Published on 2017/01/20
The EvoLLLution | Online Learning: The New Strategic Imperative
Online learning is past the acceptance and adoption phase. Institutions who can truly leverage its potential to transform the student experience and student outcomes at scale will be a part of higher education’s future.

At the University of Central Florida, where I work, 2016 marked the 20th anniversary of our institutional online learning initiative. Since 1996, online learning has grown from a few experimental classes to approximately 40 percent of our annual student credit hours. Nearly 80 percent of all of UCF’s 64,000 students take at least one or more online or blended course each academic year and we offer more than 75 fully online degrees and certificates. Online learning has become a key strategy to help fulfill the university’s access mission.

In many ways, our experience at UCF has foreshadowed the overall trajectory of online learning across higher education and, I believe, our experience may offer hints at its future. What has online learning been and what does it offer going forward?

The Past

As in many areas of educational research, the two primary measures that have traditionally been used to evaluate online learning are quantitative (how many students are studying online) and qualitative (how online students perform compared to face-to-face peers). These are both useful metrics and will remain so. However, as online learning expands and becomes more mainstream, these measures will soon become incomplete barometers of the true value proposition that technology-based education offers.

From a quantitative standpoint, one of the best-known reports about the growth of online learning is an annual survey conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group. This 13-year study has shown a steady growth in the number of students studying partially or fully online. As of the most recent report, more than 5.8 million students, or 28 percent, took at least one online course in Fall 2014.

Regarding the quality of online learning, an impressive corpus of research has been produced over the past twenty years that demonstrates no significant difference in student performance between online and face-to-face modalities. In fact, some studies have indicated that students in blended modalities may outperform those in either online or face-to-face classes. The Babson study also shows that 71.4 percent of academic leaders believe that learning outcomes in online courses are the same as or superior to those in face-to-face courses.

So, while face-to-face instruction continues to be higher education’s dominant modality (and will remain so), it is impossible to deny the growing influence of online learning. For those students who either prefer or require the flexibility and access provided by online learning, they now not only have choices unavailable to them in years past but also have reasonable assurance that the quality of their experience will be equal to or better than what they might participate in on campus.

The Future

However, I contend that online learning is in the process of turning a corner. While convenience and access will remain important, online learning must evolve to offer more. Soon, online learning will be all but ubiquitous across every type of institution and simply offering courses or programs online will no longer be enough of a differentiator to attract students who have access to a sea of options.

Instead, savvy institutions will learn how to leverage online learning to support mission-critical activities in new ways. These are areas where UCF and other forward-thinking schools are pushing online learning beyond the boundaries of its historical purview. The intentional inclusion of online learning in an institution’s future planning will become a strategic imperative, and those schools that neglect this opportunity will be at a competitive disadvantage. While online learning’s contribution can cut across the institutional landscape, a few key areas include: scale, success and experimentation.

Scale

To some extent, online learning has always been about scale. The Internet offers institutions a way to reach new, often non-traditional students, growing their total enrollment headcount. Online courses don’t require physical classrooms and can literally be created with the click of a button. However, the promise of scale transcends these numbers.

While we have always had personalized instruction, technology now provides a way to expand the personalization of education in a way that has never been available before. If adaptive systems can fulfill their potential, each student, no matter how many there might be, will have access to personalized curricula and assessments, offering either remediation or acceleration as the circumstances dictate. This is a different kind of scale, one that doesn’t simply count heads but is aligned directly with student success.

Success

A singular reliance on the “no significant difference” literature will not propel online learning into the institutional strategic plan. Instead, online learning will need to show the potential to outperform more traditional modalities for the populations it serves. And the potential is there. Adaptive systems and learning analytics are still emerging technologies, yet they hold enormous promise. Because online platforms capture every action a student takes, a massive amount of data can be accessed in the service of student success. Employing these data to help guide students into more productive actions, decisions and pathways promises the possibility to dramatically impact student success via grades, learning, retention and graduation. Other, backward-looking analytics tools that mine SIS, ERP and similar institutional systems can only be reactive to events that have already occurred. However, because online learning modalities (e.g., LMSs, adaptive systems) currently capture real-time data of student status, only online learning can work proactively in a just-in-time fashion. Catching a student and redirecting them into a successful direction immediately offers the promise of success at scale.

Experimentation

Certainly a significant amount experimentation occurs across all sectors of higher education. Yet, online technologies can be both more immediate—allowing rapid pilots, fast failure and continual revision—and more impactful by offering the potential of scale. Key innovations are being enabled by online technologies, such as competency-based education, MOOCs, microcredentials, badging, courseware, personalized learning, and the aforementioned adaptive learning and learning analytics. Using an institution’s online learning enterprise as an innovation laboratory can allow a school to probe the future with a variety of pilots and experiments. Online learning itself began in just this way at UCF and many other schools. Investing in and supporting such an environment of innovation and experimentation will likely yield the next game changer in higher education. In the meantime, schools can evolve the quality and efficiency of their current operations through an online innovation initiative.

The Strategic Imperative

While online learning continues to expand—with no degradation of outcomes—the industry is poised on the edge of a transition. In this transition, the goals of online learning will shift from acceptance and adoption to its ability to impact the larger issues of student success, retention, and graduation. And it will do this at an unprecedented scale.

Colleges and universities that recognize this shift and include online learning as a strategic imperative in their own future planning will be the ones who will be able to best serve tomorrow’s students and set themselves apart in the process.

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