Trends in Online Learning – April 2014

I was recently invited to participate as a panelist in a Blackboard webinar discussing results of study of 200 senior education leaders from universities across the U.S. exploring trends in learning management systems and online learning and engagement strategies. The webinar archive is available here via Blackboard Collaborate as well as YouTube.

In addition to commenting on the findings from the study, I was asked to try forecasting the future of online learning at my institution, in which I briefly touched on a few trends related to online teaching and learning at NIU (discussed below) that I see continuing.

Growth in online learning plateau

It’s unrealistic to expect the exponential growth that we’ve seen over the past decade nationally in students taking online courses to continue indefinitely. Rather, I believe we are going to begin seeing a plateau and stabilization in the growth of online learning in the coming years as online modes of learning become commonplace and are no longer perceived as “new” but are rather just part of the fabric of higher education.

New niche programs to meet student demand, targeted at students in region

I anticipate that we’ll see our institution develop new niche programs to meet student demand as well as market demand, targeted at students in our region. With the majority of our current online students currently within the Northern Illinois region and trends toward students preferring to enroll in online programs from institutions within a 100 radius, I envision that new programs that we develop will be tailored to students in our Midwest area.

Online programs to attract new students, increase revenue, and improve retention

Online programs will be one means for attracting new students, increasing revenue, and improving retention. Given the heavy competition in the online learning space, institutions will be well-served to identify their competitive advantages and clearly communicate these advantages to prospective and current students. I see some fantastic opportunities for institutions to leverage emerging learning analytics and outcomes data combined with new models of student support services online to see retention rates among online programs be equal to or even superior to traditional face-to-face retention rates.

Coherent online strategy and financial model is critical for buy-in from institutional leaders

In conversations that I’ve had with chief online learning officers and leaders at institutions that have vibrant online programs, it’s clear to me that a coherent institutional online strategy and financial model is critical for gaining buy-in from institutional leaders. Our institution is currently in the midst of a significant internal budgeting overhaul as we look to maximize our available resources to make academically responsive and fiscally responsible budgeting decisions.

Investment in central support infrastructure needed to scale current offerings

As we look to scale our current offerings, investment in centralized support infrastructure is needed. Our institution has taken a very decentralized approach to this point and left majority of development and support of online programs to individual colleges and departments. While this has provided a great deal of autonomy, duplication of efforts and inconsistency often results when each separate college or department tries to build their own infrastructure. For many aspects of online program development and support, we can be more efficient institutionally and offer a better online learning experience to our students by centralizing many aspects of the online program infrastructure to maximize expertise and resources. What specific support is centralized varies by institution.

Focus on student career success

With our current institutional keystone goal of student career success, we are aligning all our resources and efforts in focusing on this goal of ensuring that students leave NIU prepared to make and impact and be successful in their career. I forsee online learning as being one avenue by which we are able to make available to students high quality, engaging, and flexible learning opportunities that fit their busy lives. Especially for adult learners who have families, jobs, etc. and are seeking to improve their career or perhaps change careers, I see online programs as being a key component of our full complement of program offerings.

Articulation agreements with other institutions

We are continuing to focus on developing articulation agreements with other institutions that bring added value to the NIU education. An example of such an agreement is a recent reverse transfer pact that NIU signed with a local community college that was hailed by Illinois Lt. Governor Sheila Simon as, “a student-centered reform that should be implemented at campuses across the state.” Basically, this agreement allows eligible NIU students who transferred from nearby Kishwaukee Community College without associate’s degrees to earn the two-year degree using credit from NIU courses. If for any reason a student then must stop-out for a period of time while finishing their undergraduate degree, they will have an associates degree credential. Students want a hassle-free transfer process and to receive credit for the work they do. Agreements like this and others will make it even easier for students to incorporate educational opportunities from multiple institutions.

Mix of online and blended/hybrid programs

I see a mix of fully-online as well as blended/hybrid programs to be offered in the future at NIU, where the benefits of a synchronous, face-to-face experience can be coupled with the flexibility of online delivery. An example is a new interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in Health Sciences recently approved by the Illinois Board of Higher Education that is scheduled to launch in 2015. This program will be a hybrid program, consisting of fully-online courses with several on-campus face-to-face intensives each year. This blended/hybrid approach provides many benefits for faculty as well as students.

Accelerated courses (8-week terms)

I also envision growth in the number of accelerated online courses (those of different lengths then the traditional 16-week semester). From market research that we’ve done, many fully-online programs geared toward adult learners have taken an accelerated course model with students taking fewer courses at a time of shorter duration. For example, instead of a part-time student of taking 2 courses each lasting 16 weeks, students take 2 8-week courses back-to-back, focusing solely one 1 course at a time. There are some obvious benefits as well as challenges when moving to an accelerated course model, but studies are beginning to be published reporting student learning outcomes in accelerated courses as comparable, and in some cases superior, to the semester-long course.

Faculty continue to develop own content for individual courses, instructional designers to assist with online course development in programs

We will continue to see the lines blurring between online courses and those web-enhanced and blended courses where faculty are utilizing online technologies in the delivery of their courses. In many cases faculty at NIU will continue to development their own content for individual online courses, but I see instructional designers skilled in advanced technical and development skills as assisting with online course development for online courses that are part of a cohesive online program.

Ongoing faculty training and support is essential for success

Finally, ongoing faculty training and support will continue to be essential for successful online program offerings. No matter whether faculty are developing the content and building courses themselves or if instructional designers are building courses, faculty still need to be trained not only on pedagogical best practices for teaching online, but also need to keep current in their technology skills. LMS features change rapidly as do the software and technical processes that institutions employ in their online offerings. We need to be equipping faculty for continued success.

What trends do you see in online learning at your institution? Your comments are welcome!