The Growth of Online Education Provides Opportunities:

The Changing Face of Higher Ed Part 9

Table of Contents

The Growth of Online Education

The growth of online education has greatly accelerated. Technology continues to make its mark on college campuses across the nation.  With the rapid changes in what’s available in devices and software, leaders of higher education institutions and faculty are being forced to think creatively about how to utilize and even embrace online education. Technology now offers a myriad of facets and offerings in a place where huge mainframes once were the gold standard and Apple Macintosh Plus computers were the norm.

Today’s world is one in which students are digital natives who take technology for granted and non-traditional students need high-quality education delivered at a distance. Therefore, college professors and administration – many of whom are not technologically savvy – must consider the instructional potential of handheld devices, the opportunities to bring rich technological advances into a class, and the implications for software that individualizes instruction.

Online Education is Continuing Its Expansion

Much to the chagrin of many faculty, online education isn’t going away – in fact, it is the only area of higher ed in which enrollment is growing.  In its 2017 report, the Babson Survey Research Group looked at online education in the United States and reported the following:

  • Seventy-one percent of the 4,717 U.S. degree-granting institutions offer some form of online education.
  • Enrollment in online education has increased for the 14th straight year.
  • The most recent year-to-year growth of 5.6 percent exceeds the growth experienced during the past three years.
  • Almost one-third of all students enroll in at least one distance education course.
  • Slightly more distance students take both distance and non-distance courses (3.3 million) as compared to those who take online courses exclusively (3 million).
  • The largest percentage of distance education students (67.8 percent) attend public institutions.
  • Five percent of higher education institutions have approximately half of all distance education students.
  • Almost 53 percent of all students who enrolled in at least one online course also took a course on campus.
  • Approximately 56 percent of students who enrolled in only online courses lived in the same state as the institution that they attended.
  • Less than 1 percent of all distance students reside outside of the United States.


The top online universities in terms of enrollment (according to U.S. News & World Report) are the University of Phoenix, Kaplan, Strayer, Ashford, and Liberty, and the highest-ranking institutions, according to Best Colleges, are the University of Florida, University of Central Florida, Northeastern University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Liberty University, with honorable mentions going to Florida International, Arizona State, Excelsior, and Regis.

However, the university that garners the most attention for its online programs is Western Governor’s University and its competency-based education pedagogy.  WGU’s business and pedagogical models are leading the way in both college affordability and preparing its graduates for careers.

Students at WGU can take multiple courses during the term for the same price – as many as they want and can handle. This dovetails nicely with their CBE pedagogical model where students get credit for prior learning. It is no surprise that its growth since 2011 exceeds 280 percent while regular enrollment in higher ed has decreased by more than 1 million students during that same time period.

Tech Solutions for Online Education Challenges

Institutional leaders need to think creatively about online learning. The Tech Advocate suggests a number of trends that incorporate online learning, including:

  • Mobile learning – All online materials can be accessed on handheld devices. Educational apps will help facilitate instruction.
  • Project-based learning – A growing trend in online learning, this approach allows students to research, present and share their ideas to demonstrate real-world skills. This approach has been shown to be more effective in students retaining what they have learned.
  • Learned analytics and visualization software – These tools facilitate measurement that both the instructor and student can understand. This software can help identify potential misunderstandings as well as allow for clarification.
  • Blended learning – Students are able to complete most of their work outside of classroom time, thus allowing their time in the class to revolve around deep and meaningful discussions.
  • Adaptive learning technology – Software and online platforms are helping adapt teaching materials and strategies to individual learning needs and styles.

There are also tools that help with enrollment for online education.  EMMA by Perdia Education gives institutions of higher learning the ability to fully enroll a student using his/her phone.  With millennials being “famous” for not wanting to talk on their phones, this is a great way for universities to enroll students in the way that THEY want instead of pushing them into something they are not comfortable with (as most universities try to do when it comes to enrollment).

Building Programs Strategically

Online programs generally are created based on an opportunity that a school, unit, or department sees, such as Windward Community College’s Hawaiian Studies program.  However, this is not without its challenges, as Joshua Kim states: “The challenge of uncoordinated online programs is that opportunities for sharing resources and knowledge are often missed. There is a fine line between useful specialization and silos.” Kim noted that a strategic and inclusive approach to online learning can help, such as CBE education from Western Governor’s University. This requires understanding what is currently happening in a subject area and making a decision about whether to have a decentralized or centralized approach.

Some of the key tips for creating effective higher ed online programs were captured by a NASPA report, which interviewed leaders of effective online learning programs. Some of their recommendations included:

  1. Start small. In order to be able to focus on building and implementing quality online programs, it is better to start with a few courses and/or programs to make sure that your pedagogical model is solid, as is your LMS and technology.  There is nothing more frustrating to students (and faculty) than having a Learning Management System (LMS) not functioning efficiently or properly.
  2. Deal with the issues of one program before trying to scale up. See #1 above.
  3. Leverage prior online experience. Tap into the existing expertise of the individuals who have worked with online, distance, or continuing/professional education, especially those individuals who have worked in an innovative environment outside the institutional mainstream. They can offer some different ideas.


Online education should be an all-hands-on-deck function. Having multiple stakeholders involved in program development ensures their input is heard and potential issues/resistance is identified. Then use early adopters to launch initial programs and use these champions to influence peers.

Transitioning Faculty and Students to Online Education

Faculty have “rebelled” against online education, often using the argument that the quality is less in these programs. However, their resistance tends to be due to the following:

  • Faculty lose control of the presentation of the materials. The use of instructional designers is critical in developing pedagogically sound and esthetically pleasing courses that are “sticky,” i.e., that have students staying with / not getting frustrated and quitting the course (or the program).
  • More work is required in developing and teaching an online class than for a face-to-face lecture;
  • Faculty were not taught using online education so they question the need to change – why not do it the way that I was taught … it worked for me!

However, in a world where the number of traditional college-age students (18-24 years old) is decreasing while that of nontraditional students (24-70 years old) is increasing, online education is here to stay. The challenge then becomes, “How do we get faculty to change their mindset and their instructional pedagogy?”

This challenge also applies to students who, despite being digital natives, find that training on online platforms is critical for their success.  In an article by a group of faculty who work for the University of Phoenix, the authors suggest that online education can lead to issues for students and instructors as well as challenges in content development.

  • The learner had issues involving their expectations, readiness, identity, and participation in online courses.
  • Instructors also face pressing issues, which include the changing roles of faculty, making the transition to online instruction, time management, and teaching styles.
  • Content issues involve the role of instructors in content development, use of multimedia in content, the role of instructional strategies in content development as well as considerations for the development of this content.

To overcome these challenges, faculty leadership must create professional development opportunities to help instructors make the transition to online education, as well as ensure there are adequate training and tech support for students. In addition, technical support in the form of instructional designers is needed for content development. Components include:

  • Online basics. These include engagement with faculty about their needs, a supportive and responsive information technology team, an effective and well-supported campus technology network, effective server support, online student services (registration, billing, and payments), online bookstore services, and online library services.
  • Program and course development. These include online program policies, staff development, faculty incentives, a teamwork approach, faculty development, faculty mentoring, a course management system, lecture capture or course online delivery system, and online test security.
  • Program maintenance and improvement. One of the biggest challenges that online programs face is keeping them relevant, both from the content and technology perspectives. This area is often neglected and includes continuous evaluation of new online technology, updating when new technology brings value, assessing and updating course content, setting limits on the amount of faculty personal time that is used, surveys of faculty and students, and use of this data for programmatic improvements.

This last category becomes especially important given the rapid changing of technologies.

Rubrics, Assessment, and Analytics

One of the most important things to think about in online education is institutional research and assessment. In the world of data-driven decision-making in which we live, identifying a data collection system that can be used to assess performance is critical (as is getting faculty buy-in to assessment).

For example, one public university system currently uses its own home-grown LMS based on Sakai, requiring significant maintenance (and people) to keep it running.  However, those institutions that use vendor-supplied and maintained LMS solutions such as Canvas pay on a per-user basis, but do not have a significant investment in system maintenance.  Additionally, newer systems include the ability to measure and assess student learning outcomes.

The new LMS systems that are on the market right now (e.g., Canvas and Blackboard) have analytics built into their functionality, making it easier to assess student learning outcomes.  And institutions do not have to worry about upgrading their systems – the vendors do that (unless they make significant modifications to source code, something that we STRONGLY suggest NOT doing).

Wrapping It Up

Technology and demographics are driving the growth of online education, and this won’t change in the near future.  Thus far, there are many winners, especially those in the for-profit arena who appear to be “cornering the market” from a numbers perspective, but from a quality perspective, are not leading the way.  With so many solutions out there and with so many students who are in the nontraditional categories, those “traditional” institutions who have or are considering converting courses to the online milieu have and/or will thrive, e.g., the University of Pennsylvania.  For everyone else, the prognosis isn’t good.

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