Once considered something of a side venture, online learning is moving to the front and center of operations at colleges and universities across the United States. After all, it responds directly to the expectation of today’s students for greater levels of accessibility and flexibility while still providing highly rigorous content. In this interview, Amanda Major expands on the importance of being competitive in the online learning space for colleges and universities and shares her thoughts on what it takes for an institution to really stand out in this increasingly crowded space.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why have higher education institutions invested so much in the online education space over the last decade?
Amanda Major (AM): The two main drivers are increasing access for learners and staying competitive. Online education provides learners access to a highly commoditized—and highly competitive—global and national asset: higher education.
I believe that most institutions understand the multiple demands that many of their current and prospective students face. Learners must find a way to balance their education, family obligations and careers. Online learning, especially in an asynchronous format, enables individuals to attain an education within their own time and space windows. For instance, we have a learner with a military career and family who completes her course work in the morning before sending the children to school, during her lunch break, and after putting the children to bed. Learners still need to arrange their lives to incorporate education, but with online learning, they have more flexibility with their time, especially if enrolled in 100 percent online degree programs.
Online learning not only offers a schedule-friendly way to get an education, but this modality of learning also reflects a virtual method of working. Workplaces are becoming increasingly global and virtual, and employers expect their employees to know how to work under these conditions. You have to know how to build relationships and communicate effectively with team members in geographically dispersed locations, for example, in a different city or across the country via virtual methods. Online learning builds digital skills and experience.
These factors are behind the trend of growing online enrollments, and in fact, online programs are growing more rapidly than on-campus enrollments. Some institutions of higher education have had success with offering online programs, and others would like to experience that same success and are strategizing to do so.
Evo: What are the most significant challenges to differentiating your university and online offerings in this crowded environment?
AM: There are a host of reasons to choose LSU. Within a given market, universities in general have a competitive edge based on local affinity. More broadly, brand quality is a significant factor. LSU, for instance, is well known and respected based on a long history of academic excellence. This university offers top-tier faculty who provide a combination of theory and real-world applications for today’s dynamic business world.
To facilitate access, we have partnered with an online program management provider to reach out to individuals through digital marketing and localized recruiting, and they support student retention through graduation. These efforts will be enhanced by our near-term plans to promote the University through traditional advertising, including billboards and radio, highlighting LSU’s online programs across many institutions: LSU and A&M College, LSU Shreveport, and LSU Alexandria. It’s part of our mission and, frankly, our vested interest, to ensure that learners have access to the high-quality education offered here.
The LSU brand is well known across the country. We strive to highlight how the University attracts high-caliber learners who aspire to achieve a level of success that truly matters. Our cadre of faculty comprise renowned scholars and top-notch practitioners who are recognized nationally and internationally in their respective fields. Faculty take a learner-centered approach, fostering mentorship and opportunities to engage the community with a focus on professional collaborations. LSU has committed to developing learners’ competencies in leadership.
Evo: How has LSU worked to help its online programs stand out?
AM: LSU has focused on relevance, and we have invested in student-centered support that includes highly regarded expert researchers or practitioners as faculty who truly have much to offer to learners. We also take a robust approach to marketing avenues to get the word out about our top-notch online programs. I will just mention a few, such as our 100-percent online post-baccalaureate certificate in construction management, graduate certificate in workforce development, and our sports management programs. These are perfect for practitioners in the field who would like to enhance their careers.
Practitioners may run across ads we have placed in professional association publications or a display ad in social media based on their interests. For instance, we plan to place an advertisement featuring our master of science in construction management and our post-baccalaureate in construction management in Construction Executive’s annual directory of construction schools/programs. Another option is special tuition offers. For instance, higher education and school administrators, faculty and educators, as well as new professionals interested in the fields can obtain a tuition discount for enrolling in the master of arts in higher education administration and master of education in educational leadership programs. Earning a degree in one of these highly ranked programs bolsters the opportunity for career success.
Evo: What kinds of changes do you see on the horizon that will help LSU further differentiate its online offerings in the coming years?
AM: Institutions comparable with LSU are growing their online offerings with low-cost options at a larger scale, but the market is not yet saturated. Just 20 institutions comprise a third of the fully online marketplace.
We are in the process of creating an online learning strategic plan for the University. With help from a market research firm, we can see out into the changing political, economic, social, and technological landscape of online learning that touches LSU. From that point, we can more clearly assess our capacities and our opportunities. This strategic planning process will help us set a unified direction, build on our strengths and identify areas for focus to harness our energy and resources toward the common goal of moving online learning forward at the university.
When this robust strategy is in place and fully operational, we have full confidence that we can further distinguish our high-quality online offerings from other institutions of higher education. The strategic plan will set the direction for greater resource alignment, which will optimize the university’s efforts to increase learners’ access to quality education that fosters leadership.
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 Gary Miller, Meg Benke, Bruce Chaloux, Lawrence C. Ragan, Raymond Schroeder, Wayne Smutz and Karen Swan, “Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education: Meeting the Challenges of Technology and Distance Education.” American Journal of Distance Education, v28(3). 2014.
Author Perspective: Administrator