Students sit on a bench with laptops as they participate in their online learning programs.

5 key strategies to support online learning programs

Here's what online practitioners think are the top priorities for online learning programs

With online learning programs in demand and growing fast, higher-ed leaders have to ensure that their programs meet student needs and set students up for success.

A new report offers takeaways and best practices around four major topics impacting online learning programs: data analytics, curriculum, standards and measurement, and mentoring and coaching.

The report comes from the Online Student Success Symposium, a two-day gathering of online practitioners to discuss challenges, innovative practices, and areas for future research. Recommendations and key takeaways are a product of the participants’ discussions and experiences.

Related: How to (almost) guarantee success in higher ed online learning

Participants agreed on five major takeaways that can benefit online learning programs and student success:

1. Understand current and future student populations.

To best serve the online learner population now and in the future, it is critical to gain a thorough understanding of these educational consumers, including their potential risk factors, curricular interests, educational and career goals, and interventions that will support their success.

By listening to education consumers and understanding the diversity of their experiences and their expectations, online providers can tailor programs and offerings to meet their needs while planning for future offerings.

2. Design online programs and courses to deliver personalized learning.

Students are individuals, and the power of online learning is in using real-time data to identify individual needs and develop curricula that provide individualized instruction, remediation, and tailored support directly to individual students. To succeed in the online learning environment, avoid attempting to replicate the campus environment online. Instead, build a new culture of engagement and accountability.

3. Leverage new technologies to optimize the impact of human coaching and mentoring.

Rather than replacing personal interactions with smart technology, use data analytics to ensure and make more efficient the needed direct human-to-human engagements. Using our student experience data to be at the right time and the right place with the right focus can be a powerful differentiator for online learning.

More broadly, delivering the appropriate balance between online group instruction, individualized virtual coaching and mentoring, and in-person meetings is important to keep students engaged, focused, and moving forward in their studies.

4. Explore multiple models for building community.

While providers approach community building differently, they share a vision of its strategic importance to the success of individual students.

There are lessons to be learned across the approaches and interest in further exploring the key ingredients within the various programs.

5. Build a data-driven culture of innovation and accountability.

It is crucial to agree not only on outcome goals, but also on how these goals will be reached, how success will be measured, and how students and faculty will be held accountable.

In a fast-paced online learning environment, embracing innovation means developing a mindset that encourages institutions and individuals to reach and experiment while learning quickly from failures as well as successes and adapting to address evolving challenges.

Promising topics for future research around online learning programs

The symposium participants agree future meetings will help continue to put online student success at the top of priority lists. Topics for future research and consideration include:

• What is the evolving population of online education consumers, and how do we understand and address their unique needs?
• How do we leverage online learning to help individual students and higher education institutions succeed?
• How do we bring career exploration, practical work experience and professional networking into the freshman year?
• How can we better integrate work-based learning and college curriculum to teach both technical and human skills employers need while helping students to reduce the time and cost to earn credentials and launch their careers as well as to upskill and re-skill throughout their working lives?
• How can we maintain an institution’s culture while serving online students with diverse interests/needs?
• How do we define and measure engagement in the online world?
• How can we best accelerate learning/credentialing for adult learners?
• How do we put the focus on students and what they need right now vs. on institutions still evolving from old models?
• How can quality online programs protect themselves from low-quality offerings that erode the market/brand for online learning?
• How do we improve data collection/measurement post-graduation to determine the lifelong relevance of postsecondary education and its relationship to long-term employment and life satisfaction?

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Laura Ascione

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