“Inside Digital Learning” interviewed administrators at systems across the United States for a wide look at how the landscape is shifting.
The below examples and case studies offer a picture of where online education -- and higher education more generally -- is heading in the next half decade.
Missouri: Pondering Next steps
The University of Missouri System last year signaled plans to increase its total enrollment from 75,000 to 100,000 by 2023. Administrators pointed to online education as a key driver of future growth.
Setting a goal like that is easy. Figuring out how to achieve it is much more challenging.
The Missouri system benefits from having strong online programs already in motion at each of its four campuses. The institution has set its sights primarily on serving students in Missouri rather than seeking a national audience, as the University of Massachusetts system recently announced plans to do.
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“We’re really focused on high quality, affordability and access to Missouri adult learners who want to advance their careers through further training,” said Mun Y. Choi, president of the University of Missouri system.
In other ways, the Missouri system’s approach could look similar to Massachusetts’. Administrators in Missouri are pondering the creation of a separate entity within the system that would offer online programs to adult learners. Over the next six months, system leaders will gauge whether a new institution could successfully capture the reputation and brand recognition that the system’s existing campuses already bear.
More than 750,000 Missouri adults have some college but no degree, according to Choi. A small fraction of those students deciding to enroll online would help the system reach its five-year goal, Choi said.
Roughly 7,500 students currently enroll exclusively in online courses at one of the institution’s four campuses.
While the system isn’t eyeing a national scope for its new online programs, it does plan to consult local employers and develop programs geared toward industries with high demand for skilled workers.
Creating a separate online institution might eventually prove the best path to achieving those goals, according to Choi, but it could raise challenges as well. “Will that separate entity have a reputation that’s already been developed at programs that currently exist?” Choi said. Administrators have ruled out purchasing or merging with an existing online apparatus, as Purdue University did with the for-profit Kaplan University to enrollment-expanding but controversial effect.
The university system has already turned to outside partners for help ramping up towards these goals, though.
Ranku, part of Wiley Education Services, is helping the system create a centralized portal for online programs at all of its campuses. System administrators are also contemplating a partnership with an online program management provider, particularly for support with coaching students. The high cost to an institution’s bottom line that such a partnership entails has been the key sticking point so far, Choi said.
“Eventually we do want to do that in house,” Choi said. “But there are lessons that we need to learn.”
Faculty members within the system are cautiously optimistic about the future of the institution while, in many cases, remaining skeptical about the effect online growth will have on their work, according to Clark Peters, professor of social work and chair of the faculty council at the University of Missouri at Columbia.
“There are some people who do that right or are markedly comfortable in that environment, and then there are others who are very uncomfortable,” Peters said.
The system hopes current faculty members will lead development of new online programs, Choi said.
Louisiana: Catching Up While Honoring Roots
Senior administrators and board members at Louisiana State University began looking at online education in the early 2010s. The institution contracted for several years with an online program management provider on 10 disparate graduate programs, but it lacked a cohesive strategy.
For help they turned to an established player in the field.
From 2016 to 2018, Sasha Thackaberry served as assistant vice president of academic technology, course production and alternative learning models at Southern New Hampshire University. Louisiana State hired her in February 2018 to lead its online growth; three months later, she was promoted from associate vice provost to vice provost of digital and continuing education. Her first order of business was to evaluate the system’s capacity for online growth and the state’s learner market. She identified an increasing demand from in-state adults for online undergraduate programs, as well as a desire among potential students for comprehensive “concierge” advising and counseling support throughout their academic careers.
“Our goal is not to meet the market. It’s too late to meet today’s market,” Thackaberry said. “Our goal is to build for two, five and 10 years from now.”
Thackaberry said the institution is unlikely to contract with an OPM in the future, in an effort to respond more nimbly to the institution's needs.
Instead she has hired key players with experience in scaling online programs, including Chief Marketing Officer Charlotte Bencaz, a former partnership director at the publishing company Pearson, and Director of Product Strategy Melanie Thompson, who spent six years growing online programs at Cuyahoga Community College, in Ohio.
Thackaberry is drawing on her experience from SNHU of developing programs at scale, but the institution’s academic offerings will be more akin to what Cuyahoga has been offering in recent years, she said. The mission of a publicly funded research institution should extend to its online programs, Thackaberry said.
“We’re really supporting our same faculty,” Thackaberry said. “This isn’t a model where we’re relying on a pool of adjuncts.”
New York: Advancing Existing Infrastructure
When Kristina Johnson became chancellor of the State University of New York system in 2017, she challenged administrators to consider a wide range of possibilities for growing online capabilities. According to Tod Laursen, SUNY's senior vice chancellor and provost, the system has just wrapped up an information-gathering process that will inform a soon-to-be-released request for proposals. Johnson has slated for this fall a major online learning initiative, the details of which are still being ironed out.
"We thought it was healthy as a system to have a bit of a refresh," Laursen said.
The system isn't new to online programs -- its Open SUNY online hub has collected online offerings at the system's campuses since 2014. Given those existing capabilities, administrators are fairly certain that "a full-blown OPM type of approach isn’t the right one for us," Laursen said, though contracts with OPM companies on marketing or student support haven't entirely been ruled out.
Similarly, creating a separate online institution strikes administrators as potentially less appealing than tapping one or two existing SUNY campuses as online leaders, Laursen said.
"We have quite a bit of distributed capability across the system," Laursen said. "If we were to look at our best bets for programs to scale in this little piloting exercise, they’re not all in one institution."
Still, Laursen said, plans are in motion for a significant marketing push around the system's existing online programs -- many of which could potentially have a market outside New York, if only students nationwide were aware of them. Laursen believes strong online programs boost the overall reputation of the system as well as individual campuses.
Like other systems highlighted in this article, New York has watched tens of thousands of its state residents enroll online at institutions outside the state, while many of its online enrollments come from face-to-face students supplementing their schedules.
"Obviously we would like to reel some of those back," he said. "We think we have something in many cases better to offer."
Colorado: Dual Missions at Home and Beyond
Colorado State University Online serves as an online program manager for the state system -- distinct from Colorado State University Global, which has a separate faculty and governance structure, and tends to serve adults at an average age in their 30s. CSU Online, by contrast, tends to serve “less seasoned” students between 24 and 34 years old, according to Amy Smith, senior director of CSU Online.
Smith joined the system last summer after two years as dean of the School of Education at Capella University, one of the highest-enrollment for-profit online institutions.
The institution recruited her with three objectives: grow the system’s suite of nondegree offerings (and double enrollment in the process); identify new learning markets that don’t yet exist because technology hasn’t caught up to them; and infuse forward-thinking technology solutions into teaching and learning across the system.
In striving for those goals, Smith has seen firsthand the differences between constraints in for-profit and public environments. She’s found a surprisingly robust innovative spirit among researchers at the institution, owing perhaps to a thirst for new knowledge and approaches.
On the other hand, decisions move much more slowly at Colorado State than they did at Capella. The publish-or-perish mentality, according to Smith, sometimes prevents instructors from getting excited about teaching differently or about embracing industry collaborations.
“We think about a decade previously,” Smith said. “I’m saying, ‘Guys, we had to start this 10 years ago.’”
She now finds herself weighing the core of her institution’s land-grant mission to serve its local population with a desire to offer education to anyone in the country who might benefit from it. A little more than half of the system’s online students -- apart from Global -- come from outside Colorado, with strong concentrations in Texas, California, Tennessee and the central Midwest, Smith said. She’s hoping to rethink ground-based programs, like a program in global information systems, for possible applications for students in other parts of the country.
“In terms of the speed and prioritization, I’m actually able right now to do both,” Smith said.