Lifelong learning will become an increasingly import market for higher education

Lomas, S. and Ashburn, E. (2019) The next wave of online education San Francisco CA: Entangled Solutions

Schroeder, R. (2019) Plotting the Future of Your Online Program Inside Higher Education, May 15

New and changing markets

The short (13 pages) paper by Lomas and Ashburn is required reading for AVP’s Teaching and Learning and for Directors of Online Learning programs. Although clearly focused on the USA, it is also directly relevant here in Canada.

In the foreword to the paper, Jeffrey Selingo, Chief Strategist at Entangled Solutions says:

…online education is on the precipice of another major revolution. As this report lays out, a new generation of students are coming to college interested in a blended learning experience, one neither entirely online nor face-to-face. Meanwhile, changes in the economy and workforce are requiring further education for those who stopped short of a degree or hold outdated credentials. Online education holds the promise to serve all of these students in new and different ways.

The two key trends identified by Entangled Solutions are:

  • an increasing move toward blended learning
  • the blurring of the lines between for-credit and noncredit with micro-credentialing.

In essence, the paper identifies three distinct markets for online learning over the next few years:

  • graduate and professional online education
  • online courses for traditional undergraduates (i.e. mainly campus-based students)
  • fully online undergraduates (this market almost exclusively serves adult degree-completers, as well as some older adults entering college for the first time).

One big difference between the USA and Canada is the concentration of fully online learning in the USA among 10 of the largest online providers (almost half of distance education students are accounted for in just 5% of institutions), whereas in Canada online learning is spread more evenly across nearly all institutions.

One probable effect of this is that the large U.S. online providers have a clearer focus on their markets. Particularly as blended learning grows, Canadian institutions will need to be clear about which markets they are serving or wish to serve, because this will affect the choice of online learning models and in particular the mix of campus-based and online learning. As the Entangled Solutions paper notes:

As the market matures, online education is no longer a distinct offering but increasingly resembles higher education writ large. “Online education,” in other words, is fast becoming just “education.” And that means that the strategies that work will be deeply rooted in institutional identity.

One consequence of this is:

For many institutions, the major gains from the next wave of online education may not be in driving large enrollment increases, but in improving the effectiveness of their overall model by, for example, improving time to degree or using facilities more strategically. In other words, online may no longer be a strategy for major growth, but rather for incremental gains.

The paper goes into more detail about the three different markets, but makes some particularly important observations on the likely impact of the growth of micro-credentialing and lifelong learning.

My observation here is that it will be increasingly difficult to separate continuing education from regular degree and diploma programming, which in turn will have significant implications about the management of online learning services ,which increasingly will need to service both areas of higher/post-secondary education.

New strategies

Ray Schroeder’s blog post is a useful follow-up to the Entangled Solutions paper. Schroeder asks the following question:

In this changing environment of rapidly expanding competition and institutional expectations, how do deans and directors responsible for online learning create a viable vision for growth in the next several years?

Schroeder suggest five strategies which I won’t repeat here but would recommend you read.

What I would do

In addition to Schroeder’s suggestions, I would try to sit down with your Provost and Deans and have a half-day discussion around the issues raised by this report, and in particular try to address the following questions:

  • what are the main markets for the institution in terms of different kinds of students over the next five to ten years and where does online learning and blended learning fit within these markets? What are the opportunities here that online learning offers?
  • how do we ensure quality in our blended/online offerings? (We should of course ask the same about our classroom teaching, but…. Who knows: such discussions might even lead to their improvement.)
  • what does the institution need to do to support the almost unavoidable growth of blended/online learning over the next few years? How do we scale up our current activities from supporting about 5-10% of all teaching (the part that is fully online) to closer to 50-75% of all teaching which will be blended or online?
  • how can we involve instructors and students (or potential students – we may need to reach students that we have not previously served) in these discussions/decisions?
  • how can we engage with employers and our market research teams to ensure that they are aware of the likely developments in blended/online learning and that of course we identify their needs?
  • do we need a plan (or better, a set of strategies) for online learning – or if we have one already: do the plan or our current strategies for online learning need to be modified in the light of these future developments? 

More likely, though, it will work the other way. Discussions (with luck) will be held about the general direction of the institution or academic departments, and somehow the opportunities in blended/online learning will need to be inserted into these discussions. Good luck with that.

In the meantime, I will be raising some of these issues in my keynote at CNIE in Vancouver next week.



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