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Making the Online Student Experience: How Intentional Design and Engagement Lead to Success

In emerging from the pandemic and creating the new normal for higher education, institutions should prioritize flexibility, accessibility and equity while integrating traditional aspects of the learning experience.

With the rise of the internet, institutions of higher education like University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) and Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) recognized that online education would appeal to underrepresented and nontraditional students, particularly those who have struggled to make the leap to a college degree. In the intervening years, enrollments have increased along with acceptance of online education and measures of student satisfaction, driven by processes that incorporate the learners’ voices and data that show which support measures are most effective. Persistence and graduation rates have increased as well. 

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed discussions of online education to the forefront, not only at schools like UMGC and SNHU, but across the country. Now, educators and administrators are exploring how to leverage feedback from online tools and adopt best online practices to improve the way we learn in face-to-face environments, as well.

The online environment has already changed the way we shop, listen to music, and even visit the doctor. Higher education, too, will exist in a new normal post pandemic. Colleges and universities that hope to help learners acquire the knowledge, skills, abilities, and dispositions (KSADs) they will need to navigate an uncertain and volatile world must be reflective and intentional in assessing the way we learn and what our learning experiences entail.

As changes occur, higher education professionals can take cues from the non-academic world. While users may know what they like or what outcome they seek, they may not know which vehicle will help them reach their objective. As Steve Jobs noted, 20 years ago, no one was seeking an iPhone or smartphone to do what mobile devices now do (ironically, making calls is no longer their primary function). And according to legend, Henry Ford said that if he had given people what they asked for, it would have been a faster horse. Regardless of their historical authenticity, both underlying observations ring true: the successful colleges and universities of the future are already deeply engaged in substantive conversations about what will come next. If we have a clear sense of what learning is and a better understanding of how learning happens, how can we align our practices with that reality?

As an industry, higher education has often been cautious about chasing bright shiny objects, but at an individual level, instructors are often creative and innovative in identifying students’ individual struggles and creating corresponding solutions. Unfortunately, institutions have rarely had the means (or perhaps the will) to consolidate those success stories and share them on a strategic level across the organization and with the industry at large. Even in institutions that prioritize student outcomes, there is an understandable wariness of how outcomes assessment could morph into administrative control, along with a fear that analytics will be wielded as a weapon rather than an opportunity. 

The challenge for leaders in both administration and academia is to engage in a conversation that is at its core the most academic of all: When it comes to learning, how do we know what we know, and how do we get better results tomorrow than we have today? The deliberateness of this dialogue demands that both parties set aside accusations and defenses and engage with openness and curiosity. In many instances, this work is happening at the micro level. The real victories will come in identifying those who are doing this work, analyzing the factors that contribute to their success, and replicating or integrating those practices across the organization.

The pandemic has accelerated a conversation that was already taking place in response to demographic shifts and growing concerns about the value proposition put forward in traditional higher education models. Students who expected a residential campus experience want to get back to it; that much is true. But it is also true that they are now asking and expecting to see elements of the online experience incorporated into traditional college life. Asynchronous classes offer increased flexibility for 18-year-olds to work while they learn. And in the most effective settings, the work and learning are symbiotic. While students value aspects of more traditional educational approaches, they are virtually unanimous in asking for the freedom to access lectures at any time, to chat with classmates in real time about the material presented, and to choose the modality or modalities that best suit the subject matter and their individual learning preferences and needs. 

In Manhattan, businesses are reporting increases in productivity during periods of telework and critically assessing the advantages associated with a return to a physical office. Similarly, higher education must consider how the future may change our beliefs and understanding of how students learn best. While existing tools like Zoom and WebEx have obvious shortcomings, designers and software engineers are already deeply engaged in developing the next generation of those resources. And just as Napster was replaced by iTunes, which in turn was replaced by Spotify, so, too, will the next iteration of conferencing and communication tools take their place in a new landscape of learning experiences. 

The key is to build an institutional culture that recognizes and adapts to change while resisting the urge to chase every bright shiny object or to panic every time a new, “disruptive” tool is introduced into the ecosystem (remember MOOCs?). By focusing on mission, embracing intentionality, and wrapping it all in a culture of transparent and constant communication, institutions can successfully navigate the post-pandemic learning experience, digital or otherwise.

Whatever tools and pathways we ultimately develop, the pandemic has boldly underscored the need to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion are integrated throughout our learning experiences. Many institutions of higher education champion the power education has to transform lives, especially when it comes to social mobility. It is imperative that we ensure that, as higher education evolves, it does so in a way that enhances opportunity, especially for the most vulnerable populations. Such an approach will ensure that all populations emerge from the current crisis better positioned for a brighter, more prosperous future.

Editor’s note: Gregory Fowler is president of University of Maryland Global Campus and previously served as president of Southern New Hampshire University Global Campus. 

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