When Convenience Becomes CustomaryGerald Rhead | Interim Executive Director at MSU Global, Michigan State University
In 2010, 6.1 million college students enrolled in at least one online course, according to the Babson 2011 survey of online education in the United States. The survey also highlights online learning as an important strategy at U.S. colleges and universities with 65.5 percent of chief academic officers reporting that online learning is critical to their institution’s success.
Increasingly, online learning is evolving as a key strategy for institutions of all sizes and flavors; but what is the impact on an institution’s competiveness, particularly when it involves enrolling adult students?
My survey of, and involvement in, the online learning landscape over the last 15 years suggests that most institutions view online learning as a mechanism to reach well beyond their ivy-covered walls. Additionally, they saw this method as a means to generate new enrollments and revenue without taxing their bricks-and-mortar infrastructure. Fledgling institutions saw online as a convenient way to breathe new life into their coffers. Students who braved the online learning frontier took a leap of faith that the courses would be of a certain quality, and that perception of quality would eventually permeate the workplace and their professional environments.
Convenience played a critical role in the success of early online courses and programs, and institutions touted it. Remember the advertisements with students holding a laptop and wearing their pajamas? Online courses allowed working adults and aspiring “non-traditional students” a convenient pathway to learning.
Does (or did) online learning provide a competitive advantage for an institution, particularly with adult students? My answer is: it depends. I believe in order to answer the question in the affirmative, an institution has to continually innovate in the area of online learning and technology-mediated learning.
An ancient Chinese proverb states, “Simple to open a shop; another thing to keep it open.” I do not believe institutions of higher education will be able to maintain long-term competiveness without addressing how they approach technology and online learning. Technology-mediated and online learning are no longer new concepts—even if your institution launched their first online program last year.
The use of technology for learning and knowledge gathering is now customary in many parts of the world. According to the 2011 Pew Internet and American Life Project, 46 percent of U.S. adults own a smartphone, and over three-quarters of U.S. teenagers between 12-17 have a cell phone. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology reports, 1.5 million elementary and secondary students in the U.S. participated in some form of online learning in 2010. Technology in learning is now customary. Cus-tom-ar-y: according to a person’s habitual practice. Think about it for a minute… it’s not just convenient, but part of a person’s habitual practice.
Maintaining a competitive advantage with adult and traditional age students going forward will require an institution to make a strategic shift across most of their interaction points with potential and existing students. Convenience will still play a role, but those that meet expectations will maintain the competitive advantage.
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 Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011; Babson Survey Research Group; http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/highered.html
 The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project 2011. http://www.pewinternet.org/Static-Pages/Trend-Data-(Teens).aspx
 U.S. Department of Education: Understanding the Implications of Online Learning for Educational Productivity. Center for Technology in Learning. January 2012 p. v.
Author Perspective: Administrator