Online learning isn’t new anymore, but it continues to evolve. Scott Jaschik, co-founder and editor of Inside Higher Ed, recently spoke about the future of higher education at Connect 2015, a conference dedicated to best practices in online higher education. Here are some of his thoughts about current trends in online education, the lessons we can learn from the meteoric rise (and fall) of MOOCs, and what institutions can do to prepare for the future.
The Current State of Higher Education
Online education is disruptive, and it is disproportionately affecting small, private institutions. These colleges, which proliferate in the United States, are caught between the Scylla of needing to maintain tuition to continue to support their infrastructure, and the Charybdis of an increasingly competitive marketplace. According to Jaschik, “The vulnerability of the small private, tuition-driven institution seems to me to be an issue that has become much more focused in the last year or so.”
But those programs that are succeeding are those that fill a specific niche. Institutions that consider these programs as complements, not competitors, can take advantage of the unique opportunities online education offers to provide programs that meet market needs. STEM fields are one example, with institutions finding success in specific and diverse programs ranging from engineering disciplines such as robotics to professional training programs such as equestrian business management, holistic health or even funeral direction. Further, the proliferation of on-ground trainings such as coding bootcamps and corporate partnerships to facilitate and expand professional development initiatives have repositioned online education as something much more versatile than the first online-degree pioneers originally envisioned.
The Tale of the MOOC
Part of the reason for this evolution is that we’ve gained some wisdom and experience about what works versus what doesn’t in the online space. Particularly useful are the lessons we learned from the fast growth of the massively open online course, or MOOC. MOOCs offered something previously inconceivable: a fully online course usually offered through a prestigious institution, available to anyone interested in the topic at absolutely no cost. The courses were immediately popular, with thousands signing up and millions being invested in what was seen as the future of higher education.
But were MOOCs a fundamental change in the model of how higher education is delivered, or just a flash in the pan? The answer is neither.
MOOCs saw low levels of continued student engagement, and as a result completion rates were abysmal. “Completion matters,” Jaschik said. “Credentials matter; certificates matter.” Although most MOOCs carried the pedigree of schools like MIT or CalTech, the lack of credentials offered to students who completed the courses prevented them from becoming a true threat to a fully accredited, credentialed degree program.
By the time MOOC providers started offering paid certificates of completion for students who stayed with the course, the fundamental model had already become disrupted. “What’s important is how things evolve,” Jaschik said, “not how they start.”
Critical to the initial popularity of MOOCs was the prestige of the brands they accompanied. “I think a recognizable brand is a huge head start,” Jaschik said. But one thing the tale of the MOOCs has showed us is that brand isn’t everything. Even free courses from some of the most elite institutions in the country could not overcome some basic difficulties of lack of engagement and abysmal completion rates.
Expanding the idea of what a traditional MOOC model could be meant expanded opportunities for institutions and students, and the beginning of what Jaschik calls “MOOClike substances”—programs that borrow from the original MOOC formula but which improve upon their associated challenges.
Programs like the customizable, specialization-focused iMBA offered through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the low-cost Georgia Tech M.S. in Computer Science, delivered in collaboration with MOOC provider Udacity and AT&T, are taking advantage of what made MOOCs attractive in the first place to offer robust educational products like never before. The Georgia Tech program, probably the most advanced of all these MOOClike offerings, saw especially strong interest, with success attracting high-quality applicants.
“These types of programs are bigger than normal but not massive, not open, online but not free,” Jaschik said. Most MOOClike programs offer students a financial advantage such as reduced tuition or the opportunity for students to defer tuition payments until their certification program is complete.
The Online Student Might Surprise You
In addition to delivery model changing, the needs and preferences of today’s students are evolving, too. In an increasingly electronic and mobile landscape, students are communicating with their instructors through smartphones rather than through standard office hours. However, research into the habits and preferences of online students has shown that they prefer their school to have a physical campus—even if they never visit. According to Jaschik, “There are many convenience factors that favor online education (for all populations), but the student services part (advising, tutoring, career planning) are essential. And while they may be delivered successfully online, I think there may be value for many nontraditional students in having good options.”
At-risk and underserved populations especially have been pushed to enroll in online programs, but these programs have shown more success with superstar students who thrive on the independence and accountability that online programs require.
Jaschik predicts that in a few years, there will no longer be a distinction between fully online and fully on-ground programs, especially for institutions serving nontraditional and underserved students: “I think [a hybrid format] may be a great opportunity for institutions serving nontraditional populations, and at-risk students. A lot of research suggests that for these students, support services are key—and I think some opportunity for face-to-face interaction may be key, especially for students who are just learning about online education.”
Competency-Based Education on the Rise
Recent attention to the benefits of competency-based education models has furthered the discussion of where online is going. “These models increasingly make sense for a lot of adult students,” Jaschik said, “and they make the most sense for associate or bachelor’s nursing programs,” currently one the most popular of all online products.
Additionally, more and more professions are adopting competency-based training programs, and more institutions are embracing them. Competency-based models may be a boon to national corporations looking to train their employees consistently, but remotely. Recent interest by the federal government in helping fund competency-based programs, such as on-ground bootcamps, to help trainees advance their careers, as well as discussion of badging programs, has only enlivened this conversation.
“There are many people who want specific skills and not degrees—and I think certificates, badges, etc., point to more interest here. But for certain jobs or promotions, people want degree credentials. I think we are a ways off from people abandoning degrees.”
The Role of Faculty
One of the major challenges to providing robust, meaningful online experiences to students is lack of faculty buy-in. “There are real tensions about the role of faculty in online learning,” said Jaschik. Just as schools that adopt online programs have a business plan to accompany it, they also need a faculty plan. These programs perform better—and students are more engaged—if faculty embrace the online or hybrid format.
Specific issues for institutions to address as they implement an online program include:
- Very few faculty members report receiving any kind of training to prepare them for online instruction.
- Teaching online requires certain adjustment and planning to deliver effectively, but many institutions offer no perks or rewards for their online instructors. As Jaschik says, “you must pay attention to reward structure if you want to encourage faculty.”
- How programs will be delivered. Institutions must think about the changing roles that will accompany online instruction, and be explicit about what’s changing so that faculty members are prepared.