Published on 2017/06/19
The EvoLLLution | Square Pegs and Round Holes: Why Success in Online Education Requires a Specific Strategic Approach
To thrive in the online education environment, institutions must design the experience—from business processes to support services to pedagogical approaches—from the ground up, rather than trying to force the on-campus model into the online modality.

Today’s student demographic is vastly different than the learners colleges and universities were serving in the 90s and early 2000s. Mostly non-traditional learners—meaning they’re either adults, part-time, have taken a break between high school and college, have dependents, and/or more—these students have specific needs when it comes to succeeding in their post-secondary pursuits. Chief among these needs is flexibility, which has coincided with the expansion of online learning modalities. Unfortunately, across the higher education industry, most institutions have taken the approach of trying to force their on-campus model into the online modality, which simply doesn’t address these students’ needs. In this interview, Michael Moyes and Debbie Cavalier reflect on what it takes to develop an online strategy that addresses the needs of online students specifically, and share their thoughts on why the on-campus model for student success doesn’t necessarily translate to the online environment.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the most significant differences between students studying on-campus and students enrolled online?

Debbie Cavalier (DC): Rather than the traditional “coming of age” students on campus (20 percent of the higher education market), online students are largely adult learners (80 percent of the higher education market) earning their degree while juggling career and family responsibilities. At Berklee Online, we serve a global base of aspiring musicians who are professionally and financially motivated to earn their degree. It’s very important that we as online education providers remove hurdles for these students and provide a seamless experience devoid of interruption and inconvenience.

One of the most significant differences about the experience of online learners is how fragile their virtual connection to the institution is. Courses, faculty, fellow classmates, advising and customer support are all vital touch points that can be easily severed in an instant by a downed server, for example. Institutions delivering online educational programs have a responsibility to maintain the highest standards in “up time,” as well as fast and efficient page loads for every online touch point accessed by their students.

Maintaining that virtual connection—the lifeline—between online students and their institution is vital.

Evo: Why do online learners need support mechanisms designed specifically to address their needs?

Michael Moyes (MM): Many online learners have unique challenges that aren’t shared by their on-campus counterparts. Full-time jobs, family commitments, time differences, and other deviations from the traditional higher education experience call for specialized advising and customer service.

I had a Music Theory student from Istanbul during a time when her country was in a very serious period of political and social unrest. She was working full time, had a significant time difference from Berklee, but was really interested in attending our live chats each week. As a class we experimented with different times and found that 8PM on Tuesdays (3AM on Wednesday in Istanbul) was a perfect time for her to wake up, chat about music theory with her classmates, go back to sleep for an hour, and then wake up again to go to work for the day. Although this student was exceptional in many ways, the support her classmates and advisor gave her played a big role in her success as an online student. Most of her peers were balancing their own lives with taking classes and they could genuinely empathize and encourage her.

As far as the timing of chats and discussions, flexibility is critical. A true asynchronous environment needs to be flexible and content needs to be available outside of static hours. I have had many students not participate in any live chats; however, they watched all 12 recordings multiple times as they were able.

Evo: What impact does it have on completion when institutional infrastructure designed for on-campus students is applied to the online learning experience?

MM: Many schools broke into the online learning arena by copying and pasting the on-campus experience into an LMS. Not surprisingly, that approach left students and faculty unimpressed and skeptical of the value of online learning.

Taking a step back to look at what the goals of the class are before building is the better approach. When this is done properly, you can identify unique advantages the internet has over in-person lectures and can build your class to maximize the learning experience.

The same can be said for advising models. Most on-campus schools (and many online as well) have one team dedicated to admissions and another team dedicated to advising/counseling. Too often, there is a clunky hand-off from one team to another once a student matriculates or completes their first year of studies. A few years ago, Berklee Online moved from a similar setup to a one-stop admissions/advising model. As soon as a potential student applies for a Berklee Online Degree program, they are assigned an academic advisor who has taken Berklee Online classes, has professional music experience, and understands what paths to go down after studying with Berklee. That advisor remains the student’s lifeline for information gathering, application completion, matriculation, course selection, elective choice, student success assistance, all the way through to graduation planning. Watching the students come to Boston for graduation and instantly seek out their academic advisor (and vice versa) is a testament that the one-stop philosophy is working for online learning.

Evo: How can institutional leaders create a support structure designed to address and serve the needs of online learners?

DC: It begins by catalyzing entire organization around the idea that the needs of adult learners are different and must be addressed head on. The long-standing, traditional on-campus support structure and related business processes were not developed to serve the non-traditional learner.

Southern New Hampshire University provides a model example of an institution that got this right. They understand the plight of the working adult and the need for a support structure that removes hurdles and barriers for their adult learners who just need one more reason in their busy lives to drop out when things get tough. Business processes must align with and support the students you serve. And front line staff should be well versed in supporting the adult learner. One size fits all won’t work. If institutions build their adult-serving online education business around the policies and procedures of the traditional student, they will fail.

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Key Takeaways

  • Business processes and support services must be specifically designed to fit the needs of the diverse populations of students colleges and universities serve today—one size does not fit all.
  • To support online student success, it’s critical that the institution shape the online student experience specifically to fit the modality, rather than trying to fit the square peg of the on-campus experience into the round hole of online education.
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