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The Winds of Change: Four Factors Impacting Online Higher Education

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read this blog before that I love data. So I look forward to the various reports released by data analysts throughout the year. What is most interesting to me is seeing the common themes these analysts pick out; these trends will influence education for years to come. The recent Credit Suisse report is no different; the company discusses several factors impacting online higher education. Here are just a few of the highlights I think are most important.

New Online Programs

Now that online technology is firmly part of mainstream education, we are seeing programs created specifically for the online space. Instead of simply taking existing programs and throwing them into an LMS, institutions are creating programs that are designed for the online space and that may in fact work better online.

Coursera and Johns Hopkins University, for example, reported that 71,000 verified certificates, obtained via MOOCs, were awarded for Data Science courses between April 2014 and February 2015, while on-campus enrollments were only 21,000. For something like data science, which is individualized and rigorous, the online environment may in fact be a better fit than on-ground. It is also potentially a field where adult learners want to come back to it; these are students who may already be working in the field and see the need within their own company or industry for data scientists. These adult learners are, of course, the bread and butter of online learning, and the flexibility of the modality works best for them.

Education to Employment

I’ve said it before, and I will most likely say it in the future: as online educators, we need to be focused on offering skills-based training that helps students get the job they want. In today’s knowledge-based economy, having the right skills is more important than ever to career success.

This kind of education can take place in a number of ways. Nanodegrees, certifications and bootcamps will continue to be a critical component in providing vocational education in specific tracks, while degree programs must focus on fostering outcomes such as high job placement rates.

There are a number of advantages to skills-based education. For one, it’s less expensive: According to Peterson’s, the average cost per year of a graduate degree program ranges from $30,000 to $40,000. A 12-week coding bootcamp, however, averages around $10,000, and graduates gain the skills for jobs that not only start out with high salaries, but that also demonstrate a high potential for growth. The ROI on these kinds of vocational education is clear.

Building a New Generation of Online Learners

Since its inception, online learning has primarily been the domain of nontraditional students, who tend to be older and are going back to school. As the 2015 Online College Students report showed, however, the average age of online students is lowering; in 2015, 34 percent of students were between the ages of 18 and 24, compared to only 25 percent in 2012.

I expect this trend to continue. In the digital native generation, students not only want technology available to them, they expect it. The concept of learning online is infiltrating K-12 education, and students will carry those expectations into the higher education space. As these students graduate and continue on to college, they will view online as just another medium for learning, one in which they feel comfortable.

This means that many of the value propositions of online learning – flexibility, ease of use for those juggling careers and family, cost – will need to be adjusted for a younger population. What resonates with the traditional college-aged student may not be what resonates with nontraditional students, and colleges and universities will need to make sure they are communicating effectively with all demographics.

Going Global

One of the long-held tenets of online higher education is that it can reach anyone anywhere in the world. Only now is that really starting to bear fruit, however. Developing countries are starting to invest significant resources into building the infrastructure for online education; Latin America and India both, for example, are seeing an explosion in popularity. Africa is grappling with the resources required for online education; the continent has large swaths of land with few people living on it, so online education would offer a way to increase access to education, but reliable Internet service can be hard to come by. Still, leaders in a number of African countries have expressed a commitment to improving these conditions in coming years.

Of all these trends, one theme is clear: Increasing access to education to improve students’ lives is inevitable. It will be up to colleges and universities to decide how to integrate these changes in a way that makes sense with their brand and their mission, but the demand exists. What do you think are the major trends driving change in online education? What pitfalls do you see?

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: