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Plotting the Future of Your Online Program

Ray Schroeder offers tips on creating an online vision framework for your unit and university.

May 15, 2019
 

We are in the midst of a major shake-up in higher education. Dozens of colleges have closed in the past couple of years (hundreds if you include failed for-profit chains). The closure parade is growing so fast that Education Dive is maintaining a running list of closures. Meantime, mega-universities have emerged with large online initiatives that have impacted the entire field.

Sub-$20,000 and even sub-$10,000 online master's degrees at scale exist, led by the 10,000-student “largest in the world” online master's of science in computer science degree at Georgia Tech. UMUC, SNHU, ASU, WGU and others are leading the scaling of online programs. That is not to mention the expansive master’s programs launched by edX and Coursera, with the UPenn baccalaureate to be launched this fall. These programs continue to expand, collectively adding 100,000 or more students each year. SNHU has just announced plans for hiring 350 staffers for a new center in Tucson, Ariz., to provide student support for expansions in the western part of the country. Of course, these students who enroll in the rapidly growing mega-programs de facto will not enroll in traditional-scale online programs, leaving a diminishing pool of prospects for traditional online programs.

Competition in higher education is not the only challenge facing traditional online learning programs. Large employers have increasingly dropped the baccalaureate requirement for applicants to many of their position openings. The advent of coding camps and similar specialized skill-building opportunities that are substituted for traditional credentials put further pressure on our online programs.

As more employers and prospective students question the investment in higher education, overall college enrollments have declined in each of the past half dozen years. And a further decline of 15 percent is predicted over the next half dozen years.

These factors have combined to prompt columnist Jeff Selingo to suggest that the future of college looks like the future of retail. Facing these market factors, colleges have brought online learning and professional, continuing education into the center of university operations to stabilize and grow institutional enrollments. Entire industries are needing upgrading and retooling for their employees. Many are doing this in-house, but microcredentialing and certifications can enable universities to provide validated learning opportunities to meet the needs of the 60-year learner.

In this changing environment of rapidly expanding competition and institutional expectations, how do deans and directors responsible for online learning create a viable vision for growth in the next several years? It is not enough to simply project online growth rates of the past -- we must account for the expanding competition in a dynamic marketplace.

Here are five things you can do to begin to build a framework for the future.

  • First, identify your strengths in terms of reputation, resources (including subject area experts) and appeal to prospective students. These are your foundation for the future. Over time you may seek to branch out into new areas, but it makes sense to capitalize on your strengths in the near term.
  • Second, carefully and thoroughly examine the marketplace. What other institutions are serving the areas of your strength; how are they marketing their programs; how do your degree costs compare to theirs; are there geographic, specific corporate employers or other niches where your institution has an advantage?
  • Third, build a team of innovative corporate, agency and institutional advisers who can best report on near-term and long-term demands for expertise among new hires and employees. Tap that team to identify niches in which you might succeed in attracting and placing students.
  • Fourth, build a focus group of prospective, recently admitted and new students to gather the priorities and considerations they apply in making selection of a university. Identify methods and modes, topics and fields that will resonate with new prospects.
  • Fifth, and ongoing, assemble data from the Department of Labor and any other sources on career growth and industry needs in areas you are considering based on the prior four actions. Merge these data with your own internal data that characterize successful students. Create a dashboard of info in these areas that can quickly and easily be updated to track changes.

These steps will help you to create a framework for the future of your online program initiatives. Drawing on your strengths, building programs that experts expect to be in high demand, targeting to locations and industry markets where your reputation is strong, and marketing in ways that have proven to appeal to your students are key components of the framework. It is a framework that you will need to revisit each and every year. Competition is changing rapidly; just five years ago the marketplace looked very different. Employer needs are also changing rapidly; AI technology is altering their needs every year, and the potential of quantum computing assists in the coming five to 10 years will create a surge in AI deep learning that will trigger a massive turnover of jobs.

The future is change, and the mode is mobile. It belongs to the agile who follow a sound planning framework.

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