online learning

Here’s what online learning programs do right–and here’s what they can improve

A new survey echoes previous online learning reports, but also highlights some important disconnects among programs

Many higher-ed institutions have put more emphasis on online learning programs due to recent student demand, and paying attention to demand for courses and training faculty can help these programs succeed.

In light of recent online learning surveys, the Association for Continuing Higher Education (ACHE) and Learning House polled higher-ed leaders to track progress and identify needed improvements in online learning programs.

The Online Learning in Continuing Higher Education report is based on a survey of more than 100 deans and directors of higher education institutions who are ACHE members.

Top challenges for ACHE members include retention (53 percent), training and recruiting faculty to teach online (47 percent), providing special services to students in need (37 percent), and identifying students in need of special services (35 percent).

ACHE members have seen a number of successes within their online offerings:

1. ACHE members will experiment with breaking down the longer degree program into smaller awards: badges (35 percent) top the list of smaller awards, by microdegrees (30 percent) and certificate programs (26 percent).

2. Sixty percent of members reported that they have made their learning environments mobile-friendly, while another 33 percent have this project on their priority list.

3. Fifty-seven percent of ACHE members reported either maintaining or increasing revenue from online programs in 2017-2018.

4. The Online College Students 2018 survey shows that just 32 percent of online schools awarded credit from a prior learning assessment, but this percentage was much higher among ACHE members, as revealed in the report–51 percent says they do award credit for a prior learning assessment.

5. ACHE members range in the services they offer to faculty that teach online, but 72 percent fully provide instruction training on LMS use and 63 percent provide instructional design services.

There are some areas for improvement outlined in the report:

1. There exists a disconnect between institutions that offer online computer science and IT and the high student demand for these programs. Computer programming/IT is the third most popular undergraduate and second most popular graduate program among online learners, but most ACHE members say they don’t offer online programs in this field.

2. Reports over the years have demonstrated the importance of scholarships to online college students, but 57 percent of ACHE schools do not offer them to these students. Thirty-nine percent of online students say they would choose one school over another for a $500 annual scholarship, showing that low-amount scholarships could help boost online enrollment.

The report also includes five recommendations to help institutions improve online learning operations:

1. Focus on the variables of time and cost: Policies that focus on helping students access online learning programs should be explored
2. Break down the degree: Re-imagining what a credential is or can be will be key in the future
3. Faculty training is key: This remains a top challenge, and strong policies and training programs are needed to ensure success
4. Services, services, and more services: It’s not just faculty who need support services online–learners do, too
5. Blur the boundaries: Don’t place restrictions on who can enroll in an online course

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Laura Ascione
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