Online learning models are a higher-ed staple for many different reasons, including flexibility, availability to students in different geographical areas, and the ability to help workers build new skills or strengthen existing ones.
But now, online learning is on the verge of yet another revolution, in which students demand blended learning experiences, according to a whitepaper from Entangled Solutions. These learning models, which are a mix of online and face-to-face, in addition to other demands from a new generation of students, will require colleges and universities to rethink their online learning models.
“The future of work, indeed the future of our country, depends on our higher-education system thinking differently about how to prepare the next generation of talent,” writes Jeffrey Selingo, a senior strategist with Entangled Solutions, in the foreword. “The decade ahead will require institutions to ask the right questions about online education, to experiment, and attempt new approaches.”
Up to now, online learning has experienced four waves:
1. The first wave of higher-ed online learning offered non-credit offerings and a number of degree-granting, for-profit institutions such as University of Phoenix and Kaplan. For-profits experienced intense growth as the demand for online learning skyrocketed.
2. The second wave saw the rapid rise of online enrollments at institutions that emphasized their nonprofit status in order to distance themselves from for-profits, which started to experience federal investigations and increased regulation.
3. MOOCs dominated the third wave of online learning. Their free, open, and noncredit structure appealed to many, especially because many MOOCs came from prestigious universities such as MIT and Harvard. Many thought MOOCs had the potential to “democratize elite education and revolutionize the whole system of learning and credentialing.”
4. MOOCs didn’t quite live up to predictions, but MOOC providers such as Coursera and EdX are still here. MOOC platforms are the backbone for many online master’s degrees, such as Georgia Tech’s low-cost engineering degree.
The coming fifth wave of online learning, then, will respond to online learning becoming the norm. “As the market matures, online education is no longer a distinct offering but increasingly resembles higher education writ large,” according to the report. “’Online education,’” in other words, is fast becoming just ‘education.’ And that means that the strategies that work will be deeply rooted in institutional identity.”
In the fifth wave, major gains may not be weighed in terms of large enrollment increases, but instead in how institutions are able to improve the overall effectiveness of their online learning programs in areas such as time to degree or strategic facility use.
What is driving new online learning models?
Two major trends–a move toward blended learning, along with a blurring of the lines between for-credit and noncredit with microcredentialing–are developing across three main online learning models and education markets:
1. Traditional undergraduate students: Strategies around undergraduate education online, when they exist, have typically focused on expanding enrollment, such as bringing in working adults and other students who otherwise wouldn’t have shown up on campus. But institutions are taking a new look at online strategies for traditional-age students, including the ones already sitting on their campuses. Campuses such as Wake Forest University and the University of Wisconsin have seen significant growth in online credit hours by encouraging students to take online courses over the summer.
An approach like Wisconsin’s will not necessarily drive significant growth in overall enrollment, but it can increase flexibility for students and address critical needs around the use of space, course scheduling, time-to-degree, student debt and, in the case of public institutions, state demands. In-person and online education can also work in tandem to not only speed up students’ progress, but more broadly improve educational quality.
2. Degree completers: Degree completers—either returning adults or community college transfers—are and will likely remain a large portion of the online undergraduate market. This market is where the large institutions that are national in scope, such as the University of Phoenix, Southern New Hampshire, and Western Governors, dominate. Increasing enrollment while maintaining or improving completion remains a real challenge in this area of the market. That creates an opportunity for institutions that can offer a hybrid program model to stand out regionally.
The Catch 22 of the degree-completer market has long been that, generally, students who have struggled with higher education in the past do not perform as well in an online environment as they do in an in-person setting. But those same students often have life circumstances—work schedules, family responsibilities, or other time constraints—that prevent them from attending classes in person. Online programs that provide intensive advising and other support to keep students engaged and on-track can mitigate this, and more programs are being intentional about building those supports. The sweet spot may actually be a blended model.
3. Master’s degree students: Lifelong learning may have finally arrived with micro-master’s degrees and the proliferation of online master’s. This part of the market, arguably, is the most primed for continued enrollment growth. At the high end of the market, a master’s may soon replace the bachelor’s as the standard currency for employment. And, as automation and technological innovation continue to transform the labor market, expect demand for skills taught by the broad liberal arts—coupled with technical proficiency—to grow.