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Engagement, Convenience and Quality: Three Key Ingredients to Overcome Student Misconceptions

The EvoLLLution | Engagement, Convenience and Quality: Three Key Ingredients to Overcome Student Misconceptions
Though students tend to hold misconceptions about the experience of pursuing a credential through an online business school, the institution can put into place a few strategies that quickly and easily debunk those myths.

Despite the proven strength of online programs and their capacity to deliver extremely high-quality educational opportunities to students who cannot attend a face-to-face program, students still tend to carry misconceptions about what an online education entails. Business schools that deliver their programming online must go above and beyond to ensure that, from the educational offerings to the availability of critical services, everything is designed with today’s non-traditional student in mind. In this interview, Ruth Veloria sheds some light on how the University of Phoenix School of Business works to “mythbust” the misconceptions of prospective students.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few of the most common misconceptions prospective non-traditional students have about online business education?

Ruth Veloria (RV): Students are often surprised by the rigor, the level of difficulty and the robustness of engagement that exists in online education. Some think they will have less engagement with faculty members and other students, but the opposite is actually true. In the virtual environment, it is easier to see how much individuals are participating and contributing to the conversations, and to assess the quality of those contributions. Students need to be self-motivated and build study time into their schedules. Similar to the campus environment, the most successful students carve time out each day to participate, study and work on projects.

There are often misperceptions about class size. In the School of Business at University of Phoenix, the average class size for campus and online courses is 14 students. The environment is very dynamic and requires a lot of participation.

Another surprise for our students is the applicability of the online education environment to the business setting. The workforce is increasingly made up of remote workers and virtual teams and most professionals today engage regularly with colleagues via email, conference calls and virtual meetings. Online education mirrors these dynamics. Engagement in the online education environment can help workers improve skills they use in their professional lives, such as communication, leadership, deadline management, technology integration and engagement with diverse professionals.

Evo: How do you and your team work to debunk those misconceptions?

RV: There are three main mechanisms our team uses to overcome the misconceptions our students have about business school in the online format.

1. Orientation and trial period:

The majority of our students are working adults who are often juggling education with work and family responsibilities. Many have also been out of the classroom for a number of years. It is important to help students understand the commitment that is required and the resources that are available to help them transition into a classroom environment. It is also critical to help them develop strong study skills early in their programs.

This is why the university introduced a three-week trial period and robust orientation program. The university also provides many resources such as an online learning platform that presents information in multiple formats to address different learning styles, and the Center for Math Excellence that helps students who need math refreshers or additional context.

2. Practitioner faculty:

Our students demand coursework that is relevant to their current and prospective careers. Curriculum not only reflects the input of employers and industry associations, but is also taught by faculty members working in the field. In fact, School of Business faculty members have an average of 22 years of industry experience and include more than 600 CEOs, COOs and CFOs who bring curriculum to life every day with this real-world experience.

3. Industry-aligned curriculum that reflects actual workplace dynamics:

Building on the importance of practitioner faculty is the importance of demonstrating the relevance of curriculum. Today, the university offers more than 40 degree programs and more than 50 certificates that directly align with industry competencies and standards. In the School of Business, we have aligned curriculum with industry organizations such as the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) and the National Retail Federation (NRF) to help ensure our degree and certificate programs prepare students to address industry needs.

Evo: What can students expect from their experience in an online business education program today?

RV: Online business students today can expect engagement with diverse professionals from around the country, even the world. Faculty and students share their cultural and business experiences and essentially bring curriculum to life with their real-world case studies.

Other innovations online business students can expect to experience include:

  • Real-time and relevant engagement that links back to the workplace. Students are using chat to engage classmates in real time while concepts from current coursework are presenting themselves in their workplaces.
  • Access to diverse and experienced faculty who are working in the industries in which they teach and are not limited by location. Students today have access to business leaders who are often on the road or located in different markets.
  • Diverse learning tools and relevant coursework that address the specific learning styles and needs of different students. The learning environment continues to become more customized and students have more options, not only in what they learn, but how they learn. University of Phoenix has introduced stackable certificates and professional development coursework to help students to gain valuable skills and knowledge linked directly to their industries earlier in their coursework. This also allows them to achieve milestones on the way to full degree programs.
  • Advanced analytics that help institutions make curriculum and tools more effective and relevant and help identify challenges students may be having with coursework earlier on in their programs.
  • High-touch support services for academic and financial counselling.
  • Alumni mentorship is provided by the School of Business for our more than half a million School of Business alumni.

Evo: What expectations do online students have about the level of service and engagement to expect from their institutions? How do students react when those expectations are not met?

RV: Always-on: There is an expectation of always-on support resources. Consumers expect this in all areas of life and education is no different. Our students are working adults who are studying and engaging with coursework at all times of the day and night. The university employs a variety of high- and low-touch resources that are available 24/7.

Relevant and nimble: Students also expect the coursework to be relevant. Working adults are balancing career, family and school. They are making time in their already busy schedules to enhance their knowledge and pursue education. There is a high expectation that the curriculum will be relevant and applicable to current and future roles. Institutions have to be nimble and keep curriculum current and relevant to what students experience in the workplace and the skills employers need.

Milestones: Students today, particularly working adults, want more immediate indications of the knowledge they have gained. Stackable certificates, laddered learning and competency-based learning are a few of the ways curriculum is being built to provide more work-applicable content earlier in programs and demonstrate knowledge gained.

Merging of hard and soft skills: Employers are increasingly seeing the value of both hard and soft skills. They want professionals who know the industry and the job functions, but who can also grow and adapt. Soft skills, such as communication and leadership are being merged into curriculum in all industries to help meet these needs and graduate well-rounded professionals.

When those expectations are not met, students may drop out or the obstacles become too many to manage.

Evo: What kinds of strategies and tactics do you have in place to ensure you are meeting the expectations of online business students?

RV: First and foremost, it’s critical for business schools in the online space to offer industry-aligned and endorsed curriculum. The university has built advisory boards with industry and employer leaders to help inform and shape our curriculum. For instance, the School of Business recently held an Entrepreneur Advisory Board that brought successful entrepreneurs from small businesses to those with up to $300 million in revenues together with financial executives who make lending decisions and industry associations. A Hospitality Advisory Board recently brought leaders from the largest hotel chains and the largest industry association together to discuss training gaps and opportunities in hospitality. The information gained from these Advisory Boards directly translates into relevant coursework for students interested in growing in these fields.

Once curriculum is designed by our faculty council and informed by our advisory boards, practitioner faculty members who work in the fields in which they teach then bring that content to life.

We also maintain very high levels of faculty, alumni and student engagement to ensure curriculum is relevant and we are meeting their needs.

Phoenix Connect is an academic social network for students, faculty and alumni. This is another way the university can engage with students and evaluate how well we are addressing their service requests and needs.

Finally, small class sizes and access to tutoring services and academic and finance counsellors create a high-touch environment for our students.

This interview has been edited for length.

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