Strategies for delivering online education that’s everything—and everywhere—students want it to be.
By Karla Hignite
To continue meeting the needs of the nation's students, higher education institutions must put themselves out there electronically and appeal to the growing number of students who prefer to get their education online. Online degree programs have mushroomed in the past decade, providing coursework that is academically rigorous and a level of service that makes it possible for many more adult learners in particular to complete a college degree. That should be welcome for higher education, which faces a steep challenge of graduating millions more Americans beyond its current output in order for the United States to remain competitive in the global economy (see "Going the Distance" in the February 2011 Business Officer).
Unfortunately, the marketing budgets for most nonprofit colleges and universities haven't always allowed them to toot their online horn. "An obvious first step in growing your online programs is making prospective students aware of what you offer," says Marie A. Cini, vice president and dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi. Despite UMUC's advertising efforts—including radio, regional television ads, and marketing of industry-specific programs in association journals—many simply haven't heard of UMUC, notes Cini. "If you don't have a football team or a fight song, it can be hard to get your message out."
One key to capturing the attention of potential online learners is clarifying your distance niche. Some within the online education arena point to Western Governors University in Salt Lake City, Penn State's World Campus in University Park, and the Communiversity concept of Rio Salado College (a Maricopa Community College) in Arizona as leaders of the pack, based on their robust programming and collaborative and creative approaches to making degree attainment seamless and manageable for diverse student constituencies. The institution models highlighted in this article share those stand-out traits, having translated their larger institutional mission into programs tailored to specific markets.
Reinventing the Wheel
When online learning first emerged around the mid-1990s, most educators set out to replicate traditional face-to-face models, providing a space for students to access reading materials and class announcements and to post discussion comments. "We essentially looked at what we did in the classroom and asked how to translate these activities online," says Cini. Since most providers were taking a similar approach, a largely predictable trajectory developed for those entering the online arena: Determine which learning management system to adopt, train faculty to teach in a Web-based environment, and develop basic services for students to access course materials and instruction online.
In most respects, those days are over, in part due to the emergence of social networking and developments such as Web 2.0, among other drivers of change within the online learning arena, notes Cini.
Cini predicts that real transformation will occur with the next generation of learning management systems, which will have platforms that pinpoint where individual students need help.
While many early adopters were able to ride the wave of growth in online enrollments, launching online programs will be more difficult for those new to this realm without significant funding to build programs that can compete with the vast array of what already exists, adds Cini. That doesn't mean new initiatives aren't needed or can't be profitable. It does mean leaders shouldn't expect to attract legions of online enrollments as quickly as they might think. "Like any new academic endeavor, online education represents a strategic direction that must be carefully considered, since it can be expensive to mount and maintain quality online programming," says Cini.
Institutions like UMUC that have been offering online courses and degree programs for more than a decade are now seeking to tailor programming and enhance learning platforms, in part because of growing competition that requires differentiation to stand out in an increasingly crowded online marketplace, notes Cini.
Today UMUC offers more than 25 undergraduate degree programs and 30 certificates entirely online. Nearly all of UMUC's graduate degree programs are offered online or in a hybrid format combining online and on-site classes. When factoring in graduate and undergraduate students and its programs in Europe and Asia, UMUC enrolls approximately 90,000 students worldwide. In any given semester, about 85 percent of those enrolled in a UMUC program are studying online.
In addition to its administrative headquarters in Adelphi, Maryland, UMUC rents space on the University of Maryland's College Park campus and conducts classes at various military bases and higher education centers in the state. "We essentially go wherever students are," says Cini. The university recently purchased a facility in Largo, Maryland, which serves as UMUC's academic center, housing enrollment management services and course development and faculty training, along with some limited classroom space.
Work Backward From Priorities
While the majority of institutions offering online programming partner with one or more learning management system providers, UMUC developed its own system, called WebTycho, in the late 1990s. This has allowed the university to control the direction of its learning platform and to better respond to student migration toward the use of mobile devices and new technologies and applications like Facebook and Twitter that enable instantaneous information sharing and content creation, says Cini. "Foremost, institution leaders must be clear about the kind of experience they want their students to have."
UMUC leaders first codify what they believe leads to good online and blended education—things like asynchronous collaboration and prompt faculty feedback—and then turn to the university's learning management system to work backward, developing the tools and applications to facilitate those priorities, explains Cini.
Leaders must also focus on core mission, notes Cini. For UMUC, that includes understanding its place within the state university system. "As other University of Maryland institutions have launched online degree programs, we have been careful to work together to fulfill the needs of online and adult learners without duplicating efforts," says Cini. At the same time, UMUC has been proactive in launching some unique programming its leaders believe will fulfill emerging educational needs. The university recently launched undergraduate and graduate degrees in cybersecurity and is gearing up to develop new programs in the field of health services management for adult and aging populations, says Cini.
A growing concern for many online educators is how to provide quality education that is scalable to demand. "If you run one section, can you run 50? The inherent danger is that you become a cookie-cutter educator," says Cini. "Our driving focus is to scale our programming in such a way that we still give each student as individualized of an educational experience as possible."
One way in which UMUC aims to personalize the online learning experience is through customization based on students' skill levels. "We're looking at software that will allow us to perform learning assessments, so we can better gauge where students fit across a variety of skills in math, writing, and literacy," explains Cini. This would allow students to focus on what they need to learn, skipping topics or levels they've already mastered. Such testing might also pinpoint an ideal sequence of courses or the kind of cooperative internship experience that may be most beneficial for a particular student, notes Cini.
While good data are available about the demographics of online learners, UMUC is exploring the characteristics and behaviors that make online students successful. For instance, knowing how long students spend on particular topics and which sections of a course they visit most often can be useful for building predictive models about why some students are more successful, explains Cini. "Knowing that will allow us to provide better instruction, counsel students on the kinds of behaviors and habits that are most likely to lead to academic success, and put faculty interventions in place to help students who might be struggling," says Cini. "Online education is ideal for this because you can track outcomes on an individual basis."
Currently UMUC is engaged in a pilot partnership with Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative, headquartered in Pittsburgh, to use specially designed courses to enhance student learning. The university is likewise collaborating with two Maryland community colleges to determine the conditions that contribute to student success and to replicate those conditions across the transfer process and within the university's learning management platform, says Cini. UMUC currently has articulation agreements with 25 community colleges around the country. With these efforts and other research under way to identify what makes for online success, Cini predicts that real transformation will occur with the next generation of learning management systems, which will have platforms that pinpoint where individual students need help and that allow instructors to respond with specific tools and activities to facilitate learning.
On the Fast Track
Marylhurst University, located south of Portland, Oregon, is one of the state's oldest private liberal arts institutions, founded in 1893. While the university has offered online programs since 1997, enrollments really began to grow when Marylhurst launched its accelerated online programs in fall 2006. These include two undergraduate programs in business management and real estate studies, an MBA with six concentration options, and as of 2009, an MBA in Sustainable Business, with concentrations in renewable energy, green development, government policy and administration, and natural and organic resources.
Of Marylhurst's approximately 2,000 students, roughly 750 are enrolled in fully online programs, though many others also take online classes periodically in conjunction with on-campus instruction. As of summer 2010, 504 students had graduated with a Marylhurst online degree, notes Mary Bradbury Jones, the university's Accelerated Online Programs director. Her team includes a program adviser, a faculty development staff member who recruits and trains online faculty, and several curriculum specialists who work with the department chairs of each online program to develop new courses and enhance existing ones.
While some Marylhurst faculty teach online full-time, others have dual roles teaching online and in traditional classroom settings. Online program courses are also taught by a growing cadre of adjunct faculty from across the nation, all of whom must undergo a rigorous orientation and training program (see sidebar,"Ensuring Faculty Excellence").
Bradbury Jones was hired in 2006 in conjunction with the university's decision to partner with Embanet-Compass Knowledge Group. She oversees the partnership, bringing together Marylhurst faculty and staff with team members from the online learning services provider. The university relies on the company's staff to market Marylhurst's accelerated online programs, generate leads, and coordinate and respond to initial admissions inquiries. Once Marylhurst reviews applications and admits candidates, the company also assists the institution with retention services, maintaining contact with students to ensure they stay on track with course registrations.
From a student standpoint, the relationship is seamless, notes Bradbury Jones. "Internally, we simply don't have the staffing infrastructure to do all these steps effectively, so our focus is on curriculum development, faculty recruitment, instruction, faculty engagement, and student support."
While Marylhurst and Embanet-Compass Knowledge Group have a tuition-sharing arrangement, the emphasis of the partnership is on retention, not enrollment, notes Bradbury Jones. The university monitors the retention rates of its online programs at three junctures: completion of a student's first term, retention from the first to second term (new student re-enrollment), and from the second term on to degree completion (i.e., returning student to re-enrollment). "We find that once a student makes it to a third term of one of our accelerated programs, he or she is more likely to have developed a routine of study to remain motivated to continue," says Bradbury Jones.
Retention benchmarks vary depending on the program. For instance, during the past two years, retention in the university's online real estate program has bounced around, likely a reflection of the real estate industry itself and some of the continued uncertainty about the residential and commercial markets, says Bradbury Jones. Even so, program retention rates have held steady at about 85 percent, compared to approximately 90 percent for Marylhurst's undergraduate business management program and 95 percent for the university's MBA program. While the green MBA program has been monitored for only four terms, retention has likewise proven successful, at about 90 percent, says Bradbury Jones.
One aspect of Marylhurst's overall strategy to keep students engaged is to move them through their courses in cohort fashion, providing opportunities to develop online relationships among the same group of individuals.
One aspect of Marylhurst's overall strategy to keep students engaged is to move them through their courses in cohort fashion, providing opportunities to develop online relationships among the same group of individuals. Another success factor is the keen awareness of university leaders regarding marketplace demand. Adult learners, most of whom are working professionals, want to get in and get finished in a doable time frame, says Bradbury Jones. Marylhurst's accelerated programs allow students to complete degrees within 18 to 24 months. In contrast to campus-based programming, which operates under a 10-week class schedule, online courses last for 5 weeks. By allowing students to concentrate on one class at a time in an intensive manner, students remain motivated, argues Bradbury Jones. "Every five weeks they are advancing another mile marker toward degree completion, and that helps them feel like they can stay on track."
When Marylhurst launched its accelerated programming, university leaders assumed the undergraduate programs would do well and the MBA programs might get off to a slower start. The opposite has been true, says Bradbury Jones. The university's online MBA program has graduated 376 students since 2006, far surpassing expectations. Bradbury Jones attributes this success to three key factors: (1) where the program is priced compared to competitors, (2) the fact that students can complete the degree in less than two years, and (3) Marylhurst's reputation for offering a high-quality curriculum that emphasizes ethical leadership. "We don't shy away from our focus on service and social justice, which is something you won't find as a cornerstone of most other MBA programs," says Bradbury Jones.
Niche Within a Niche
Values-centered education with a service learning component as part of its curriculum likewise is a draw for students enrolled in Regis University's Rueckert-Hartman College for Health Professions (RHCHP), according to Thomas McCrory, assistant director of admissions. In addition to its campus-based programs, Regis University, founded in 1877, offers online programming at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate levels. Today more than 15,000 students are enrolled through the Denver-based institution, which comprises three colleges: Regis College, providing a traditional undergraduate liberal arts curriculum; the College for Professional Studies, serving adult working professionals; and RHCHP, offering programs in nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, and health services administration.
Regis University began developing distance education programs more than 20 years ago to help its target audience—working professionals—find a way to return to school. Today, RHCHP's approximately 2,800 students take classes on-site, online, or in some Web-enhanced format. In recent years, the online options have become so popular that RHCHP now enrolls more online learners than campus-based students, notes McCrory.
The college's first foray into a fully online degree was its Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program. It next developed an online option for its RN (registered nurse) to BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) degree. "We had so much interest in both programs and such strong interest expressed for combining the two that we developed our RN to MSN program for individuals wanting to finish their bachelor's and transition right into earning their master's," says McCrory. The college launched the dual degree program, now its most popular, in spring 2006. Allowing individuals to apply once for both degrees also streamlines some of the coursework required, notes McCrory. By offering online options, the college can educate many more students than would be possible if coursework were limited to campus-based programming, notes McCrory. That doesn't mean the college hasn't faced other constraints.
RHCHP maintains a small staff with only a limited marketing budget to recruit students. Since 2003, the college has partnered with The College Network (TCN), an independent educational services company that works with colleges and universities to help adult learners complete a range of degree programs and professional certificates. TCN's online modular-based courses allow individuals to earn college credit by passing equivalency exams for general education and elective courses that can then be transferred to a partnering institution toward degree completion. Depending on an institution's requirements, students can earn up to 91 credit hours by completing these modules at their own pace.
The company's program advisers actively recruit potential customers from across the country and then funnel these prospective candidates to RHCHP to consider the educational options offered at Regis University. About 50 percent of the college's online learners are the result of leads generated by its outsourcing partner, notes McCrory. "Our partnership with TCN allows us an affordable nationwide reach. And the beauty of this relationship is that it doesn't cost us a dime. This is not a shared-revenue arrangement, and no funding is exchanged in either direction."
According to McCrory, the best way to describe the college's partnership with the firm may be that they have students and customers in common. While RHCHP benefits from solid prospect leads without associated marketing and recruitment costs, the company is able to market its products and services based on the reputation of top-notch institutions like Regis University. This symbiotic relationship likewise benefits students on a variety of levels, including lower costs, convenience, and flexibility over how, and how quickly, students can complete degrees.
RHCHP has a rolling admission, enrolling approximately 180 to 200 new students each January, May, and August. In a normal progression, most students typically take one course each eight-week term. However, students can work through RHCHP program requirements concurrent with their completion of TCN modules or other accredited coursework. "We want to help more individuals earn their degrees, and we don't see a reason to make them jump through hoops to do so," says McCrory.
That makes perfect sense to Becky Takeda-Tinker, president of Colorado State University–Global Campus, where the average student transfers in with 55 credit hours in hand. The CSU System has three campuses, each with a distinct mission.
CSU in Fort Collins, founded in 1870 as the state's land-grant institution, has a student population of more than 26,000. CSU–Pueblo serves as a designated Hispanic Serving Institution, with a student body of more than 5,000. In 2007, the CSU System Board of Governors identified the need to expand adult learner outreach throughout the state and provided start-up funds to create a third campus. CSU–Global Campus opened to students in fall 2008 as the first statutorily independent, fully online university in the nation. It currently provides bachelor's degree-completion and master's degree opportunities to more than 3,000 adults in Colorado and beyond. As of December 2010, the university had graduated 188 students.
Colorado State University–Global Campus opened to students in fall 2008 as the first statutorily independent, fully online university in the nation.
While recognized by the state as part of the CSU System, CSU–Global Campus receives no state funding. The institution has been cash-flow positive since June 2010 and expects to begin paying back its $12 million loan to the CSU System this calendar year. Like the proprietary institutions with which it was established to compete, CSU–Global Campus is focused on market demand with a careful balance between expenses and high-quality education, notes Takeda-Tinker. "Because we don't receive state funding, we have to remain competitive, but we're still a bargain by any measure."
Because the university must operate strictly from its own cash reserves, expense control is a key factor in administrative decision making, says Takeda-Tinker. The CSU–Global Campus offices are located in Greenwood Village, where the university leases space in a corporate business park in the Denver Tech Center area. The site was selected as a distinctly non-campus-based location, physically separate from CSU System offices and from the Fort Collins campus to its north and the Pueblo campus to its south, explains Takeda-Tinker. The location also provides employees with free parking in an area easily accessible to major traffic corridors, and ample additional space is available if needed for expansion, she adds. Currently 45 employees oversee administrative functions, including enrollment management, financial aid, and student financial services at the site.
CSU–Global Campus classes start every eight weeks year-round, with a streamlined enrollment process that enables the university to admit students within days and allows students to begin coursework at the next available two-month term. Recognizing that students have no time to waste, the university has instituted a framework for student response that fits the needs of busy adults trying to complete courses in an accelerated time period, says Takeda-Tinker. These benchmarks include instructor response to student inquiries within 24 hours, a 72-hour turnaround on grading, 24/7 tutoring services, and small class sizes (average of 17 per class). This commitment to student responsiveness is paying off with 90 percent semester-to-semester retention and 85 percent term-to-term (three terms per semester) retention rates.
Among the student-friendly policies in place for CSU–Global Campus students is a guarantee not to raise tuition once a student begins a program, as long as no major enrollment lapse occurs and the student is making progress toward degree completion. "This promise to our students allows them to plan ahead financially and gives them some budgeting certainty as they determine how many courses they should take at a time," says Takeda-Tinker.
The university currently employs approximately 156 adjunct faculty. That number will likely soon rise. In reviewing the university's year-to-year data, Takeda-Tinker anticipates enrollment growth of about 70 percent in 2011. While that may sound ambitious to some, within Colorado alone, the prospect pool of individuals who started college but never finished exceeds 600,000, notes Takeda-Tinker. Such rapid growth requires continuous training and orientation of adjunct instructors to the institution's culture of quality. Lead faculty members perform the bulk of mentoring and oversight of new faculty recruits.
"Our faculty are absolutely critical to what we do, and we integrate them into every step of the process, compensating them to contribute time and expertise beyond teaching," says Takeda-Tinker. Additional responsibilities include working one-on-one with students who are having academic difficulties, serving on committees to review policies and assess academic success, and even reviewing student resumes and providing career counseling. More than 80 percent of CSU–Global Campus faculty members have terminal degrees.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
Takeda-Tinker is convinced that a big factor behind the success of the CSU–Global Campus is its independence as an institution. "I have witnessed other university approaches that have tried to grow online programming from within a traditional campus infrastructure only to fail because of a clash of cultures-particularly between faculty who teach online versus those who still aren't convinced of the quality of online learning."
Another key success factor is the nature of the university's academic programming, says Takeda-Tinker. "Because of the audience we serve, our educational focus has to reflect actual job market demands." As the institution considers its market-based mission, leaders are likewise exploring untapped pools of prospective students. In addition to reaching out to community college students, the university is reviewing how to better serve adult learners who have a trade school background or professional licensure, but no formal college credit to show for it. This will entail determining how to assess individuals to convert their training to credit in recognition of the skills they've mastered, notes Takeda-Tinker.
One of her additional concerns is that many traditional colleges and universities are too focused on competition from peer institutions and U.S.-based proprietary institutions and not focused enough on rising online foreign competition. "Younger students in particular, who are accustomed to a global marketplace and who seek customization of the products and services they purchase, may be more likely to begin looking outside the United States for educational opportunities if those entities prove they can provide quality education more cost-effectively," warns Takeda-Tinker. "I believe there is a real need for what a U.S.-based institution like CSU–Global Campus can do to enhance American competitiveness."
At the very least, within the context of dwindling state resources and an ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots, higher education must come up with some viable alternatives, she argues. "We have to change. We have to make education more accessible so that individuals can achieve the education and training they need to fulfill their goals in as cost-effective manner as possible."
Cini concurs. "I understand that many institutions want to maintain their stamp of approval on the education of students, but most adult learners are looking for institutions that will work with them and that will honor their prior learning." While it can be easy to focus on what may be millions of potential students overseas, there remain millions of U.S. citizens who haven't completed, or even started, postsecondary degrees, reminds Cini. "Increasingly, the jobs in this country are going to require some level of education beyond high school. As educators we have to do a better job of helping more American workers get the training they need, regardless of whether that happens online, on-site, or somewhere in between."
KARLA HIGNITE, Universal City, Texas, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.