In the past few years, the three of us (together and separately) have enjoyed opportunities to discuss online and digital education initiatives with a growing number of colleagues from institutions that represent the diversity of our current higher education sector. Through a series of collaborative projects, including external reviews and strategic advising, we’ve observed how a range of institutions, from large public research universities to small private teaching-focused colleges, are centering digital and online learning at the core of their institutional priorities. Some of these institutions are proactively seeking to capture new opportunities, while others are reacting to new challenges or risks. Across these conversations, we observe several common trends in relation to online and digital education.
- Online Learning as a Strategic Institutional Priority
A common theme at all the colleges and universities we’ve visited is a shift toward online learning as an institutional strategic priority. At the master’s degree level, the pandemic significantly accelerated the transition from residential to online programs. While many still are skeptical of the value of online education, we are seeing an increased awareness of its potential as a rich learning environment. Most of these institutions are also aggressively looking at opportunities to expand nondegree, certificate and supplemental online programs for both traditional and nontraditional learner populations. This fuels conversations about new program design and innovation, mission-aligned growth, differentiation in a more competitive landscape, partnership effectiveness and infrastructure investments that match programmatic aspirations.
- A Shift From School- to University-Based Online Education Leadership
A second common theme across various institution types is a shift of online learning leadership from individual schools and colleges (divisions) within a university to centralized leadership. This evolution may take the form of creating new campus units responsible for online and hybrid learning (often set up to provide infrastructure and support to schools). Often, institutionwide units tasked with catalyzing and supporting online programs come into existence through integrating or merging existing campus units and functions. New units or centers of digital learning and online education are being created to support these institutional priorities.
- An Institutional Prioritization of Internal Digital and Online Capacity Building
We are also seeing a strong desire among university leaders to develop internal online and digital learning capacities. These capabilities include expertise in instructional design, media design, analytics, compliance, marketing and learning platforms. Increasingly, we see university leaders looking to build internal expertise in areas such as competitive and market research, digital marketing, online program enrollment management and lead nurturing. Some institutions are fully pulling away from partnerships with traditional OPMs, while others are maintaining a set of focused partnerships to augment increased internal capacity. These institutions aim to find an effective balance between internal capabilities and fee-for-service external services. This will almost certainly further intensify the current human capital supply and demand gap and lead to some universities taking serious strides forward simply by modernizing their HR classifications and career pathways.
- Increasing Skepticism of Traditional OPM University/Company Contracts
This will be no surprise to anyone working in online learning. University leaders (inclusive of presidents, provosts and deans) are increasingly skeptical of traditional online program management contracts. Universities are actively looking to renegotiate contracts around shorter terms and more favorable revenue shares while also evaluating options around in-sourcing capabilities and leveraging fee-for-service providers. Evaluating options for existing and new online programs in terms of the mix of working with external partners and building internal capacities represents a growing portion of our work with university leaders.
- Organizational Changes to Align With Digital/Online Learning Institutional Priorities
Creating an institutionwide online/digital strategy almost always requires organizational realignment. Any organizational change requires a shift in priorities and activities. New initiatives, such as developing and supporting a portfolio of online programs, require new (or enhanced) skills and capabilities. Few colleges and universities can afford to recruit all new staff to support a growing institutional commitment to online and digital learning. Aligning campus organizational structures to emerging institutional priorities in online and digital education can be challenging, as the organizational status quo will always have its defenders (both inside the affected units and within the academic and administrative departments in which these units collaborate). Effective organizational change efforts require intense listening around the goals and concerns of the professionals currently working in existing units and a commitment to collaborative and transparent change management.
- Increasing Pressure to Enhance and Diversify Revenue Sources Through Online Programs
The final trend we see across a variety of institution types is a focus on online learning as a source of institutional revenue enhancement and diversification. Inevitably, institutional objectives around digital/online learning are tied into strategic priorities related to long-term institutional resiliency, including revenue and enrollment growth. As colleagues and peers to the universities with whom we collaborate, we know first-hand the financial and budgetary challenges that all institutions face. We also understand the institutional and cultural challenges that most university leaders must overcome to make sizable investments and substantial organizational changes to enable a long-term focus on building an online degree and nondegree program portfolio.