America is increasingly a nation of haves and have-nots, and higher education is no exception. The endowments of the top 30 institutions exceed the endowments of every other college and university combined. And in college basketball—which culminates this month—money is perhaps the dominant factor setting apart winner and losers. A big budget doesn’t guarantee a ticket to the Big Dance, but few teams make it there without one.

How big is your budget?

In the coming years, we expect to see a similar pattern in the world of online education, with large budgets and well-known brands taking the lion’s share of the market. Already, the 10 institutions with the largest online programs enroll one in every five online students. A growing number of universities have launched online degree programs (in many cases with the assistance of online program managers like 2U or Wiley), and the market will continue to get more crowded. According to Eduventures, 95 percent of universities plan to launch online degree programs by 2020. And Coventry University in the UK has announced a plan to launch not one but 50 online degree programs in the next five years.

But unlike their brick-and-mortar counterparts, online programs have to compete nationally, if not globally—a dynamic that favors big brands, which tend to thrive within winner-take-all, digital markets. And so, the big programs will get even bigger, and the 2,500-plus other colleges and universities will have to find ways to differentiate themselves in the online world.

Related: Higher ed: We are missing the boat in online learning

Those institutions should take a page from the Cinderellas who manage to upset a top-seeded team or two each year in the NCAA Tournament. What sets them apart? Tenacity, of course, but more critically a focus on fundamentals and flawless execution.

What can online education learn from March Madness? #highered

In online education, that translates to an unwavering focus on learning design.

Calling all instructional designers

The look and feel of online courses—and the overall learning experience they foster—are beginning to diverge in ways that are evident to education consumers. To crib from Animal Farm, all online courses are digital, but some are more digital than others.

Just as individuals don’t have to be gaming experts to recognize that playing the latest version of Zelda—which has been called the “best-designed game ever”—is a wildly different experience than older versions, so, too, can students tell a difference between an old-school learning management system and modern online learning experiences.

This then begs the question: What does high-quality learning design look like?

About the Author:

Dror Ben-Naim is founder and chief executive officer of Smart Sparrow, an educational technology company that helps faculty members create better courses by making them more active and adaptive.

Ryan Craig is managing director of University Ventures, a firm reimagining the future of higher education and creating new pathways from education to employment. He is the author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College.


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