It’s now been seven years since The New York Times dubbed 2012 the “Year of the MOOC (massively open online course).” Since then, online learning has evolved, but not in the ways that were predicted. Recently, there have been promising signs that online education could still change the game. YouTube has already become the most widely used platform for independent learning, especially for the so-called iGen.
Notably, there is growing demand for both individual online courses at largely place-based campuses as well as college programs that are almost exclusively online. The exponential enrollment growth of so-called “mega-universities” like Southern New Hampshire University, Western Governors University, and Arizona State University suggests that there is an untapped market of consumers beyond traditional college-going populations. Over the past decade, enrollment at just these three institutions has soared from 77,000 to nearly 300,000 at the same time that enrollment growth across colleges has been largely flat. What gives?
For online learning to truly change the game, it will have to leverage the unique advantages of the online environment, overcome its disadvantages, and tailor its model to the unique needs of prospective consumers.
Last year, a handful of online learning providers—including Western Governors University, EdPlus at Arizona State University, Purdue Global, Penn State World Campus, and BYU-Pathway Worldwide—came together in Salt Lake City for the Online Student Success Symposium (OS3), a two-day workshop to discuss their online delivery models as well as the challenges they face and best practices for addressing them. They were joined by several service organizations that support online learners, including InsideTrack, ReUp Education, Straighterline, and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).
The workshop, supported by Strada Education Network, provided a unique lens into what the future of online learning might look like as well as into the challenges ahead. Several themes emerged from the conversation that reflect the state of play for successfully delivering online education at scale:
We need to better understand the consumers of online education. Of the more than 6 million learners enrolled in at least one online course, 3 million are enrolled exclusively online, and this share of students has grown to 15 percent of all college students. But this market is still in its infancy.
To date, online students are perceived, not inaccurately, as high risk for leaving their programs before earning a credential, needing additional supports to persist and complete. Understanding these consumers is essential to serving them well; for example, financial conversations are par for the course when enrolling new students, but multiple leaders at OS3 colleges say many of their low-income students feel a sense of shame when having their finances laid bare. Other leaders believe that we need to stop framing online learners using “deficit language,” labeling them as “drop-outs,” in favor of asset-based language. Multiple participants expressed the view that older online learners bring experience and qualifications that give them a unique advantage over 18-year-olds. Indeed, 38 percent of online learners already have an associate’s degree or certificate; nearly 80 percent have a job, and more than half are working full-time.
College students who enroll in programs that are exclusively online comprise a disproportionate share of older, female, black, low-income, first-generation students, and students who are working full-time, based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey. Four out of five are older than 23; half are 30 or older; and one out of five is 40 or older. These students are more likely to pursue career-oriented bachelor’s degree programs in business, healthcare, computer science, or protective services: 61 percent of online students are enrolled in these programs, compared with 43 percent of all college students.
But, as the market for online learning continues to grow in the coming decade, these colleges are preparing to serve traditional-age college-going populations as well. WGU’s fastest-growing student population, for example, comprises those under age 24 who believe they should be able to get a college education entirely online, according to market research polling.
Online colleges have the unique capacity to leverage predictive analytic models to promote student success. Digital learning environments allow for the possibility of collecting massive real-time data learning providers can use to individualize learning by adapting curricula, instruction, and remediation as well as interventions. WGU, for example, has identified more than 50 critical events from first contact to completion that affected learners and has developed a taxonomy of learner profiles identifying at-risk learners and interventions that promote their success.
But educators at the symposium acknowledged the risk of data overload and emphasized the importance of differentiating the signal and the noise: “With all this data, how do you make sense of it and put it in the hands of people who can make effective decisions?” These colleges are working to develop accessible, digestible resources that summarize and synthesize data that drive accountability and motivate action. BYU-Pathway Worldwide, for example, has developed a one-page dashboard that includes a list of consensus metrics that BYU faculty and staff carry with them, including metrics like engagement with learning resources, course and program progression, support requests for faculty and mentors, assessments, and post-college outcomes.
Rather than attempting to replicate the campus experience, online learning providers should leverage the flexibility of online programs to develop innovative curricular models that promote student success. Because of the lack of face-to-face interactions, colleges like Penn State World Campus emphasized the importance of frontloading academic wins to propel learners forward as well as fostering institutional affinity and a personal connection to the institution in designing successful online programs. BYU Pathway Worldwide has developed a Certificate First model, in which students earn a 12- to 15-credit career-oriented certificate that counts toward their associate’s and bachelor’s degree from BYU-Idaho. The certificate-first approach ensures students who leave college early have at least obtained one marketable, job-oriented credential.
OS3 participants are developing 360-degree student support services that best promote online learners’ success. Mentoring and coaching are vitally important for student success, and their existence is a stronger predictor of student retention than financial aid assistance. But they are even more important for online learners, both because of the missing advantages of regular face-to-face interactions and the structural and attitudinal barriers to further education that the typical online learner often experiences. Coaching, using concrete methods to facilitate learning and development, and mentoring, providing role models who give advice and lead by example, are both essential elements of a 360-degree student support services model. InsideTrack, a Strada affiliate, detailed best practices for coaching and mentoring online learners, including the optimal frequency of interaction, mode of interaction (in-person v. digital), and high v. low-touch (instructing v. automated advising).
Some participants were surprised at just how willing online learners are to engage in meaningful interactions via digital media, often willing to be more open than they might be in a face-to-face interaction. Texting, AI, and chatbots all make coaching and mentoring more efficient and scalable, allowing institutions to serve more students. In the end, however, digital interactions are complementary: “The ultimate goal,” participants said, “is to get to a one-on-one conversation, as this relationship is the core of what makes coaching work.”
However, a common mistake coaches make is instructing too much: “The creativity and resourcefulness of these learners is mindblowing. Do not tell them how to run their lives,” said an InsideTrack rep. More often, learners need coaches to help them develop by giving them simple tools to facilitate their learning. Highly effective tools are those that offer multimedia asynchronous experiences, such as closed-captioned (for learners with children) one-minute videos. Because they trigger Netflix-like binge-watching effects, five one-minute videos are more effective than one five-minute video.
Effective mentors cultivate relationships with students in which they demonstrate that they both care about and believe in students, make failure safe, and provide a sense of belonging, communicating with students using language they understand.
We are only now beginning to understand how—and for whom—digital media and online platforms can be used to facilitate learning. As colleges continue to experiment with how to most effectively blend the face-to-face and the digital, we will develop a sense of how much these technologies can truly disrupt the way we learn.
But we should not underestimate their potential. Since 2005, the number of online learners has quadrupled and now stands at 6 million, or one out of three college students. How many of us will be online learners by 2030?