If online is the “new normal,” fully online colleges can teach us a lot 

In the wake of COVID-19, college and university leaders can learn a lot from their fully online peers—which have been iterating for years on how best to deliver online education.

Students struggling with scheduling, health and financial challenges. Concerns about access and internet bandwidth. Challenges keeping students engaged and connected across geographies, time zones, and devices.

Richard Pattenaude
Richard Pattenaude

In an instant, the entire higher education community had to confront challenges like these that have been the norm for fully online institutions for decades. Offering programs completely online is a well-documented challenge, and if we’re headed into a fall that is dominated by that teaching mode, the vast majority of colleges and universities have a significant learning curve ahead and little time to get it right.

In many ways, the pandemic has only accelerated existing trends: Prior to Covid-19, many institutions were already grappling with declining enrollment in face-to-face programs, while online courses have continued to grow. As the country braces for an economic downturn, online higher ed’s upward trajectory is likely to continue.

Fortunately, higher education institutions can learn a lot from fully online institutions—which have been iterating for years on how best to deliver online education.

I spent years leading institutions like the University of Maine System that primarily offered face-to-face instruction, before leaving to serve as president of Ashford University, a fully online institution. When I made the jump, one colleague asked, “What the hell are you doing?,” and more than a few expressed similar sentiments. But when I arrived as President of Ashford, I was surprised to discover how committed the academic and student support units were to student success, academic quality, accountability and continuous improvement.

To address “the elephant in the classroom,” it’s no secret that many fully online institutions, though certainly not all, have comparatively low retention and graduation rates. They tend to serve a greater proportion of students who are more at-risk than those at traditional institutions, and because they often attend part-time and take longer than four years to graduate, it’s far easier for life to get in the way.

But dismissing the work being done by online institutions as a whole will do more harm than good—when, in fact, there is a lot to be learned from these institutions about navigating our current reality.

In many ways, online-first institutions are the “startups” of the education world. Due to the distributed nature of online programs, these institutions are expert in developing standards for course design; they experiment with technology’s potential to increase student engagement; and they are accustomed to a much faster rate of change than face-to-face campuses. Now, more than ever, there are opportunities for the traditional higher education community to learn from what these “startups” have already tried and borrow from what works.

Embrace data-driven approaches

While face-to-face lectures capture very little permanent data that instructors can analyze to iterate on their approach, teaching via online tools provides a much richer dataset.

Excelsior College, a nonprofit fully online institution, has been using discussion and assignment data, logins and views, among other information, to help intervene and provide support to students who need it. “We have developed individualized risk scores for each student that can be used to guide coaching and student support for those who need it most.” says Lisa Daniels, AVP for analytics and decision support for Excelsior.

In addition to helping quantify and pinpoint specific risks and challenges, the transparency of data found in online environments can actually support a more empathetic student-instructor relationship, as well. ”Datasets that capture fine-grained individual information about students’ particular approaches toward learning have enormous potential to improve and guide instruction,” says Daniels. Online discussion platforms like Packback, which focus on student inquiry and autonomy, enable instructors to be a “fly on the wall,” listening to how their students discuss course content and current events, and adjusting instruction accordingly.

Treat access, equity and community as priorities, not afterthoughts

While remote instruction can negatively impact access—with concerns from bandwidth limitations to web content accessibility—if not approached carefully, the medium also provides the potential for unprecedented inclusion and equity. Resources like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and testing tools like WAVE can help institutions and faculty verify that content can be accessed using assistive technologies for students with disabilities.

CSU Global is a great example of an online institution that is considering accessibility holistically, by providing a variety of options for how students access their content and classes—which allows students to customize their course load to suit their schedule and availability. “When students are able to choose how and when they engage in their learning experiences, they are more successful and take greater ownership for their own learning,” says Karen Ferguson, provost of CSU Global. “By intentionally planning out the course experience, we are able to ensure we are meeting all types of learner needs and bringing all students into the fold.”

Focus on intentional course design

Many fully online programs differ most notably from face-to-face institutions on the centralization of course design. Centralization is not a benefit in-and-of-itself, but when done well, it leads to a deep interconnectedness across courses—and an increased focus on students’ holistic learning experience.

IvyOnline, the online branch of the Ivy Tech Community College System, has implemented a “master course” model, providing a course structure that ensures a course addresses key objectives and aligns within the degree program. “The master course allows me as the instructor to worry less about nuances involved in matching objectives and searching for resources, so I can worry more about how to best meet student needs,” says Nicole Duttlinger, an adjunct professor at Ivy Tech.

In higher education, the lasting cultural residue of the COVID-19 crisis will likely be a greater openness to online learning. This coming fall and beyond, we will see more courses adopting remote and asynchronous approaches. With the right approach, the impossibly challenging transition instructors faced this spring may yet give way to a future in which institutions can provide access to and support a much wider range of students. And while all institutions still have much to learn about educating in the digital environment, exemplary online institutions have hard-won lessons to share.

Richard Pattenaude is president emeritus of the University of Southern Maine; chancellor emeritus of the University of Maine System and president emeritus of Ashford University. (Ashford was acquired by the University of Arizona this summer.)

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