The single biggest mistake universities make when going online

Why a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work

Which brings me to the single biggest mistake a university can make when creating an online course or degree program. Unfortunately, it’s also the most common one: undifferentiated online learning.

Why a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work
The vast majority of online programs are simply online versions of an already established in-person program, or a replica of a program that can be found at dozens of other universities. I’ve seen little in these cookie-cutter courses that conveys an individual institution’s distinctive approach to education. Faculty become commodities. Most are virtually identical across institutions, differentiated only by the colors and logo. With this one-size-fits-all approach, unique pedagogy and branding virtually disappears. And, when this happens, what is an institution offering students that is distinctive or unique?

Authentic, differentiated, visionary programs are driving the future of higher education. Now, more than ever, institutions need to create something that is unique and of value, which means you need to be in the driver’s seat and rise above the fray to capture and maintain students’ attention.

Geography used to be a differentiator for MBA programs, but saying you’re a “top 10 school in New England” doesn’t really help with an online MBA. The geography is now the online landscape, and the student experience online is the new campus. Having a differentiated campus is vital to program success. If the school gets this wrong, it almost doesn’t matter how well they execute the other aspects of course development and delivery.

Why aren’t more schools embracing differentiated, student-focused online learning? A lot of it comes down to governance. Universities have a governance structure that tends to favor the minimization of change and the reduction of risk. Instead of talking about enabling excellence, many institutions are stuck on standardization and adoption rates.

Excellence will be defined differently for each institution depending on the pedagogy, desired student experience and outcomes, their brand, and other attributes that make them unique. Colleges and universities need to take another look at where their online programs are going and their satisfaction with that direction. Is running with the crowd really what they want to be doing?

It’s time to move away from mass-produced, cookie-cutter programs that take a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, differentiate your students’ online learning experience, and thus your institution, by creating authentic, adaptive, engaging, customized programs that embrace your institution’s distinctive approach to education.

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