiation in the Online Marketplace

Five Critical Aspects of Differentiation in the Online Marketplace
Creating a first-rate experience for students across all their engagements with the college is critical to improving retention and completion, and to standing out as an elite education provider.

In the ten years between 2002 and 2012, the number of institutions offering online degree programs almost doubled.[1] This adoption continues to expand across institutions, small and large, private and public, not-for and for-profit. Prospective online students have a seemingly endless list of options to consider as they decide their path to a credential. Those of us responsible for attracting these students understand well that this rate of adoption has transformed the online program marketplace. “Convenient” and “flexible” are no longer differentiating factors for an institution. Competition has driven education providers to optimize programs, policies and services to differentiate and gain the attention of post-traditional learners in what has become a very noisy marketplace.

So just how does an institution uniquely market their offerings in the commoditized market of online education? Here are the five factors that I think have the most differentiating power for an online program or provider:

1. Brand

Institutions adding online programs must view their offerings as an integral part of their strategy and brand identity. When online programs are added at arm’s length (i.e. significantly different brand identity) it appears to represent a lack of commitment to the schools online component—to the students, faculty and staff. Institutions should invest in the development of online programs that match the quality of their campus-based programs, and proudly present a new extension of their established brand.

2. Transfer

The online student, especially at the bachelor level, often arrives with a variety of previously earned credits, ACE approved trainings, and life experience that could significantly reduce their time to completion and the time it takes them to earn a credential. Institutions must recognize that honoring a post-traditional learner’s prior work and life experience is essential part of the value proposition. If institutions truly want to serve students, they must provide guidance on maximizing the learner’s submission of transfer credits and do so in an efficient manner. The most competitive online institutions are certainly focused on doing so, striving to turn around pre-evaluations in a matter of days rather than weeks.[2] When evaluating cost, a primary consideration for post-traditional learners is the amount of transfer credit they will be awarded; for these students, this is often as important as the cost-per-credit. Institutions must acknowledge this and make investments to improve transfer transparency and responsiveness.

3. Instructional Technology

The maturation of online instructional technology and pedagogy has resulted in a continuous introduction of new technologies designed to engage learners and improve the effectiveness of online instruction. Interactive simulations, adaptive learning platforms and a variety of other media elements provide institutions with vehicles for enhanced instruction which go far beyond simply translating a textbook to a learning management system. Institutions embracing these technologies are able to position their programs in ways that separate them from competitors.

4. Community

A student’s sense of community is proven to play an important role in their rate of retention, whether it is campus- or online-based coursework. Social platforms and learning relationship management technologies provide institutions with opportunities to leverage student data in significant new ways. They facilitate the proactive connection of students with peers and faculty who can potentially play an important role in their level of motivation and satisfaction with their program.

5. Service

Post-traditional students enroll in online programs with a variety of responsibilities and obligations outside of the academic setting. As a result, students appreciate when services are proactively provided to help streamline the administrative aspects of being a student. This minimization of bureaucratic roadblocks allows students to focus on their academic work. Examples of value-added services include ongoing auto-registration in courses, automated reminders for task completion and regular communication with a single point of contact at their institution. This seems obvious, but it continues to be a major struggle for institutions to deliver consistent levels of quality service to online students.


Each of the areas listed provide institutions with opportunities to engage and support students as they strive to reach their educational goals. However, efforts must be aligned and coordinated to exist within the context of an institution’s overall commitment to providing an exceptional experience for online learners. Only then will an institution be able to position the greatest differentiator of all—outcomes.

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[1] Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2013). Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States. Sloan Consortium. PO Box 1238, Newburyport, MA 01950.

[2] Paul LeBlanc, “Streamlined Business Processes Critical to Creating Value for Students,” The EvoLLLution, March 10, 2015. Accessed at

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