Online education continues to grow. And with the constant developments in technology, the delivery systems are rapidly evolving. Therefore, institutional need to be thoughtful about which programs they offer online, who they contract with to offer these services, what types of systems and support structures they put into place and how they get faculty buy-in.

Background on WICHE and WCET

Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) is a regional organization that was created in 1953 to facilitate resource sharing among higher education systems in western states and territories. WICHE’s members include New Mexico, Montana, Arizona, Utah, Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Alaska, Washington, California, Nevada, Hawaii, North Dakota, South Dakota and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. WICHE analyzes student access, policy and research issues among these states.

One of WICHE’s key initiatives is the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), which is the leader in the policy, practice and advocacy of technology-enhanced learning in higher education. The group’s work concentrates on four focuses areas: institutional success, policy and regulation, student success and technology. WCET had a long history of working in distance education.

Growth of Online Learning

The U.S. Department of Education’s annual survey of fall enrollments over the past seven years shows that while higher education enrollment has been declining, distance education is growing. Currently, approximately 15 percent of students are taking all of their courses online. An additional 15 percent of students are taking at least one course online. Therefore, approximately one third of students are participating at some level in distance education.

This increase is driven by a number of factors:

  • Millennials and Gen Z are very comfortable with technology
  • K-12 schools are increasingly offering more online courses, especially with dual credit or concurrent enrollment courses that allow high school students to take college courses.
  • The educational market has shifted, thanks to for-profit higher education institutions.

An Increasingly Crowded Marketplace

Public and private institutions have joined for-profit institutions in growing their online presence. This has led to a crowded marketplace. For example, Western Governors University, which is entirely online, has over 100,000 students. Southern New Hampshire University, which has a large online component, is approaching 100,000 students. Arizona State University has grown its online presence and projections suggest about half of its enrollment will primarily be distance education within five years. These types of institutions are building a national presence instead of just serving as a regional institution.

Online Program Management

Online program management (OPM) allows an institution to outsource some operations to a company that focuses on these areas. Some of these operations could include getting programs online, instructional design or working with faculty to design online courses.

OPM can offer many benefits, such as providing assistance reaching populations that the higher education institution hasn’t marketed to before. However, issues can emerge. For instance, faculty, accreditors and regulators may have concerns about whether the higher education institution is just selling its name. Concerns about who controls content are also common. In some instances, the company has tried to expand the curriculum or to create a new one without faculty input. And some states have laws that do not allow higher education institutions to have certain types of OPM relationships. Therefore, it’s important that higher education leaders use OPM with caution and make sure that they have done due diligence before signing any agreement.

Faculty Buy-in

Most institutions have some faculty who need to be “coaxed” into teaching online. It’s an iterative process in terms of trying to bring people along. Often, naysayers need to see others succeed with online learning. One way to get buy-in is through educating faculty about the growing interest in online education, which can translate into hiring more faculty.

Open Educational Resources

The cost of textbooks continues to increase, causing another economic barrier for prospective students.  However, there is a trend to create open textbooks that are available online for free or for a relatively low cost to students. These open educational resources (OER) are being created by a groups of faculty working together. Because these texts are online, students have access once they enroll in the class or on the first day of class.

WCET has received a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to analyze open educational resources in relation to policies, faculty support, library usage, bookstore usage. The goal is to see how to expand adoption of these types of resources and find ways to make OER sustainable.

Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning through the use of technology involves little tests or quizzes that gauge whether the student is understanding concepts. If a student is having issues, the software sends the student to a reminder section to help them understand the lesson better. In addition, the student may be sent to a tutor or the professor or may get additional support that will help with understanding. If a student is doing very well, the software allows the student to progress at his or her own pace and may allow them to skip some modules because they understand those concepts.

Adaptive learning is allowing some institutions to have improved learning outcomes because students get help on areas that they’re weak and are able to advance in other areas where they are strong.

Providing Support

Local centers for support offer a place where students can physically go and get help. This concept – which is similar to an Apple Store where people can get in-person, hands-on experience – is starting to be utilized by a variety of institutions, including the University of Phoenix, Georgia Tech and Southern New Hampshire.

Other institutions are finding ways to use technology to provide additional support. Embry-Riddle is a good example. The institution has gone from being almost exclusively face-to-face to now having approximately 50 percent of their students at a distance. The institution increasingly is using virtual reality to connect with students and provide assistance.

Learning Management Systems

A Learning Management System (LMS) keeps information utilized in an online course, such as the syllabus, resources and videos. Companies such as Canvas are capturing a larger and larger share of the market in this area. However, some companies are also putting as much effort in creating side services so they are able to provide more support beyond just being an LMS.

These types of arrangements are helpful in times of a crisis such as the recent earthquakes in Alaska or fires in California that cause an institution to physically close. In these cases, online courses can continue all of the software and courses are maintained at another location.

Advice to Higher Education Leaders

Prior to creating an online learning presence, higher education leaders need to consider their goal, the institution’s mission and which programs would be best served in this type of learning environment. They also need to consider what already is in the marketplace and do a market analysis to see if they can differentiate their proposed online learning programs from their competitors. The third step is to create staff positions – such as a chief online officer or chief learning officer – who are responsible for overseeing online education and who will maintain a high level of quality. They also need to identify if they are going to use an external company or build the online program internally. Leaders then need to set goals related to the program and come up with appropriate strategies.

Bullet Points

  • Approximately one-third of higher education students are taking online courses. About 15 percent of this group are taking all of their courses online.
  • Growth of online education has been driven by three factors: generational change; increased online offerings at the K-12 level; and changes in the market because of for-profit institutions that embraced online education.
  • The marketplace has grown tremendously with online offerings making up a significant part of some institutions’ enrollment. In some cases, institutions are using online education to expand into a national presence.
  • Companies offer online program management, which can help institutions with online education. These services can include getting programs online, instructional design or working with faculty on course modules. These types of agreements can offer many benefits; however, institutional leaders need to be aware of downsides (such as who owns the instructional content and how the company will involve faculty in development) before signing the agreement.
  • Some faculty will balk at online courses. They may need to see others succeed in this format. Additionally, helping faculty understand the increasing interest in online learning – and thus increased enrollment and more faculty positions – can change their opinion.
  • Open educational resources increasingly are being created. These online textbooks are being developed by teams of faculty. The texts are available to students at no or low cost, thus ensuring that they have access to materials at the start of the semester. In addition, this removes a major financial barrier – increasing textbook costs – that may hinder prospective students from enrolling. WCET has received a grant to study the sustainability of OER.
  • Adaptive learning through online education gives a tailored approach to education. Students are assessed through online quizzes or short tests to gauge their understanding. The software then points them toward additional help if they are struggling or may let the student move faster through a segment if they show strong comprehension.
  • Institutions are looking at a variety of ways to provide support, including creating local centers for support (where students can get in-person assistance) and using virtual reality.
  • A Learning Management System (LMS) keeps information utilized in an online course, such as the syllabus, resources and videos. This type of system allows institutions to continue to offer instruction in times of crisis when their physical location may need to be closed.
  • Prior to implementing an online learning program, higher education leaders need to consider their goal, the institution’s mission and which programs would be best served in this type of learning environment. They need to analyze the marketplace and identify how to differentiate their program. In addition, they need to consider staffing as well as whether the online program will be created internally or through an external company. Goals for the online learning program and strategies to achieve those goals also should be developed.

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