Published on 2015/08/24

How Online Providers Stand Out Against On-Campus Competition

The EvoLLLution | How Online Providers Stand Out Against On-Campus Competition
Maximizing access to critical campus-based services, focusing on student engagement and providing top-quality learning opportunities are critical for online providers looking to stand out against campus-based institutions.

As the quality and acceptance of online programming has grown steadily over the past decade, so too has the demographic of students online providers can serve. In fact, a study by the Learning House found that nearly half of online students live less than 50 miles away from the institution at which they are enrolled. Given this demographic shift, it’s critical for leaders of online programs to not only consider how they compete with other online providers, but to also to define their competitive advantages over local, campus-based institutions. In this interview, Susan Davenport discusses some of the advantages and disadvantages online providers have when competing against campus-based institutions and shares her thoughts on how online institutions can gain the upper hand.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What competitive advantages do face-to-face education institutions have over online providers?

Susan Davenport (SD): Online providers are often compared negatively to campus-based education institutions. The wealth of services and amenities available to students who are fortunate enough to have access to attend campus-based education institutions full-time are not generally available from online providers. In addition, campus-based institutions often have a familiarity and built-in reputation that resonate with students and future employers. Many campus-based institutions now offer their students fully online programs. However, online providers are equipped to provide for their students’ unique needs in a cost-effective, flexible way that creates opportunities for access.

Evo: What are some of the most common misconceptions students have about online educational offerings?

SD: Students often believe online educational offerings will be less demanding than similar courses offered face-to-face. Additionally, they perceive online learning as an isolated experience and expect to have little interaction with their peers and professor. Consequently, they are surprised to find a structured course with deadlines, and multiple avenues for collaboration and community building.

Evo: What are the differentiating factors that can convince students to enroll in an online program over a comparable program offered at a local institution?

SD: Students looking at online programs are often attracted to the flexible schedules and convenience afforded by asynchronous learning. Not having to attend at a physical location can remove a seemingly impossible barrier while also decreasing the time to degree completion. Programs that offer students multiple methods of earning credit (for example: testing, prior learning assessment and self-paced courses) in addition to online courses can present an even more compelling argument for enrollment.

However, the most important message is that your online program is committed to high-quality student learning. It is essential to highlight the commitment faculty have to delivering high quality education, regardless of the delivery method. Highlighting the opportunities to interact with faculty and peers and the effective online services are also important.

Evo: How do you market and highlight these differentiators to ensure prospective students understand the differences?

SD: Stockton University has very few fully online programs. We offer many online and hybrid courses and are moving to more fully online graduate programs. Our primary differentiator is that our online programs have the same high quality as our face-to-face programs, while providing students with the flexibility they need. Our online programs have small class sizes, and are primarily taught by full-time faculty, but provide access to students who are unable to attend a campus-based program. We also ensure that we include high-impact practices, such as e-portfolios in courses and opportunities for service learning and civic engagement, which are often not part of an online experience.

Evo: How do the expectations of online students differ from those of face-to-face students, and how does your team work to meet those expectations?

SD: First, online students should be able to access campus-based services. This can be done by creating more self-service applications for online students and has the added benefit of assisting students who are taking primarily face-to-face courses. However, online students expect to have access to library resources, tutoring, advising, and technical support, and resources need to be committed in these critical areas. In addition, policies need to be friendly and accommodating for both online and face-to- face populations, including transfer credit policies.

With those baseline measures in place, institutions can work to build community for their online students through engaging pedagogy that takes advantage of technological solutions to deliver education.

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Key Takeaways

  • While campus-based institutions are parlaying existing reputations into customer attention for their online offerings, online providers’ programs tend to more directly meet the needs of online learners.
  • Online institutions must provide high-quality student learning opportunities, and can stand out further by offering multiple pathways to credentials and greater flexibility through asynchronous learning.
  • It’s critical for online providers to ensure their students have as much access as possible to campus-based services, which can be achieved through the adoption of more self-service tools.

Readers Comments

Alison King 2015/08/24 at 10:48 am

We’ve read so much already about what providers need to do to stand out from brick-and-mortar program. We’ve established that both are necessary, so what I’m more interested in is how different online programs will continue to stand out from each other as the market moves more and more toward saturation.

Nancy Mabee 2015/08/26 at 10:11 am

I think we’re going to start seeing a switch in the reputation aspect of competition between brick-and-mortar and online-only providers, especially if it’s true that online providers can more directly meet students’ needs. Those known for focusing solely on the online students experience rather than riding on their existing reputations will be the ones to garner attention from prospective students.

Wilma Roberts 2015/08/26 at 12:03 pm

I think employers will also begin to register the shift, relying less on institutional reputation and more on the strength of the online programs specifically to determine the quality of the students they are potentially hiring.

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