How can colleges meet the needs of growing base of online learners?

Wiley Education Services survey says institutions must offer three key items to students operating remotely.
By: | September 22, 2021
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Driven to remote education by its overall flexibility and in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, the pool of prospective online learners is not only increasing but also is pleased with what colleges and universities are offering.

Those findings were revealed in the 1oth annual report done by Wiley Education Services—now called the “Voice of the Online Learner”—which shows that institutions of higher education have huge opportunities to enhance career pathways and build a foundation of trust among current and new students.

One-third of the more than 3,000 students Wiley polled that take some online courses said they would consider a move to fully online learning. More than half said they are so impressed by the value, implementation and flexibility of remote learning that they are considering enrolling in those programs.

“We’re seeing that online learning is playing an increasingly important role in providing education that is flexible, affordable and setting learners up for success in their careers,” said Todd Zipper, President of Wiley Education Services. “We are proud to share our insights on the attitudes and behaviors of online learners to help universities build impactful programs that enable students to achieve their goals.”

Those learners have clear expectations of what an overarching online program should contain. The first is faster paths to earn credentials. Study authors note that 70% would rather take multiple courses or have them run consecutively than be forced into breaks. The second is flexibility, and that means several dates throughout the year to begin classes, far more asynchronous course options and an adjustable degree plan. The third is cost assistance. The majority of online students surveyed said they would not choose a program solely on affordability (though more than 50% said it was their No. 1 reason for selecting one) but are looking at scholarships and reputation when making decisions.

Respondents, which included a large number of graduate students, noted their goals in choosing an online program: getting their first job (50%), switching careers (42%), earning promotions (42%) and getting a boost in pay (36%). However, there is a group of learners that institutions also should have on their radar: those coming out of high school interested only in the online option.

Inside the data

One of the surprising results of the survey is that students believe there is almost no difference between online and in-person learning. Only 24% of students said they thought face-to-face instruction was superior, compared with 20% who thought online was better. Another 45% said they were on par. The numbers were almost identical when students were asked about employer views of online programs compared with traditional ones.

But the most powerful percentage pointing toward the value of online learning was that 63% of those who completed degrees online would do it again. Less than 20% said they would pursue the option. Wiley said those are the kinds of numbers that institutions with online programs should be promoting.

“Students have positive experiences in online programs, and their testimonials can help recruit future students,” authors wrote. “Schools should empower these advocates to provide reviews on third-party sites and in relevant marketing materials, as well as highlight the positive outcomes of their online programs by investing in tools to listen to alumni.”

Other notable data points and recommendations from Wiley’s study:

  • Shifting programs online will not negatively impact the choices made by current or prospective students. But those that fail to provide online options or shift online courses back to in-person may have the opposite effect, especially on those students desiring more flexibility.
  • There’s good news and bad news on attracting new students. Institutions that offer online programs aren’t suddenly going to attract large numbers of students from across the country. Most still prefer to stay close to home. However, there may be opportunities to lure some students who might be studying specific fields that aren’t offered elsewhere.
  • To that end, it is important in promotions for colleges to stress the strengths of programs and the flexibility they offer. Online learners are all different. so a one-size-fits-all marketing campaign is difficult to pull off. One thing online learners do want is the assurance of instructor interaction. They want to know that if they have questions or need assistance they will get it.
  • Even the smallest scholarship offer can entice online learners to enroll. “Nearly 60% could be pulled from one to another for $1,000 per year, which is less than the cost of one course at many universities,” authors wrote.