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A student gets guidance from a professional during a virtual meeting.

Online learners still need supports, such as health and wellness services, academic help, advising, and career counseling.

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Online college education has surged over the past decade, with greater numbers of students engaging in online-only courses. However, not all courses incorporate best practices for student success, including academic relevancy, career readiness and a focus on belonging.

A January report from the Center for Higher Education Policy and Practice at Southern New Hampshire University, “Online by Design: How Learner-Centered Education Design and Delivery Accelerates Equitable Access and Outcomes,” identifies areas for improvement in online course design.

“As policymakers and practitioners strive to deliver on the promise of higher education as a driver of economic safety and social mobility, it’s critical that higher education responds to the evolving needs of learners and their ability to access and succeed in postsecondary education, regardless of modality,” the report says.

What’s the need: Stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the move to online learning, but students’ educational experiences varied widely, from emergency remote learning to intentionally designed online experiences, according to the report.

In the ensuing years, more students have enrolled in online-only or hybrid learning, with 29 percent of learners taking classes completely online in 2022. In turn, more institutions invested in online course offerings and support structures, including mental health resources, basic needs support, academic advising, etc.

With the rapid shift has come a need for intentional course design, according to the report.

Critical elements: Modality is just one piece of intentional design, and meeting learners’ needs is critical to their success. To best support online learning, colleges and universities should prioritize three key areas:

  1. Academic relevance and engagement. Online learners can be better supported through appropriate technological platforms and relevant and engaging learning experiences. The best courses have faculty buy-in and authorship, as well as support for the credentials and outcomes. Academic support resources should also be available to students who may need them, and student data should be leveraged to make improvements.
  2. Learner agency and awareness. An attractive factor in online education is the flexibility it gives the learner in when and where to learn, particularly for students with competing priorities. As such, higher ed leaders should prioritize multimodal formats. Seamless pathways to and within the institution and its programs (transfer, credit for prior learning, workforce partnerships) can also support students’ autonomy.
  3. Student experience. Once enrolled, online students—similar to those at residential campuses—need additional supports from the institution to be successful in their education, including broadband access, computers, student services, disability accommodations, health and wellness services, academic support, financial aid, advising, and career counseling. These services should be available outside traditional working hours, as students may not be taking classes on a 9-to-5 schedule, and staff should support a student-centered culture of care.

Neglected elements: The report highlights four challenges that hinder student success.

  1. Accessibility and universal design. Federal law requires institutions to provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities, but higher education practitioners should go above the legal baseline to prioritize accessibility. Universal design for learning is one way to support all learners, and accessibility services can bridge the gap for students with additional needs.
  2. Culture of care and belonging. Today’s college students are exceedingly diverse and have intersecting identities. Online education programs should identify how to serve minority students through data disaggregation and creating culturally responsive support structures.
  3. Robust academics and assessment. A common criticism of online learning is that it is less challenging than in-person academics, so college officials must invest in rigorous curricula while prioritizing equal access and accessibility to all learners.
  4. Career success and workforce connection. Online education has a greater potential to meet students’ needs for upskilling and reskilling, compared to a traditional on-campus experience, as it is affordable and responsive to technological advancements and evolving workforce needs. Colleges must focus on students’ needs for credentials and how online learning can benefit their career goals through flexible offerings.

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