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Serving The 21st Century Online Learner: MOOCs Grabbed Attention, Now Universities Need To Keep It

BOSTON, Feb. 14, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- When it comes to online learning in higher education, student demand calls for more personalized approaches than the MOOCs dominating headlines. Success in this new world involves tailored, blended strategies, according to a new paper from The Parthenon Group examining how best to serve the 21 st century student.

"The world needs a more responsive education system with online offerings a high priority, though MOOCs are but one part of the equation," said Haven Ladd, a partner in the firm's Education Practice and author of the paper. "We've yet to see many institutions develop sustainable financial models for an online degree program that strikes the correct harmony of meeting the needs of target students and a school's mission and resources."

Based on a recent qualitative study of over 100 post-secondary institutions, The Parthenon Group's Education Practice has articulated the top five lessons for universities.

  1. Students are demanding online courses, and the majority of institutions have responded by offering them. Demand represents two things for the growing population of online learners: a continued desire to use technology to learn and an increased comfort using technology. While supply continues to grow, demand for online programs remains impressive and positive – with 87% of digitally inclined master's students confident in their online learning. This paves the way for universities and colleges – for-profit and non-profit – to expand institutional reach and impact via online programs.
  2. Online programs are not just for adult learners seeking master's degrees. While master's programs are often a gateway to a school's virtual offerings, they represent only one-third of today's online programs. Although online enrollments are highest for graduate students, there are two million bachelor's students expected to join the undergraduate presence over the next eight years. "With online options more readily available and cost efficient, multi-million-dollar campus expansion projects could become unnecessary," Ladd points out. "Why build on the ground when you can build in the cloud?"
  3. Online students need fundamentally different support services from on-campus students. Because withdrawal rates are higher for online learners versus traditional students, institutions contemplating expansion into the online learning space must be prepared to build, secure, and maintain critical infrastructure needed to support this new learning community. The number of students walking through any school's virtual doors on day one may increase, but the number graduating won't be the same unless schools effectively engage and adapt to the differentiated needs of online students. Appropriate management must be implemented, or schools risk losing students and credibility.
  4. MOOCs could present a challenge to the traditional institution revenue model – lack of clarity now means room for opportunity. The right business model is exactly what the show-stopping MOOCs of 2012 are trying to figure out in 2013. "The lack of clarity in MOOC monetization is an opportunity for traditional higher education entities to take control of their online learning strategies and capitalize on the qualities for which MOOCs are quickly trying to compensate: a network of academics and degree credibility," Ladd said. "With a rising demand for online learning at all levels, the question is not whether universities should go online, but when and how to do so."
  5. Online for online's sake is not a strategy – schools must articulate and pursue deliberate objectives related to online learning. As more universities dip their toes into the MOOC testing pool, The Parthenon Group maintains that universities must respond to student demand in order to be competitive and relevant. Many education leaders agree that it is important to have an online strategy but fail to articulate a viable one. Strategic objectives may include financial sustainability, tuition reduction, increasing effective capacity, enhancing intellectual and societal impact, and responding to student demand.

"It is time for the bedrocks of post-secondary education to seize the opportunity to refresh their strategies and reengage a 21st -century learning world," said Ladd. "For an online strategy to leave its awkward and insecure stage and mature, institutions have to realize their own strengths and weaknesses and tailor their online programs accordingly. By customizing online learning based on school's missions and resources, universities will succeed in this new – and permanent – education landscape." 

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