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Understanding the Positive Impact of Online Learning Divisions

Colleges and universities must understand their students’ diverse needs and expectations in order to properly serve them, and it is evident that adult learners require robust online and distance components to be available in order for their education to work for them.

I am going to start out with a principle.  As an educator, I see an enormous difference between an institution’s competitiveness with other institutions, an institution’s competitiveness when it comes to enrolling adult learners, and an institution’s competitiveness when it comes to meeting the needs of adult learners. When I reflect on conversations that I’ve had with colleagues at the highest quality colleges and universities who are serving adult learners, they typically identify meeting the needs of adult learners as their focus and priority, not out of enlightened self-interest, or a way of reaching another more important objective, but out of a genuine commitment to their missions. This commitment is made evident by their overall pattern of behavior, which reflects their priorities, and by individual decisions that, by standing by this commitment, occasionally make these colleges and universities less competitive with other institutions—at least in the short-term.

In my various roles in online learning divisions, I have tried to play down the idea of competition with other colleges and universities. I felt that it was a distraction and broke down the collegial nature of higher education. I would routinely talk about other online providers and adult serving universities as “comparators,” pointing out that we are all serving the same mission. Although we might not have competed with other universities, we certainly wanted to benchmark with them, learn from them, and improve.  If that resulted in being more attractive to adult learners, all the better.  So the question becomes: what is the best structure a university can adopt to improve practice and become more competitive in the eyes of learners?

Simply put, online learning provides opportunities for universities to better serve larger populations and meet broader sets of needs than they can otherwise. Of course, this is only relevant if the university wants to better serve larger populations and meet broader needs. The organizational approach that a particular college or university takes will in large part depend on the institution’s objectives. Better serving an existing residential population is a different thing than serving a large population of adult learners studying at a distance. Assuming, though, that the institution is interested in serving adult learners at a distance, the question of an online division can become more focused. I cannot think of many successful distance education efforts that have not invested in a division that supports online learning, and I think that the divisions generally fall into two categories: those that are outward-facing, and those that are principally inward-facing.

To illustrate, three visible examples of universities that decided to create outward-facing online divisions are Penn State’s World Campus, University of Massachusetts’ MassOnline, and Colorado State’s Global Campus. When you look under the hood, there are some significant differences among the models, but from an external perspective, they are all branded divisions of traditional universities. Other very successful institutions such as the University of Central Florida, Drexel University, and SUNY Empire State College have divisions supporting adult learners studying at a distance, but they are internally-facing, and are not branded. All of these institutions and many others identify strongly with serving large populations of adult learners studying at a distance online, and their divisions have allowed them to be competitive in attracting the attention of adult learners.

So, historically the evidence suggests that an online learning division is pretty important to organizations whose objectives include competing for a large population of adult learners. Looking forward, though, I think the story might be different; online learning and adult-serving models are continuously evolving, and I think that the following three trends are something to consider.

1. Outsourcing Organizational Capacity

There has been a relatively recent growth spurt in for-profit organizations that are designed to provide online learning capacity to traditional colleges and universities.

Some provide “point solutions” (capacity in a narrow functional area), while other provide services that are very broad and look a lot like the suite of services provided by a mature online division operating at scale.  If these organizations can effectively address the barriers faced by colleges and universities interested in serving online learners, the need for fully developed internally-facing online support divisions may be reduced, and the internal capacity needed to effectively brand an online division may be minimal. Effectively outsourcing capacity could make online learning that serves adult learners studying at a distance a strategic decision, in which internal operational constraints are a relatively minor concern.

2. Deep Integration with Core Mission

As online learning has become increasingly important to the whole university— including residential instruction—we may be seeing deeper integration with core university operations. For example, learning design capacity, once reserved for online courses, is becoming expected in residence as well.  As online learning is absorbed into the university culture we may see divisions that naturally support residential, blended, and online learners.

The potential challenge with deep integration is a cultural assimilation in which online learning is accepted while adult students and students studying at a distance are not, leaving few voices of advocacy for these too easily marginalized groups.

3. Alternative Approaches to Education

We are now seeing a move from some universities to participate in online learning through consortia arrangements such as Coursera and edX, while other universities are turning to these consortia as a way to outsource or at least augment their online learning capacity. A recent example is the move that Antioch LA has made to award credits for successful completion of selected courses offered through Coursera, and the University of Colorado Global Campus’s decision to provide transfer credits for the successful completion of a Udacity course. Although this trend may not eliminate the need for an online learning division, it will fundamentally change the nature of what it does.

So, how can an online division impact an institution’s competitiveness when it comes to enrolling adult students?

It is essential that universities understand how to serve their students—all of their students—and to do so, the organization needs to be committed to understanding and meeting their needs. There are too many schools now that understand that adult learners who choose to study at a distance have different needs and expectations than traditionally-aged residential students. It is no longer possible for any school to be unclear about their adult learners’ needs and remain competitive. That said, there are university cultures that do not see beyond the physical campus.  For these campuses, adult and distance learner advocacy needs a home, and that may be the online division.

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