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Engaged student on laptop participating in virtual learning

The competitive landscape of higher education has been a hot topic within the industry. With shifting learner demographics, an impending enrollment cliff, and new ways for students to learn, institutions must embrace new strategies to recruit and retain students and hit enrollment and retention goals.

In this new era of higher education, one clear aspect is becoming more and more popular amongst learners—online learning opportunities. In fact, in a recent Times Higher Ed study, 78 percent of students noted they want up to half of their studies to be delivered online. Not only does offering this method of learning address a clear demand from potential learners, it also opens up other potential benefits for institutions, including expanding geographic reach and academic offerings.

We recently brought together a group of higher ed virtual learning experts to discuss the importance of providing online class options, asynchronous and synchronous learning approaches, and how faculty play an important role in student engagement and community building.

Why online classroom platforms are so popular among students

There are numerous reasons that learner demand for online classroom platforms has skyrocketed; chief among these is the enhanced level of flexibility that virtual classroom learning provides. Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, most traditional learners have experienced some form of remote or hybrid classroom style. Because of this exposure, many recognized the new ways online learning platforms can impact their education.

Not only can students attend class without having to get to a physical location, they also can participate in new ways that make accessibility a top priority, from expanded ways to ingest new materials (mp3s of lectures, the ability to replay sections of videos, and the emergence of AI-generated study guides), but they can also communicate in new ways, as well (even asking questions directly to the instructor without other students being aware). Online classroom platforms have even been embraced by in-classroom educators, creating hybrid academic settings that leverage the benefits of both modes of instruction.

Additionally, online classroom platforms are even more crucial for nontraditional student populations, where flexibility around family life, jobs, and other responsibilities can mean the difference between continuing their education or neglecting to even attempt coursework. 

James Haye, Director of Educational Technology for Ashland University, expands on this reality, adding, “I think that this matches with, even if you talk with students one-on-one, students are busier than ever, and a lot of students, more now than ever, are working…The number one thing students want to be able to do is sort through the course list by modality–which courses are online. They want to see those ones front and center because they know that. in most cases, they’re going to be able to fit those in with their busy schedule.”

How online classroom platforms are transforming recruitment and retention

Offering online coursework not only meets student demand based on their busy lives and learning styles, it also expands the reach of institutions. Previously, for an institution on the East Coast to successfully recruit a student on the West Coast, lots of travel and a complete uprooting of one’s life geographically was required. However, with the emergence of new online classroom platforms that offer remote education in new and engaging ways, institutions are seeing they can bring in new students based on academic programs, regardless of geography—and the adjoined cost it would normally take to recruit them.

Matt Franz, Senior Vice President of Technology, Safety, & Strategic Initiatives for Clark State College, has seen this transformation for himself, noting, “As [our] online options grew, we began to see students ‘coming in’ from all over. For us, that’s very unusual to see students from Alaska, for example. And so, as online programs have continued to grow, I think the competition is no longer for us, as a community college, the nearest community colleges––it’s the country—who has the best program offering? How can I get this program in the shortest amount of time?”

Not only is online coursework shifting the geographic strategies for institutions, it’s also leading to questions about other ways that flexibility can be introduced into the academic experience.

Brian Jones, Associate Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness for Odessa College, points out, “Knowing that our students come to us from different backgrounds, we also had to look at the way our courses are structured. So, we moved away from the 16-week courses to 8-week courses…because our goal is always to ensure that [students are] getting to us and they’re getting through our program so that there can be some post-secondary success or post completion part that happens afterwards, as well.”

Why faculty play a vital role in engagement and community building

While oftentimes the focus of virtual learning is on remote-based students, the reality is that online classroom platforms can also transform educators’ role in an institution’s enrollment competitiveness, as well. Now, programmatic experts in their field can command a wider student audience. In fact, with the inclusion of teaching assistants, faculty can scale the size of their academic programs infinitely without compromising on the caliber of the learning materials, which can be reproduced for all participants, regardless of location.

Offering online programming, alone, isn’t enough to ensure student retention and, ultimately, completion, though. Creating and fostering a sense of community and engagement virtually is crucial in the process, as well. With this in mind, proper training and development for instructors is an important step.

Providing access to resources and experts who can help train faculty and teaching assistants, as well as serve as a sounding board for ideas, positive and negative feedback, and questions not only puts instructors in a place to be successful, it also reinforces the institution’s commitment to their success in this modality.

Jones echoes this sentiment, adding, “We wanted to shift our focus from the student actions and behaviors [of engagement and connection] to more of what was happening to build that sense of community and relational capacity on the faculty side. And so that’s where our professional learning department really helped us lean in on, ‘What are those engaging activities?’ ‘How can we talk about active learning strategies?’ ‘How can we look at the flip model?’ And so, a lot of those peer-to-peer connections were important…It was more of a collaborative involvement…We had to consider that to keep our students engaged.”

The new higher ed frontier

As the industry prepares for the upcoming enrollment cliff, the continual shift in learner demographics, and the empowerment of students’ preferences and academic choices, it’s never been more important to embrace successful avenues for recruitment and retention.

Ready to rethink your institution’s competitive edge? Reach out to a Class team member today to discover how our best-in-class online classroom platform can transform your institution’s appeal to a new era of learners. Want to check out the full discussion from our panel? Our webinar is available here.

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About Mike
Mike Lovell is the SVP of Marketing at Class. He has dedicated his career to technology and the applications that can innovate the way people live and learn.