While online learning is a fairly recent phenomenon in the realm of higher education, the cascade of positive effects that comes with the adoption of this approach is undeniable. Learning becomes more accessible, as students no longer are bound to one physical location. Classroom instruction becomes more engaging and relevant – given the implementation of diverse pedagogical approaches and personalization of instruction, leading to better educational outcomes. By employing online learning, higher learning institutions can also create new efficiencies and lower costs, among other financial benefits.
Despite these very real advantages, the implementation and maintenance of eLearning initiatives present a specific set of challenges. One of these challenges is achieving a desired level of scale. Scaling effectively is critical to the growth and sustainability of an online learning program. From a larger point of view, one of the core promises of online education is the prospect of a world-class education made available to virtually anyone, anywhere, anytime.
While we have a long way to travel before we realize that vision, today’s higher learning institutions are working diligently to scale their offerings. To illustrate the most common issues associated with scaling, let’s take a closer look at how successful has eLearning been in higher education, the challenges associated with to scaling and the best methods (regarding both pedagogy and technology) for reaching scale.
Online learning in higher education: The current scenario
Online learning has quickly become an indispensable part of the higher education curriculum. According to a recent survey, the number of students taking online learning courses grew to 5.8 million last year – a number that has been rising for the last 13 consecutive years. Nearly 30-percent of college students are enrolled in a course with an online component.
Today, online learning is delivered through a variety of models. These include:
- Blended or hybrid learning, where online and face to face instruction are combined
- Fully online courses, where face-to-face instruction happens online
- Massive open online classes (MOOCs), which can be taken by thousands of people at once
- Flipped classrooms, where lectures are viewed offsite and “homework” occurs in the class
- Competency-based education, a model where college credit is given for demonstrated course competency
The institutions make use of Higher ed software to deliver, manage, track and measure online learning offerings.
How online learning has entered the mainstream
One of the first systematic studies of the growth of online learning focused on adoption rates in the years 2003 and 2004. Even at that early date, nearly two million students had some involvement with online education. The study predicted that adoption rates would rise by 20-percent year to year – a prediction that has since proved accurate. At a surprising pace, online learning entered the higher education mainstream, quickly becoming an essential part of the instructional mix.
This study also explored how educators viewed the long-term strategic potential of online learning. The majority of institutions ranked online learning as “critical” to the school’s future, while two-thirds ranked it as “important”. Larger learning institutions also displayed a greater tendency to view online learning as a key strategic tool.
Today, given the explosive growth of online learning (the eLearning market is now worth more than $250 billion annually), it’s difficult to find institutions that don’t view the process as essential to present and future success. Challenges, however, remain – and scaling effectively is one of the most pressing.
Challenges related to scaling
You can possess a brilliant product, service or idea. But if you want your offering to reach critical mass, that’s not enough – you also need it to be scalable. In the context of higher education, realizing many of the benefits associated with online learning requires effective scaling.
Some of the most frequent challenges that arise when scaling include:
- Lingering resistance from students or staff members to online learning, often caused by misapprehensions
- Fears on the part of administrators that online learning could “cannibalize” conventional enrollments
- Concerns that online learning could dilute the perceived reputational quality of issued degrees or credentials
- Technological issues, including insufficient supporting infrastructure or a lack of training for educators and students
- A shortage of qualified personnel with experience in online learning
- Failure to scale up support services for online programs
Institutions that design their scaling strategy with these impediments in mind are best positioned to transcend such challenges. Educators should also stay flexible enough to adjust tactics should the scaling process prove difficult to navigate.
How to implement technology and pedagogical approaches to achieve scale?
Studying commonalities between institutions that have successfully scaled are perhaps the best way to develop an effective scaling strategy. According to one such study, factors that influence successful scaling include:
- High-quality course content
- Comparable services between online and offline offerings
- Personalized instruction
- Vigorous institutional support for online learning initiatives and high-quality training for staff
- A mission to foster greater access and serve traditional and non-traditional students
- Financial models that encourage scaling through the reinvestment of revenue or the creation of self-supporting programs
- Pedagogy and course design that encourage interaction and collaboration, soothing the fear that online education will be isolating
- The ability to hire qualified adjunct faculty, to meet the demand created by scaling
Research has shown that these attributes are critical to the creation of a successful scaling strategy. Institutions seeking to expand their range of offerings should ensure that the support is in place to meet these key objectives.
The potential offered by online education is enormous. Yet some observers have noted that there are other, structural reasons why the higher education industry has been slow to scale, relative to other fields. The higher education system is fragmented, with thousands of institutions working independently. Additionally, the culture in higher education has sometimes proved resistant to this kind of innovation (full-time professors may not wish to hire more adjuncts, for example).
Despite these roadblocks, the promise of expanded access and fast growth at minimal cost is simply too attractive to ignore. Institutions that focus on centralized course design, common learning models, advanced supporting technology and well-trained staff will remove impediments to creating economies of scale. Those that work in a decentralized fashion, on the other hand, may find that scaling does not lower costs as expected.
By addressing these concerns, educators will be able to scale without any concern for the loss of quality, while realizing significant cost savings.
Online learning offers a variety of benefits to students and educators. By giving careful consideration to the challenges and recommendations outlined above, institutions can ensure that their efforts to achieve scale are a resounding success.