A basketball with pretty lights around it

What can online education learn from March Madness?


Institutions that hope to compete in an increasingly global online market need to create learning experiences that are more akin to the apps, games, movies, and other media students experience

Digitization vs. digitalization

First, quality learning design moves beyond a simple translation from analog content to digital. This means shifting from digitization—turning paper processes into digital ones—to digitalization—a wholesale re-imagining of processes, with technology at the center.

The history of online learning is based in digitization: As higher ed initially moved content online, the approach was a literal translation of the traditional classroom experience—out-of-class reading assignments followed by class discussion on an online board, and the occasional quiz or other assessment.

Institutions that hope to compete in an increasingly global online market, however, need to create learning experiences that are more akin to the apps, games, movies, and other media students experience. Courses must effectively cover the content through thoughtful learning design—proper scaffolding of materials, effectively combining introduction of new materials with learning tasks that make it stick, etc.—and also provide a captivating, engaging experience that is easy to navigate and work through.

Related: College transformed: 5 institutions leading the charge in innovation

Shifting to a digitalization paradigm means using technologies to create an experience that, perhaps counterintuitively, more closely mimics an in-person experience. Like a tutor working one-on-one with a student, these technologies provide students with a personalized approach, providing the feedback they need in real time (rather than two weeks after a failed quiz), offering new approaches to content that a student is struggling with, and letting students work at their own pace. If done well, these learning experiences should improve student achievement and support students on a path to completion.

Students may not be able to pinpoint the new technologies—the adaptive feedback, personalized paths, interactive simulations—that combine to create a beautiful, engaging learning experience, but they will know one when they see one. Whether that is zooming around an interactive model of a cell or exploring astrobiology by building a simulated habitat on Mars, students recognize and expect quality, and they can use this knowledge to make decisions about which online program to choose.

Quality learning design and student success always matter, but in a national online market they matter even more. Unlike in basketball, there may never be an undisputed national champion. But the good news is that when colleges and universities focus on quality instruction for their new online programs, everyone wins.

eSchool Media Contributors