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From Fragmented to Holistic: Online Learning in Higher Education Grows Up

A holistic approach to learning is geared around the full student, so it should take into account their prior learning experiences and current needs.

Evolution is a funny thing. While it’s happening, it can seem painfully slow, but in retrospect, we see how remarkably fast change happens. Online learning in higher education is one example where extraordinary development has occurred in a relatively short span of time.

Consider the poor learning management system (LMS) user experiences during the early days of online learning, where the system did not display correctly on mobile devices. Now Chief Online Learning Officers (COLOs) are leading the digital transformation of entire campuses where mobile apps for learning and experiences are the norm.

Setting the last three years aside, online learning has changed dramatically since I began my career in higher education. Mobile technology, gamification, microlearning/MOOCs, virtual and augmented reality, and social learning have all played a role in shaping the online learning we see in postsecondary education today.

During this period of development, institutions have worked to transform fragmented approaches to online learning into more holistic strategies that support and advance their overall mission. This evolution is driven by the inherent benefits of online learning, the challenges of siloed responsibilities across faculty, administration and operations, and a growing awareness of the need for a more comprehensive approach.

The Impact of Fragmentation

Initial approaches to online learning suffered from a lack of institution-wide consistency and coherence, often leading to confusion and frustration for students, instructors and administrators. It’s not surprising that the dynamics of those early days led to fragmented approaches. While many institutions have grant-funded R&D, institutions overall do not have formal curricular R&D operations to support curriculum innovation, aside from internal innovation grants often administered by teaching and learning centers. So, online enterprises were incubated in standalone areas or through the interest of entrepreneurial deans and faculty. This inherently produced fragmented and siloed online initiatives.

One of the adverse impacts that this sort of fragmentation creates is the duplication of services. Institutions have finite resources and in some cases diminishing resources. Decentralized online operations tend to force the duplication of roles and tasks throughout an institution, which in turn limits resources for professional specializations that come with scale. This fragmentation and duplication of services also impacts our learners, as they can feel shuffled between offices when seeking to resolve issues or receive support.

The Move Toward Holistic Online Learning Strategies

During the pandemic, many institutional leaders realized that fragmented online operations wouldn’t support instructional continuity. Multiple LMS providers, limited training and professional development on teaching tools and technologies, and small instructional design teams bearing the weight of all remote instruction was a nightmare scenario.

A holistic approach to online learning can create a more consistent and coherent learning experience for students. It allows for more effective data management and analytics enabling institutions to track student progress and identify areas where students may be struggling. This can help instructors provide targeted support and interventions, which can lead to improved student outcomes.

Post pandemic, most online leaders, even the skeptics and laggards, see the benefit of a more holistic approach to online learning. Simply put, online has come of age, weathered by the pandemic, and is now central to most institutions’ teaching, learning and access mission.

Crafting a Vision for Online Learning in Higher Education

As institutions move toward a more holistic approach to online learning, it is important to craft a clear vision for what online learning should look like in higher education. This vision should take into account the institution’s unique needs and goals, but the primary driver should be students’ needs and goals.

Previously, some in higher education felt it was wise to restrict online learning to adult learners or on-campus learners in their junior and senior years. While expanding access to adult and nontraditional learners remains an important mission for most online enterprises, freshmen are now arriving at our doorsteps having experienced three years of online or hybrid instruction during their high school careers. Limiting access to online courses signals that institutional leaders are out of touch with today’s learners.

Research that learners expect to build flexibility into their schedules by taking one to two online courses per term. A student-centered approach should account for this generations’ online learning experiences and clear preferences.

The Role of Leadership in Implementing an Online Learning Vision 

Implementing a comprehensive online learning strategy requires strong leadership to take the initiative, which begins with reflecting on the role online learning has in the institution’s mission. 

Leaders must be willing to invest in the necessary technology and infrastructure, as well as provide support, training and professional development for instructors and staff. Leaders must also be willing to engage in ongoing evaluation and improvement of online learning programs. This should involve gathering feedback from students and instructors, as well as using data analytics to monitor student progress and outcomes.

At UPCEA, we are seeing leaders successfully moving the needle on holistic approaches to online learning at their institutions. Many of these leaders will be sharing their experiences and insights at our upcoming distance teaching, learning and leadership conference. A sampling of their session titles provides a glimpse into the issues that are top of mind for COLOs and other higher ed leaders: “Tumultuous Times: Institutional Pivots and the Demand for COLO Leadership”; “Building Together, A System-wide Collaboration to Online Program Expansion”; “What’s an Ideal Institutional Revenue Sharing Model for Online Learning?”; and “The Secret Sauce: Chief Online Learning Officers Share the Recipe.”

Conclusion: Embracing the Holistic Future of Online Learning in Higher Education

Institutional leaders would be wise to spend time crystalizing the reflections of the last three years into a strategic, holistic and actionable plan to address the future of online learning at their institutions.

As student expectations for online learning continue to evolve, it is becoming increasingly clear that a more holistic approach is needed to fully realize online potential. By embracing a comprehensive vision for online learning, institutions will be better positioned to expand access and deliver on the promise of a student-centered learning experience.

As an education professional, I am excited about the possibilities that the ongoing evolution in online learning presents for higher education. By embracing a more holistic approach, we can create a more inclusive, flexible and impactful learning environment for all students.

UPCEA, in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is gathering the teaching/learning and leadership/administration communities at DT&L & SOLA+R, July 25-27, in Madison, WI. Attendees from across the online enterprise will participate in peer-led sessions on topics encompassing accessibility, faculty development, instructional design, online vision, leadership and scale, program management, and recruitment and retention.

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