Online Education News from Connect 2015

Connect 2015What’s in your playbook for online education success? This was the theme of The Learning House Connect 2015 conference in Kentucky last week. I was fortunate to attend in person and learn more about this organization and its research, as well as hear an impressive lineup of speakers.

The three conference tracks – Program Administration and Retention, Student Marketing and Enrollment, Course Development and Instruction – offered opportunities for attendees to share their successful strategies and lessons learned in online education. (You can still view the social media backchannel via #LHConnect2015.)

The audience included higher education administrators and faculty members, with a wide range of interests from admissions to instructional design. As an online instructor, my main take-aways include a new report on student demographics, a list of emerging trends in higher education, and a few new perspectives on old assumptions about online learners.

Online College Students 2015

One of the highlights of this event was the release of the Online College Students 2015 report. This annual survey from The Learning House profiles learner demographics and tracks a range of perceptions related to students’ program selection, preferences and motivations, and expectations for the online learning experience. Here are a few of the study’s findings related to online learning and teaching:

  • Career preparation is a priority. “Roughly 75% of online students seek further education to change careers, get a job, earn a promotion or keep up to date with their skills.” Many online programs are developed with this in mind, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Student respondents also indicated a desire for more internship opportunities in their programs.
  • Not all online students are “adult” learners. Just over one third (34%) of respondents this year were 18-24 years old. This is a change from 25% of respondents in this age group in 2012. As we prepare online courses and programs for older students, it’s good to know this may not be the only group that enrolls.
  • Online doesn’t always mean “at a distance.” Even though online students rarely visit their schools’ physical locations, “65% live within 100 miles” of campus. This could mean you’ve got more options than you thought for referring students to campus-based services and activities.
  • Students aren’t new to online learning. In this survey, 59% of students responding said that they had past experience in online courses and programs. The increase in online options at the high school-level, and requirements in some states, may play a role in preparing students for college-level online learning.
  • Students don’t mind scheduled meetings online. “75% of undergraduates and 86% of graduate students were willing to log in for a synchronous discussion” with “two to three times per course” being the most popular frequency. Real-time Web conference tools, such as Blackboard Collaborate and WebEx, have come a long way and students appreciate the benefits of this kind of communication in class.

Emerging Topics and Trends

How is online education changing? What are the top trends to be aware of as you work with students in upcoming academic terms, and prepare for your next course revision? The following topics were mentioned in multiple Connect 2015 presentations, as well as in conversations that took place throughout the event.

  • The “typical online student” is getting more difficult to describe. Not all students think alike, or enter their programs with the same expectations. The keynote session from Jeffrey Selingo included a look at how today’s students can be described as more than just “traditional” or “nontraditional.” Among the more extended list of categories you’ll find are young academics, career starters, career accelerators, industry switchers, and adult wanderers. Age is just one factor to consider as we design, develop, and deliver new online programs.
  • Students need, want and expect to develop job skills. Students, parents, and employers expect a lot from a college degree, including preparation for the workforce. What is online education’s main competition? Michelle Weise, Innovation Lab Director at Southern New Hampshire University, was just one of the speakers to address non-degree, education and training ventures (e.g., General Assembly, Hack Reactor) as alternative pathways to finding jobs. Students are enrolling in these courses and boot camp experiences after graduating with academic degrees, in order to learn marketable job skills and attract employers.
  • The future includes flexible learning options. The personalized program of the future allows students to mix and match learning environments (i.e., on-campus, online, hybrid, MOOCs, short-term skills courses, internships) creating multiple pathways to a degree and a career. Selingo shared how the University of Central Florida is one institution doing this now. Bernard Bull‘s presentation encouraged all of us to think about the possibilities of offering multiple learning options around specific disciplines, which range from open courses and coaching services to executive seminars and full degrees, resulting in flexible learning options across the span of a career.
  • Employer partnerships encourage online learning. The recent Starbucks-Arizona State University partnership was mentioned in every session I attended. While not the first initiative of its kind, it may be the one with the highest profile so far and signals a growing acceptance of online education among employers. It will be interesting to see how currently employed students choose to enroll and what effects they have on course interaction as well as design. What if the majority of your students worked in the same company? There could be new opportunities for teaching and learning here.
  • Student support services are necessary for student success. This is certainly not a new idea, but the ways in which institutions provide support are changing. Weise asked, “What is the job to be done for your students?” The answer can be complex, and it’s more than offering a high quality academic curriculum. King University representatives shared their initiative that matches students with not only an academic advising professional, but also a success coach to help them navigate a wide range of online learning challenges. King University also created a program coordinator role to assist instructors with ongoing course management and monitoring of student progress and engagement.
  • How we measure student learning is changing. Several Connect 2015 sessions emphasized the growth of competency-based models to evaluate student mastery of knowledge and skills. Weise shared the need for continued development of these kinds of evaluation options as a replacement for the credit hour, our current standard for measuring academic time, effort, and achievement. According to Weise, “We’ve been measuring the wrong end of the student for way too long.”

It’s Time to Challenge Our Assumptions

It’s difficult to generalize about the “college experience” and the “typical college student” anymore. Weiss described how college used to be “a space and time to pursue passions and get a global view.” This isn’t lost, and is still the primary goal of some students, but other priorities and needs are present in our classrooms both online and on campus. The Online College Students 2015 report found “a trend emerging for younger students enrolling in online programs”, and that “from 2013 to 2105, there was a significant decline in the percentage of married and partnered individuals enrolled in online programs.” In graduate-level programs, fewer students are employed or working full-time.

How well do you know your online students each term? How do you know what works and what doesn’t work? What do you need to know about your courses that you don’t know now? A presentation from Steve Peterson, Vice President of Admissions at Liberty University, stressed the importance of not only collecting data about students and learning progress, but also using this data to make effective decisions. Short surveys and polls can help you better understand the diverse characteristics and changing priorities of the students in your classes.

We are also working with a steady stream of new learning environments, devices, and instructional strategies that continue to evolve in online education. Consider collaborating with your institution’s measurement and faculty development centers to find out more about the resources available to help you create (and continually revise) your own playbook for success.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog