Paper points where online education should be heading next

Thousands of colleges are now active in online education, and millions of students are enrolled.

Dean LaBrie

Along with its growing popularity, online learning has garnered a new found credibility over the years. In their article, “Online Learning 2.0: Strategies for a Mature Market,” published in the fall 2012 edition of Continuing Higher Education Review, John LaBrie, dean of Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies and vice president for professional education, and Sean Gallagher, Northeastern University 
senior strategist, outline key strategies and ways of thinking that institutions need to engage in, given the on-going changes in the education market.

“Northeastern has been an innovator in distance education for more than 40 years and we’ve learned first-hand what makes an enriching online education experience, not only for students, but for our faculty as well,” said Dean LaBrie. “My co-author and I wanted to recommend a framework that will help other institutions as they strategize their online programs and confront challenges that   lie  ahead.”                                                                                    

Northeastern began its foray into online education in 1974, with its microwave-based distance courses and initiated online courses in 1995. Today, Northeastern has more than 6,000 students pursuing degrees fully online across 48 states and more than 45 online programs at all levels, which have experienced significant annual growth rates over the last seven years. This has been achieved through a purposeful and nuanced approach to embracing online-education leadership and innovation in institutional strategic planning, and experimenting with new business models, partnerships, and marketing and market development approaches.

The process principally emerged out of two academic colleges within Northeastern: The College of Professional Studies and the College of Business Administration. Each elected quite different delivery strategies and both achieved considerable success in reaching new audiences – The College of Professional Studies developed and built an in-house online delivery unit, while the College of Business partnered with a vendor to deliver its Master of Business Administration program. Today, The College of Professional Studies works with many partner colleges within Northeastern University, to bring the online format to students and faculty.

Continuing and adult education institutions, like the College of Professional Studies, have generally led the way in online education due in part because their students need added flexibility in order to finish or pursue a degree. This has led the College of Professional Studies to hone its online courses over the years, not only to best fit the needs of its students, but to ensure it is providing the best quality online education possible.

The key points of the authors’ article focus on four key areas that demand focus and a new approach toward building a more robust online education model:

Strategic use of analytics

At the highest level, Northeastern’s strategy is built on analysis and data. This includes continually assessing changing job market demands, evolving employer needs, enrollment trends, and the competitive landscape.

One innovative analytic approach that Northeastern has employed is using real-time labor market data and analytics tools to tailor to employer needs. Software systems that mine millions of publicly posted job openings on employer websites can be leveraged in areas such as: program and curriculum development and market selection and geo-targeting. These data can be used to shape and target courses and offerings by specific and real-time industry needs.

Continual customer and market intelligence are critical to assessing student needs. This analysis was important in identifying and developing Northeastern graduate campus operations in Charlotte, NC, and Seattle, WA; the latter slated to open in winter 2012.

Hybrid and blended approaches

National surveys from groups such as Eduventures as well as Northeastern’s own proprietary national surveys have found that the majority (about 60 percent) of prospective students prefer some blend of face-to-face instruction and online learning.

For many years, Northeastern has taken its fully online programs and offered face-to-face courses alongside them, as well as offering hybrid courses that blend face-to-face meetings with online study. The hybrid approach offers convenience to students while maximizing student learning by optimizing cognitive in-class student learning. A hybrid approach is a core attribute of Northeastern’s extension into new regions with a national network of graduate campuses.

Hybrid offerings, however, are underdeveloped in higher education, even while recent evidence continues to emerge that hybrid models deliver high-quality outcomes.

Strategic faculty models and quality imperative

Traditionally, universities have focused their faculty hiring in their home region, limiting their talent pool of faculty, or moving faculty to their home base. With online education, faculty members no longer have to be place-bound, but can be networked into a nationwide education system.   This allows an institution to scale its operation even in those areas where it would not necessarily have a deep pool of instructors. It also allows a program to be highly flexible and allows faculty removed from the campus to participate, inform, and craft a new style of faculty culture. Plus, a well-designed course will have staying power.

This model needs to be supported with a team of qualified instructional designers, technologists, videographers, and graphic designers to ensure that the online course is effective and enriching to students.

Faculty are not always keen to move to the online world. That is why working with qualified instructional designers and pedagogical experts can be key to developing a strong educational experience. To gain faculty buy-in, traditional incentives can be used such as additional compensation for course-design or teaching buy-outs, which is when a faculty member is released from a teaching requirement in order to allow them to work on another project or some focused research. 

Enrollment management for an online audience

Enrollment management systems are well established for undergraduate four-year degree programs. In the online market, however, these traditional measures often fall apart. In the online market, programs can vary in length, working students progress at their own pace, and students enter professional master’s programs at various points within their career, thus there are many challenges.

For Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies, the answer came in the form of an enrollment management dashboard that was created for our fully online programs. Rather than measure and benchmark according to national averages (which do not exist in a meaningful form), measurement is relative to the campus’ suite of programs. Using the dashboard, performance goals are set to address problem areas (i.e., conversion rates, persistence rates) that are identified as low within the program groupings. Work and effort are focused on improving the performance matrix at all levels. The performance dashboard and other data collection on student performance inform our approach to enrollment coaching, marketing messaging, and technical support available to students in an online format. It has also led to the development of virtual writing labs and, in the future, virtual math tutoring labs.

“As major educational institutions delve deeper into the world of online learning, and as its credibility soars, its future looks brighter every day,” said LaBrie. “My colleagues and I are excited to help this educational model transform, enrich, and maybe even lead what we know as the educational landscape of today.”

Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies (CPS) is committed to providing career-focused educational programs that are designed to accommodate the complex lives of motivated learners. Offered in a variety of innovative formats, CPS courses are taught by accomplished scholars and practitioners who have real-world experience. The result is an educational experience founded on proven scholarship, strengthened with practical application, and sustained by academic excellence.

Founded in 1898, Northeastern is a comprehensive, global research university. The university offers more than 80 undergraduate majors and more than 165 graduate programs, ranging from professional master’s degrees to interdisciplinary PhD programs. Northeastern’s research enterprise is aligned with three national imperatives: health, security and sustainability. Northeastern students participate in co-op and other forms of experiential learning in 90 countries on all seven continents.