Online Learning: Rapid Change, Facebook, Amazon, and Prestige

Questions on the digital student experience

February 12, 2019

This post is in response to a series of questions from a comment on last month's ponderings on “Online Degrees: Prestige, Acceptance, and the Big Picture.”

‘Katherine M,’ a self-disclosed employee of a university that ‘operates solely online’ asked several important follow-up questions. If you're reading this Katherine, this post is for you:

What do you think about the effects of rapidly changing technology on universities?

I think that the pace of change within higher education can sometimes be at odds with the rapidity of technological innovation. Universities struggle with organizational silos, funding challenges, and an ever-changing landscape of solutions providers. CIOs/CTOs at universities have myriad responsibilities and it is difficult to always get things right in terms of matching up the latest/‘best’ technologies with user requirements, budget restrictions, and implementation timelines.

That said, today's technologies represent awesome potential for institutions. All of the buzzwords that we use, like blockchain, AI, chatbots, machine learning, virtual/augmented reality, etc. might feel overused, but present-day use cases show a wide array of fantastic benefits. The caveat to all of this is that it's important to note that the use of innovative technology just for the sake of using technology is not necessarily a positive value add for universities. It always comes back to need, utility, and benefit.

What does offering a "high quality experience for learners" mean?

That's a great question. I think that conversations on the quality of online learning experiences have also revealed lackluster teaching/learning experiences in classroom environments. In other words, the focus on experience within online learning has had the effect of causing deeper scrutiny into all learning environments at institutions. Simply placing course documents into an LMS does not a great course make...either online or in a brick-and-mortar learning space. That level of interrogation means that a high quality online experience focuses on learning outcomes, ease of access, interactivity, mobile functionality, and options for reflection with peers.

Some leaders at my institution expressed frustration recently that our students weren't going to compare their experiences navigating their online classroom or our student portal to brick and mortar university websites, but instead to Amazon or Facebook. As online degrees continue to become more widespread, how much do you think slick web design and ease of navigation will be a factor as compared to the actual degree the student earns? Will that become part of the prestige factor for online universities?

It is absolutely significant to say that students are going to compare their online learning experience against other web or app-based experiences that they encounter. It doesn't matter that this comparison might be with Facebook, Amazon, YouTube, or Google. What matters is that course designers, web designers, information technology architects, and others involved in the online learning sphere realize that in 2019, it is completely unacceptable for online-only courses to be PDF repositories.

So-called ‘slick’ web design is an absolute necessity for universities from the homepage to the second tier and beyond. If students can't easily navigate a university's website, how good can their online learning environment be? It all has to be joined up. Prestige in higher education is an interesting quality. For universities with online-only programs that don't already have the somewhat intangible ‘prestige factor’ their websites cannot afford to be clunky or outdated. Today's student is constantly comparing your university's website or learning environment functionality against countless other digital experiences and if that experience doesn't match up, they might just move on.

What questions do you have about online learning? What would you add to these answers?


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