Seven Steps to Preparing for Online EducationMelissa Venable | Online Education Advisor, HigherEducation.com
Online academic programs are proving to be effective and demand for them is growing. Yet many established institutions have been slow to fully embrace online education. It takes time and money to develop the infrastructure to deliver digital curriculum. Institutions also need to find new ways to engage with potential students, many of whom don’t follow traditional routes to higher education.
These aren’t easy problems to solve. But the rewards will be worth the effort. In a recent poll, 72 percent of online students said they enroll in programs to help them meet their career goals. The same poll showed 98 percent of school administrators are seeing increasing demand for online programming, but a much smaller percentage of schools are actually increasing their budgets to develop new options. Supply is not keeping up with demand.
Here are seven recommendations that will help traditional colleges and universities prepare for and meet that demand:
1. Follow the jobs market
Students choose online programs to begin or advance in their careers. Focus on the areas of biggest job demand, including: information technology (IT), healthcare—nursing and medical technicians, K-12 education, and vocational skills. A degree or certificate that leads to a job has more value to students.
2. Talk to employers
The best way to understand how to help people find jobs is to talk to the people hiring them and then design your online education programs to meet their needs. Industry connections can also help you build referral networks or tap into tuition assistance programs from employers who support lifelong education.
3. Consider specific student audiences
Active military personnel, for example, are great candidates for online learning. Many will relocate several times during their service careers, or be deployed to remote locations, and are planning post-service careers. Designing programs that meet their educational needs is a smart investment.
4. Cast a wide net
Your potential student audience could be anywhere in the world. Have you identified the best markets in which to recruit students and designed a plan to reach them? Perhaps local commuters and part-time students can be reached through traditional marketing. But should you also consider digital commuters—from out-of-state or even other countries?
5. Design flexible programs
Many online students have jobs, families, or other commitments that make it difficult to attend classes during the day, or to complete courses offered every other semester. The more convenient you make your programming, the more likely they can attend. Some students may actually prefer a blended program, with a mix of in-person class work and online studies.
6. Keep costs down
Surprisingly, some current online offerings carry the same price tag as classes on campus. Many best practices are still being worked out, and the related learning curve comes with a cost. In addition, the technology to support digital programming may require significant up-front investment. While some of those costs should level off over time, software, data storage and other IT systems typically require updates. To keep costs down, look for and eliminate areas of duplication between online and in-person programs. Use technology to serve more students at a lower cost per person.
7. Consider hiring outside experts
Universities and colleges have ample expertise in traditional education, but some might benefit from third-party help. How will you adapt your curriculum for online use? Could a tech partner manage your network and data systems, or address privacy and security needs? Could a marketing or recruiting partner help you reach potential students who might be outside of your current focus areas?
People who enroll in online higher education programs are often highly motivated to excel both in their studies and their careers. Helping them reach their potential, by providing more convenient and flexible high-quality academic programs, makes good business sense and can enhance the reputation of any college or university.
Author Perspective: Educator