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Bringing Online Practices to Traditional Institutions: Setting the Stage for Success

The EvoLLLution | Bringing Online Practices to Traditional Institutions: Setting the Stage for Success
The customer experience and service offered through the online format should be translated to the traditional institution to ensure today’s students’ expectations are being met.

Earlier this year, I attended a WCET Summit meeting in Santa Fe on the subject of adaptive learning. It was a superb meeting with regard to the topic, as we explored the interactions between evidence-based assessment, adaptive learning, and personalization, among other things. But the other profound takeaway for me was the magnitude of the disruptive impact on traditionally structured and governed institutions that is generated by IT is all its manifestations, big data, and the tech-savvy students who are coming as the millennial generation grows older.

The issues contained therein transcend online vs. blended vs. on ground models of delivery. They are not just about how to serve older students who want effective and efficient services better online. They now include the fact that the traditional-age students coming to our institutions have radically different expectations when it comes to how they experience the world, including their educational experiences. The key words here include “mobile,” “the Internet of Things,” and mass personalization. In this impending world, it will not matter whether the learners are low-residency, campus-based or virtual. They will expect technological environments that are consistent with the technological environments that they experience in the rest of their lives.

Indeed, higher education is facing its own digital divide. This one lies between insufficient institutional capacity and resources coupled with lack of agility on the one hand and increasingly sophisticated technologies in the lives of their potential students on the other. And higher education is on the downside of this divide. In the examples below, I will attempt to describe my view of three instances where the divide will be felt.

1. Clunky Technology and Websites

If a learner can go on Amazon and shop seamlessly or check their professional competencies on CareerJourney and LinkedIn, how will they relate to a traditional college’s transcripts, exam-based assessments, and dusty career advising services?

Having a website or an LMS will not be enough. The existence of services is not enough. The critical issues will come down to what the learner can do with the available services, and whether they are they sticky, fast and just-in-time. Can they navigate courses and plan their own programs? Are the programs available on all devices? What do the people involved—faculty or other—do to deepen and enrich the learning with the learner? Is assessment ongoing and evidence-based?

We are in the early stages of a world where keeping up with the technological changes beyond the campus in order to serve learners well is an enormous challenge.

2. Community in the Virtual Learning Space

In today’s online world, there is the shared understanding that learners need to form communities with each other as well as their faculty and advisors. This, of course, presupposes that the communities that are supported on campuses are, relatively speaking, a plus for those institutions.

But the understanding of what communities will be and how they will operate in an information- and data-rich environment is changing. Is a 400-person lecture hall with a lone professor an acceptable community in this new environment? If I can access top-grade course content that meets my needs, where is the community that helps me understand what I have learned and integrate it with what I already know in an adaptive fashion?

This change in our understanding of the use of community and face-to-face encounters will require that we rethink and reimagine how we use communities and community time most productively and humanely in the new environment.

3. Administration in the Technological Environment

Traditionally, administration has handled the affairs of the institution in multiple arenas ranging from buildings and grounds to development to student discipline. In an online and technologically rich environment, however, the uses of place and time will change dramatically.

Correspondingly, administration will focus on new areas such as assessment, academic records security and expediting the learner’s progress towards their learning goals. In the “Internet of Things,” administration will be less top-down and more focused on ensuring the quality and the accuracy of the educational experience and results of learning. The move, I believe, will be from telling and controlling to enabling and guiding.

4. Costs, Costs, Costs

The question of how traditional universities will engage these changes as they move through the society runs smack into questions of costs and governance. Much has been written about both. But the high hurdle to adoption of migrating practices is altering the cost structure of traditional institutions.

In most cases to date, the introduction of technologies has increased costs (for institutions) and price (for students) because they have been placed on top of existing operations or otherwise used to extend them. In truth, if you started out to create a college that was highly aligned with the new technological world, you could deliver high-quality learning and assessment for a fraction of the tuition at most institutions. No climbing walls, no football teams, no cross-subsidies for the graduate programs.

Colleges have to learn how to unbundle services and price them competitively. They will have to think about personalized and just-in-time services as opposed to pre-determined off-the shelf services and programs.


We are in the early stages of a dramatic change in the attitudes and expectations of students that will, in turn, drive change among educational institutions. Institutions that have already begun online and integrated learning will have to continuously improve their services, searching for models that sustain and improve quality while driving prices down. But, whether an institution is getting into online learning for the first time or continuing on a path that has already started, there are two or three pieces of advice that I would share.

First, structure the new services in such a way that they are economically separate from the host institution. That will protect the institution from the financial consequences of failure, should that occur. But it also protects the emerging program(s) from the economic practices and expense structures of the traditional institution.

Second, structure the new services so that they are separate academically from the host institution. Address issues of accreditation in anticipation of the new organizational structure. But, again, a separate approach protects the host institution’s brand to some extent. What’s more, a separate administrative and governance structure is essential if the new program is going to be agile and respond to changes quickly and definitively.

Third, start from scratch in evaluating both the market you are addressing and the technologies that you will employ, ask partners to employ, and/or assume that students will employ. It may be that the online program management or the LMS that the host institution is using will suit the needs of the new program(s). But that should be determined through independent analysis based on who the new programs are trying to serve, how they intend to serve them, and what the quality of that experience, technologically, has to be to succeed.

These recommendations will be controversial to some. But they need to be addressed directly by anyone who is seriously contemplating offering new or significantly extending existing online learning programs.

The one caveat I would add is this: each institution, including its Board of Trustees and alumni organizations, needs to identify the path forward that is most appropriate for them. There is no one-size-fits all option—no silver bullet—to deliver a successful financial and educational future for a college or university through online and internet-based programs and services. To do so requires independent research, careful academic design, and a solid business plan that, while different, are in alignment and consistent with the history and values of the host institution.

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