The report finds that, in general, investments in high-quality digital learning programs help institutions to:
• Deliver equivalent or even improved student learning outcomes. Institutions in the study reported higher retention and graduation rates for students who took least a portion of their degree program online. Such students also earned their degrees faster, saving them money on tuition and fees, and enabling them to enter or return to the workforce sooner.
• Improve access, particularly for disadvantaged students. The institutions we studied increased access on multiple levels—in the total volume of student enrollment and in the proportion of specific populations, including Pell Grant–eligible students, older students, and female students.
• Improve the financial picture by growing revenue while reducing operating costs. When we compared the overall costs of online courses with average costs at four of the institutions in the study, we found that the savings for online courses ranged from $12 to $66 per credit hour, a difference of from 3 percent to 50 percent of the average credit hour costs.
It’s a myth that digital learning doesn’t produce outcomes equal to or better than those from face-to-face-only instruction, according to the report. Three of the four institutions in the study that offered both face-to-face and online courses saw higher retention and graduation rates for students who took at least some portion of their degree program online. What’s more, adaptive courseware helped close achievement gaps for some students.
The authors also outline seven promising practices for institutions seeking to adopt successful approaches to digital learning:
1. Take a strategic portfolio approach to digital learning. The most successful institutions have developed a portfolio of digital delivery models tailored to the particular needs of different student populations.
2. Build the necessary capabilities and expertise to design for quality in the digital realm. Effective online learning depends on courses and curricula that are properly designed for the unique challenges and opportunities of the modality. Institutions committed to achieving online outcomes that are similar to or better than those for face-to-face courses must make significant investments in instructional design, learning science, and digital tools and capabilities.
3. Provide the support that students need to succeed in fully online learning. To help students meet the challenges that many of them experience when learning online, institutions need to offer a network of remotely accessible support structures adapted to the needs of online learners.
4. Engage faculty as true partners in digital learning, and equip them for success. One common barrier to success in digital learning is faculty skepticism. Institutions need to engage and support faculty in the digital learning journey—for instance, by giving faculty a voice in key decisions, providing professional development opportunities, and fostering a culture of pedagogical innovation.
5. Fully commit to digital learning as a strategic priority, and build the infrastructure necessary to ensure lasting impact. Higher-education leaders who want their digital initiatives to continue long after they have departed from the scene need to attract a groundswell of support among faculty and build an infrastructure that ensures high-quality instruction and sustained momentum (such as a central team that can manage the digital learning portfolio).
6. Tap outside vendors strategically. The institutions in our study identified their strategic goals and then carefully determined which functions or capabilities they wanted to develop in-house versus outsourcing. Often, institutions can advance innovation, expand capabilities, and increase enrollment faster through successful partnerships than by trying to build everything in-house.
7. Strengthen analytics and monitoring. In the digital realm, faculty and administrators have access to a cornucopia of data that they can use to engage in continuous improvement. To harness that data, institutions must develop strong research and analytical capabilities, along with the reporting systems necessary to make the data actionable.