Visit Modern Campus

How to Differentiate in the Competitive Online Learning Environment

The EvoLLLution | Personalization: How to Differentiate in the Competitive Online Learning Environment
Creating a personalized online learning environment has massive implications for student success and institutional competitiveness, but it requires leaders to drive a culture change on their campuses.

Higher education institutions are under pressure to diversify their offerings in order to serve a wider range of students through more flexible and personalized approaches. Online learning has grown as a significant pathway for institutions to widen their scope of offerings and their student demographic, but further innovation is needed in the space to create truly rich learning opportunities for students. Leading institutions in this space are using personalization in the online learning sphere to strengthen their market positioning. This is a topic Tom Cavanagh will be discussing at the upcoming New Directions in Online Learning conference in Philadelphia. In this Q&A, he shares his thoughts on the capacity for personalized approaches to online learning to drive student success and discusses how institutions can overcome the barriers that exist to implementing these groundbreaking strategies.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How can institutions benefit from personalizing the online learning experience?

Tom Cavanagh (TC): The number one benefit is it’s better for students. A student that is going through a personalized experience in their academic career is one that will probably do better; at least early data seems to indicate that.

Adaptive learning, for example, is all about personalizing the experience. Say you and I are in the same course and we both take the same pre-test and you pass half of the pre-test and I don’t. You only need to learn the half of the course material in which you have failed to demonstrate mastery; why bother forcing you to re-learn all the material you’re shown to understand? It’s just a recipe for students to become disengaged.

As the system serves up content to students, it theoretically gets to know your learning style and personalizes that experience for you so that you perform better. There’s no difference in the outcomes, but the way students get there are most appropriate and effective for each individual learner.

Evo: Why are a number of institutions still on the fence about whether or not it’s worth personalizing the online student experience?

TC: It takes a certain level of commitment and risk tolerance to try something different. For some institutions, their differentiator lies in their value proposition; if they are a small faith-based school or a military institution, that is their unique offering and they may not need to diversify because you’ve got a built-in market share for what you offer.

For other schools that don’t necessarily have that kind of unique differentiator, it’s something they should seriously consider.

There are things at the micro-level that any school can do without having to look strategically at some sort of big investment—things like competency-based education, adaptive learning, leveraging data analytics for learning intervention, concierge services that are technology-enabled. All of those things are personalizing the learning experience for students that are at your institution at a more boots-on-the-ground level.

Evo: You mention that often, the effort to create this personalization materializes as a series of disconnected initiatives. What are some of the most significant problems with this approach?

TC: With a variety of different initiatives that spring up on a campus, connecting them under an overarching strategy of personalization can be a challenge. You need to coordinate it so that it actually has meaningful impact with your students, especially when you’re trying to leverage data at a large scale. Lumping initiatives together in a meaningful way so that they all are greater than the sum of their parts is a better approach for an institution.

Evo: What does it take for leaders to create a comprehensive strategy aimed at achieving a high level of personalization?

TC: Creating a personalization strategy takes some leadership at the top because some of this is different. Not everybody gets competency-based or adaptive or analytics. You need to be able to articulate that vision and then put some resources behind it and give staff some room to experiment as you figure it out.

Evo: What are the most significant challenges to creating this personalization strategy and implementing the steps to make it succeed?

TC: Culture is the biggest challenge; it can be institutional culture or a particular department or college’s culture. Creating that culture of change, of overcoming the objections to something that’s really new and different, can be a challenge.

Some of the things that we’re doing here to try to mitigate that include finding our more adventurous faculty and having them try things first. If you can prove the efficacy of something in a pilot, then it’s a lot less threatening than moving forward with something you’re unsure will work. Having the faculty become the champions of it, as opposed to someone like me who is primarily an administrator, has a lot more validity with their peers in overcoming some of those cultural objections.

Evo: That notion of having faculty who can champion a big change, especially in the online learning space, is something lots of leaders are grappling with and figuring out how to do. What are some of the steps a leader should take to help get faculty behind a big online learning change?

TC: The first thing a faculty member will tell you is funding. We’ll compensate them to participate in our online faculty development and that eliminates a lot of arguments because you recognize that their time is valuable. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get things started.

It’s not always possible and if you can’t fund at least the kickoff to get things started, my advice would be to find the faculty who are just really interested in trying new things because they’re always out there.

Evo: One of the biggest challenges to creating that personalized student experience is the infrastructure that an institution might have in place or, conversely, might not have in place. What are some of the key features of an institutional infrastructure that need to be in place in order to provide that personalized learning experience?

TC: For our technical infrastructure, we use a learning management system that has the ability to do lot of integrations. It’s a very accessible and extensive platform and we use the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standard to build in all kinds of custom features that have personalized it for students in a way that other LMS platforms haven’t allowed us to do. In addition, the platform allows students to receive information in the way they want to receive it; through social media or via texts. They get notified when their grades are posted or if there’s a new discussion posting online. It allows the student some agency in choosing their preferred method of communication and of receiving information. From a technical standpoint, that kind of flexibility has been really nice to allow us to personalize things for students.

From a policy standpoint, we allow students a lot of flexibility to take courses in a variety of modalities in a variety of locations. We have the main campus here in Orlando and then we have 10 regional campuses all around central Florida. What we find is that students swirl from semester to semester by taking online courses, blended courses, courses on the main campus and courses on the regional campuses. Allowing that kind of flexibility gives them the agency to create their own learning path. It allows them to personalize their academic career to meet whatever their needs are in any given semester.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes for an institution to actually build this sort of personalized online learning experience and how to overcome those challenges that stand in the way?

TC: There’s no one recipe. It’s a mindset as much as anything else. There are some strategies—competency, adaptive and the rest—but it’s more about personalizing the experience for students because we think it will result in higher engagement and a better student experience.

We need to think about what we need to do within our culture, within our capabilities, within our resources to bring that about. The answer might be slightly different for every institution depending upon the kind of institution they are and what their mission is.

This interview has been edited for length.

Tom Cavanagh will be expanding on this topic at the New Directions in Online Learning Conference, taking place from April 13-15 in Philadelphia, PA. To learn more about the conference, please click here.

Author Perspective: