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

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.

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?

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.

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

eSchool Media Contributors

Oops! We could not locate your form.

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.