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Online program offerings continue to boost enrollment for institutions during a period where traditional, in-person student populations are projecting downward admissions trends. As college enrollment strategies shift to accommodate these learners, institutions have expanded online offerings. I recently had the privilege to moderate a panel of leaders and experts in online learning to discuss the implications of expanded programming on higher education enrollment, enrollment growth strategies, and institutional motivators. The themes that had lots of alignment are highlighted below. It was such a collegial conversation with great learnings and insights, I’m thankful for each panel participant and their leadership in steering their institutions and the broader higher ed community to a brighter future. The quotes and themes in this blog are a brief snippet of an inspirational and rich conversation.

Student-centered online learning

Student-centered online learning entails more than an understanding that without students there is no online classroom. Sara Carter, M.Ed., Director of Instructional Design & Technology for Delaware Technical Community College, expounds, “At the heart, our why is for our students. Our why is because this [modality] is what our students want, this is what our students need. We want to continue to have them be successful. Some would not be successful if they did not have [online] flexibility.”

Paul Huckett, Assistant Dean of Learning Design and Innovation at Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, builds on Carter’s assessment, “I think the key thing is to really understanding your ‘why’ […] and using data to help inform that. Whether it’s creating programs or courses that are connected to those in both a degree or non-degree space, the more we can use data to help inform that, I think it will really help us.”

In line with Huckett’s desire for integration of analytics, Michael Matthews, Vice President of Technology and Innovation & CIO for Oral Roberts University, believes embracing new technologies, through multiple iterations, is also crucial to keeping coursework relevant and student-focused. In addition to Matthews’ point, Jennifer Brock, Vice President of Online Education Services for the Academy of Art University, also sees value in leveraging existing technologies in new and different ways to provide opportunities to ensure regular and substantive interaction (RSI) standards are being met, adding, “We have found you can boost engagement simply by taking one technology and using it in a slightly different manner to allow the students to be active in the course and actively manipulate the content and what they are learning.”

How online learning meets student needs

Online learning meets student needs by providing additional flexibility to accommodate lifestyles incongruent with traditional, in-person coursework. Hassam Kashou, Ph.D., Dean of Online Learning, Technology, & Learning Resources at Long Beach City College, articulates how this factors in at his institution:

“At Long Beach City College […] we are a Hispanic/African American-serving institution […] we also have a lot of nontraditional students where you get both students coming out of high school as well as many that are all ages, backgrounds…all socioeconomic statuses. We have housing insecurities, food insecurities, so we’re dealing with a lot more than just ‘you come to class and you learn.’ So, when you have all these different dynamics where people are working multiple jobs, they’re in families where they don’t have a place to study, there’s a lot of factors outside of education that are impacting their success.

Online education is a great opportunity to be flexible and adaptable to our student population—allow them to take classes at different times. We have both synchronous and asynchronous modalities. We have hybrid, as well, as needed. So, you still have those touch[points] […] The regular and substantive interaction, and that’s where you bring the humanizing, the components of online education, and you interact with your students so they still have the experience of online or in-person class.”

Online learning affords these students the flexibility and the opportunity to complete their education. These students don’t always have the resources, such as transportation or daycare, to get to classes physically on defined schedules, but blended and online programming offers a modality which they can succeed with.

Additionally, a 2022 New York Times article exploring the pros and cons of online programming found that online coursework helped increase the speed of graduation for students. One of the simplest reasons cited in the research was reducing learner logjams for required courses that were already full via traditional modalities.

Looking beyond enrollment growth strategies

When looking beyond enrollment growth strategies, our panel discussed the need for genuine engagement. As encapsulated by Kashou, “It’s not just about growing enrollment; it’s how we engage with students in order for them to persist through their academic journey. How do we build student belonging and engagement?”

Kashou encourages the use of student-centric schedules, considering the impact of when classes are scheduled, how they’re grouped, and through what modalities they are offered based on need and demand.

Sarah Dysart, Ph. D., Senior Director of Online Learning at the University of Michigan, echoes Kashou’s strategy, laying out, “One of the things that we’re very mindful of is that an effective strategy for one group of learners—or one subject matter area, one particular discipline—may not be effective for another.”

Dysart believes some programs can best leverage synchronous learning while others, especially internationally or where time zones play a factor, may best utilize asynchronous strategies. Dysart also encourages continual feedback from learners to ensure they’re gaining the knowledge they require, that the modalities match their needs, and that they are satisfied with the experience they’re having while also measuring learning outcomes. This helps balance the student’s desired approach and overall experience with the institution’s benchmarked learning requirements.

More student-centered online programming best practices

Want more student-centered online programming best practices? Delve into deeper detail of contributions from each of our expert panelists by watching our “How Quality Online Learning Programs Drive Enrollment” webinar for yourself.

Ready to see how a partnership with Class can take your institution’s online programming to the next level through intentional, pedagogically sound design and implementation? Schedule a demo today!

Jason Bedford

Jason Bedford is the SVP of Education at Class, and is a passionate educator and technologist. Having held executive positions with leading EdTech companies, he's worked hard to drive innovation with global educational partners and support their mission of equity and student achievement. Before EdTech, he was an educator in Wake County Public Schools.

Jason Bedford

Jason Bedford is the SVP of Education at Class, and is a passionate educator and technologist. Having held executive positions with leading EdTech companies, he's worked hard to drive innovation with global educational partners and support their mission of equity and student achievement. Before EdTech, he was an educator in Wake County Public Schools.

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