Rethinking Traditional Paradigms: Exploring New Ways to Drive Student Access, Engagement, and Success

Wendy Colby


Published December 3, 2020

It might seem as if COVID-19 has moved the entire higher education system online — but is the global pandemic really what’s driving a fundamental change in how we learn?

In a study of 164 university representatives conducted by AccelerEd and Education Dive’s studioID, 74% of respondents said that instruction for the 2020-2021 school year would be partly in-person and partly online, and 11% said all instruction would take place online.

But a look at the facts shows that online learning has been on the rise for several years. The most recent report from the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics revealed that by the fall semester of 2017, a significant percentage of students had been enrolled exclusively in online learning for years: 49% of students enrolled at private for-profit institutions, 19% of students enrolled at private nonprofit institutions and 11% of students enrolled at public institutions.

The key to success, then, does not lie in adapting instruction to online delivery for the short term — it lies in rethinking and repositioning our entire approach to higher education.

“The COVID-19 crisis is reshaping the way we think about higher education and calling us to reimagine existing traditions and processes,” said Wendy Colby, CEO of AccelerEd, an education technology and services company focused on higher education. “Online learning has just gone through a massive global experiment. This is a great opportunity to chart a new path forward.”

As the pandemic forces us to reset in many ways and catalyze new approaches to effective online learning — particularly in those institutions that may still be in the early journey to online, there are three tenets institutional leaders should keep in mind:

1. Think strategically, not tactically

According to the survey, the top three concerns institutions shared about the current school year are faculty training and management (29%), online curriculum development and management (24%), and student access (20%). But while all of these areas are critically important, it’s far better to start with an overall strategic blueprint that maps out the institution’s roadmap to success and takes into account all of the interconnected aspects of the experience.

“It’s important to take a holistic approach that considers the big picture,” Colby said. “What role does instructional design play in developing the online curriculum? What are the opportunities for interaction, discussion and collaboration? What elements of a physical class, such as a lab, for instance, need to be reexamined or re-envisioned online? These things can seem overwhelming to an institution that is not yet well versed in online education at scale, but they’re important questions to ask in order to create the right approach that is authentic to the institution.”

2. Recognize where you are in your online journey and adapt

The accelerated demand for online education as a result of COVID-19 has increased interest in online programs by an order of magnitude, but not all universities are at the same place in their online journey. Understanding where your institution sits on the spectrum of online maturity is a critical step in figuring out the best path forward.

Consider the following breakdown of institutional maturity when it comes to the higher education online journey:

Level 1

Marked by experimentation, with no clear deployment process or budget assigned to the online learning initiative.Next Steps

Start small. Pilot a few programs and bring in an online expert to help.

Levels 2-3

In the process of building a bridge to online education; the institution has some individual online programs and may be building competency and new revenue sources regarding outsourcing or OPM partner options.Next Steps

Start to map out the build versus partner plan. Where can you shore up the gaps? Often, in this case, the in-house capabilities are still evolving, and the strategy and processes still need to be refined.

Levels 4-5

Institutions are more able to pivot and advance online education; they have a core ecosystem for the design, delivery, scale and enhancement of programs.

Next Steps

Review the data. What programs are performing? Where are the opportunities for growth? Where can you continue to optimize or increase efficiencies? How can you drive speed to market, reinvent the business model, and differentiate your offerings for both degree seekers and credential seekers?

3. Get your technology in order

Another area of concern for higher education administrators is adapting to the demands of effective online learning on existing institutional technology. Survey respondents most often said that the pandemic had affected their technology strategy in three interrelated ways: accelerated changes in technology (15%), increased investment in technology (14%) and more online courses (14%). This adds to the challenge of facilitating online instruction and, consequently, student success.

“Many of our traditional higher education institutions were not set up to deliver education online at scale,” Colby said. “The technology deployed for a traditional classroom is vastly different from what is required for fully online at its best. Institutions need to define their goals for the student experience and tap the support of online and digital learning experts to assist in that early planning phase.”

Start by conducting a readiness audit across multiple spectrums such as technology, infrastructure and online learning to determine how to optimize existing operations, and where to prioritize investments.

Success in the new era of higher education

Successfully navigating the new world of higher education is going to take more than a COVID-19 reaction plan. The pandemic should be viewed as the catalyst that forced the change at a faster rate and created an opportunity to completely reinvent and redesign new models of education and effective online learning. Institutions that choose to embrace this change, open up more access and deliver more value to students will be the ones that find success in the new era of higher education.


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