Adult Learner Demand

Doubling Down on Wholly Online? Consider the Risks

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Within an overall higher education market in the midst of enrollment decline, online higher education is growing—with room to spare. Distance education programs in the U.S. now comprise 14% of total student enrollment, and in 2016 76% of domestic, degree granting higher education institutions reported at least one distance education enrollment. Furthermore, The Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) 2018: A Deeper Dive, an annual survey of chief online officers conducted by Eduventures and Quality Matters, found that most existing online education providers intend to grow their portfolio of online programs; with the largest providers indicating the most ambitious plans for growth. This environment makes the decisions that institutions must confront in order to deliver successful online courses and programs—by whichever metrics they have established to define success— increasingly complicated and important to get right. One critical decision is modality where the current trend, it seems, is to double down on wholly online learning. In CHLOE 2, a large majority of survey respondents noted that their institutions are prioritizing the development of wholly online courses and programs over blended. Blended, in this case, is defined as courses or programs with some online component. Which of the following best describes how your instituion prioritizes fully online courses vs. blended courses? Eduventures’ research on prospective adult learners, however, indicates that the push to go wholly online does not measure up to the majority of prospective students’ preferences for learning modality. Our 2017 Adult Prospect Survey suggests that while respondents across all degree levels are increasingly optimistic about online learning in some form, only 20% want to participate in all of their courses online. If you were to enroll in a collegeor university, how would youprefer to participate? This gap—between the number of institutions prioritizing wholly-online programs and the number of students who prefer it—appears likely to increase, and it presents an opportunity for institutions looking to launch new online courses and programs or make changes to existing ones. Blended learning offers a number of benefits sought by students, including a broader mix of learning activities, the ability to make connections with other students locally, and access to campus services. The spectrum between wholly online to entirely face-to-face is wide. By taking any number of actions, colleges and universities can satisfy unmet adult student demand and differentiate themselves by incorporating face-to-face interaction in their otherwise wholly online courses or programs. The shift to blended courses would most likely be a weighty undertaking for any institution, possibly requiring fundamental changes to teaching and learning strategies, buy-in from multiple stakeholders, and expertise either developed in-house or outsourced. Developing blended programs, however, may satisfy student demand for face-to-face engagement without such large changes in how online programs are taught and administered. Some successful, predominantly online programs have developed blended elements by implementing in-person courses, course sessions, or events such as an orientation. These elements may be held on the host campus, but they may also be offered in a different city, perhaps where there is a heavier concentration of students in a specific program or where a university or an online program manager (OPM) has a research center, satellite campus, or corporate partnership. Any part of a program that is face-to-face, be it mandatory or optional for program completion, can be scheduled well in advance of the program start date in order to avoid compromising on the most well-known criteria online learners seek when selecting a program: flexibility.

The Bottom Line

With many options for students to choose from, one thing is clear: the days of face-to-face learning are far from behind us. At least not all of us, at least not yet. Many adult learners, whose previous educational experiences may have occurred when online learning was not yet possible or in its most nascent stages, still associate a “college” experience with a brick-and-mortar institution. As a result, institutions with online ambitions can benefit from remembering the residential roots of the university as they chart their courses (or programs) into the online learning frontier.  
Eduventures will continue to review the ever-changing world of online education from both the student and the institutional perspectives through our annual surveys, analysis of enrollment trends, and evaluation of education technology.
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