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How to Make Digital Learning Work in Seven Easy Steps

The Boston Consulting Group and Arizona State University Foundation recently released a case-study investigation into the ROI (return on investment) of online learning. They approached ROI in three ways: impact on student access, impact on learning and completion outcomes, and impact on economics. The group investigated the online learning practices at Arizona State, University of Central Florida, Georgia State, Houston Community College, Kentucky Community and Technical College System, and Rio Salado Community College, and detailed its selection methodology in the report.

In general, each of these institutions have size (greater than 20,000 undergraduates), scale (at least 20% of students studying online), serve financially diverse populations (20% or more of students are Pell Grant eligible), and meet the study’s minimum graduation rate standard. One can see that private and for-profit institutions were left out of this mix, so the study leaves us still wondering if their findings are as broad-reaching as to be applicable to all of online learning, or if it’s just for those who match the scale of these diverse public institutions. There are obviously private and for-profit institutions that are at scale where this methodology could have been applied — such as Grand Canyon University, Southern New Hampshire University, Western Governors University, and University of Phoenix — perhaps even with a varied scale set as well to test approximately when scale begins to have an impact on ROI.

The Ingredients to Success

Boston Consulting Group looked across these institutions, examined them, and distilled the list of variables down to seven strategies that helped fuel their online learning success. Institutions can use this as their roadmap as well.

“Portfolio Approach”: This means institutions have a mixture of online and face-to-face courses and pedagogies, like adaptive learning, that reach different types of learners and help them succeed.

High-Quality Design: Schools put the necessary resources toward online learning to ensure the courses being produced are high quality and designed to fit learners’ needs. A centralized digital learning team with instructional designers is the hallmark of this strategy, as this team is dedicated to ensuring the quality and accessibility of these online courses.

Student Support: Institutions ensure that online students are given the necessary support to succeed at a distance, and make that support available online for these students. This includes using the “master course” approach to online learning where a senior faculty member develops one version of a course, then all instructors can use that course with limited changes. This provides a uniform experience for students. Online students should also have dedicated teams of online tutors and retention services.

Faculty Support: Faculty are brought into the process and have a seat at the table for decisions around growing online learning at the institution. The most successful schools studied involved senior faculty early in the decision process when selecting a platform. Faculty were engaged with a mix of monetary rewards and recognition-based incentives.

Online Is a Priority: These institutions make a commitment to online learning and put the necessary resources around growing online and supporting the online operation.

Use Vendors Strategically: The institutions did not have to “go it alone” and develop everything on their own. Vendors can help accelerate the growth process vs. keeping everything in house. Vendors can help lower costs in the long term and provide faculty with access to tools and technologies they may not have access to otherwise.

Grow Analytic Capabilities: The wealth of data being produced about student learning must be understood. Reporting systems need to be built and institutions need to expand their capabilities to mine such data and create improvements to the learning experience based on these systems.

Main Findings Validate Online Learning

For years, online veterans and proponents have championed the cost savings, strong outcomes, and access-expanding benefits of online learning. The BCG study now documents that for all to see.

Online students are better retained and more likely to graduate.

The study found that students who take at least some of their courses online had retention and graduation rates higher than students who do not take online courses. An optimal mix of online and face-to-face was not noted, but the study did find that the hybrid group performed best compared to students taking all online or all face-to-face coursework.

Online education allows schools to expand access to higher education.

Not surprisingly, it was found that online learning allowed these schools to reach more students — especially those from specialty population groups (Pell, female, first generation, etc.). At the same time, overall enrollment at the institution grew. ASU was able to shorten acceptance time from two weeks to 24 hours by consistently improving communications about transcript evaluations, credit transfers, and financial aid.

Online learning is less expensive to deliver than face-to-face.

The growth these institutions experienced also allowed them to scale their online operations and create efficiencies that reduced the delivery cost of education. They were able to add more students to a section and use less expensive adjunct faculty to teach these online courses — and they found quality did not drop by using adjuncts. Depending on the institution, there was a savings range of $12 to $66 per credit among the set they examined. Again, this is where it would have been interesting to see the outcomes from a more diverse set of institutions being tested.

I do not think those well-seasoned in the area of online education found any of the above findings to be earth shattering, but I think they would be relieved to see them in print following such a rigorous, if narrowly focused, study. It validates the online learning community and provides a blueprint for those who are looking to scale their online operations and take them to the next level.

About Andrew J. Magda

Andrew leads in the development of custom and large-scale market research studies and assists partner institutions with their research needs. Prior to Learning House, he was a senior analyst at Eduventures and a project manager at the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.