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A female student sits on her bed wearing headphones taking notes during an online class.

As online learning gains popularity across the country, a new McKinsey & Company survey finds institutions should consider optimizing course design to best suit learners.

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Online learning continues to grow in popularity among college students, but some programs lack the engagement opportunities learners are looking for.

A June survey from McKinsey & Company found that, globally, two-thirds (65 percent) of students want part of their learning experience to take place online. Recorded class sessions and online study materials are particularly desired.

However, researchers found the primary reasons students did not enroll in online courses was because of engagement challenges. Many students say online programs are not motivating and they have been easily bored or more easily distracted. In addition, online programs do not provide adequate access to professors or opportunities to interact with their peers, students believe.

To make online programs more engaging to students, higher education should modify or develop courses to better serve students’ needs, according to the report.

The report found that in the U.S., students value asynchronous classes, online program structure and up-to-date content the most in their online courses. High-tech or expensive features like virtual reality, simulations or sophisticated visual content, on the other hand, are not ranked highly by respondents. Peer-to-peer learning, networking, academic success and nonacademic support also rank poorly among U.S. learners.

For institutions modifying online programs for learners, McKinsey researchers offered three suggestions to boost student satisfaction and engagement.

  1. Use data and benchmarking.

In developing an online program, higher education officials should prioritize student perspective and opinions. Institutional leaders should identify what types of students are more likely to enroll in online programs and solicit feedback about what works well or is challenging for those learners in current online offerings.

Internal collaboration can ensure the online program is hitting the important metrics like retention, completion and employment postgraduation.

  1. Think critically about changing features.

Because students did not indicate high levels of interest in expensive or differentiating elements, administrators should strategically evaluate which aspects of their program deserve enhancement. Researchers suggested higher education leaders consider alternatives and weigh the complexity and costs of changes against potential benefits and the value proposition of differentiating elements.

  1. Start with quick wins.

Colleges and universities should develop an action plan when making changes to online programs, starting with high-impact practices that are quick to implement without much investment and scaling up gradually over time. To do so, institutional leaders must weigh which processes can take place in-house versus which should be outsourced.

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