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Online Learning as a Competitive Advantage
October 29, 2020

By Teresa de Onis

In our first blog, “Why Online Learning is so Hard”, I wrote about the significant challenges online learning presents for higher education. For small and medium colleges and universities in particular, whose bread and butter is centered on providing an intimate and highly collaborative experience, the current pandemic-driven environment is especially dire.

Exploring creative ways to move closer to a face-to-face dynamic online makes sense in the short term. In my own day-to-day interactions, I’m already seeing the potential for startups to emerge, created by students who went through the early days of the pandemic in the spring and think, “The online experience wasn’t great. Here’s a better offer.”

We can expect many smart, incremental ideas from students as they think about how to improve their own online experience. And we’ll see a lot of innovation around synchronous learning pedagogy tailored for smaller campuses whose needs and cultures are different from larger ones.

It’s difficult to imagine coming close to replicating the small-school experience online, however. That doesn’t mean we’re out of options. The pandemic will eventually run its course. But how successful you are in the long term is fundamentally tied to the steps you take today to deliver differentiated value to your students.

The value of the cocurricular experience

Large schools, many of whom offered a robust online program pre-pandemic, have an almost insurmountable head start on remote learning. What smaller schools need to realize is that the battle is lost the instant you decide to try and be everything to everyone.

Large schools correlate remote learning with volume. Their online implementations edge toward a more transactional value, not really concerned with cocurricular experience, to deliver a curriculum and a degree. This is mainly the result of employers only being interested in a student’s degree or area of study. They’ll rarely ask or care if a recent graduate obtained her degree online or on campus. It’s an education, even if it might not be a truly holistic and rounded experience in learning.

Large universities with robust endowments can throw money at the problem. Some elite universities could shut down their physical campus for a year without major pain. These are not luxuries most small and medium schools can afford. The widening gap between this volume-based approach and the intimate cocurricular campus vibe smaller schools specialize in delivering is a critical point of differentiation. The cocurricular experience is as important as the academic one – maybe more so.

Finding your differentiation

To figure out how you can best differentiate your institution, start by asking, “why us?”. Define why you exist, how you are different, and what drives students to your campus, then use online learning to enhance that value rather than work to try and replace it. This kind of thinking demands a huge cultural shift for your institution’s leadership, but the payoff makes it well worth the energy and growing pains to go through it.

I’ll share a recent example to help drive this home.

Apogee recently spoke with a CIO of a small school located less than a half hour’s drive of a US military base. He lamented many of the things you’d expect: a small team of 10, working to integrate more than 15 different technologies and vendors to deliver an online experience, with webcams and PCs added to more than half of the school’s classrooms. This is a lot of new pain points!

In spite of the school’s proximity to the base, they’ve historically had a horrible time recruiting students from it because, before today, the school’s model was 100% in person. With an online option, service members can learn synchronously or asynchronously on days they need to be on base, but on off days they can easily make the short 20-minute drive for face-to-face classes.

The school expects its enrollment numbers could double almost immediately. With a strong local presence as its differentiator, the school uses online learning to give more flexibility to non-traditional students. The CIO, who has typically felt like the guy who sorts out how to integrate 15 vendors, now strategizes with his peers on how to drive new enrollment through partnering with the US military. This is transformative as IT begins to shift from a simple cost center to a center of innovation and value.

Changing the way students collaborate and learn

We’ve talked about the reasons online learning is so hard and how small and medium schools can start thinking about enhancing the value you already provide rather than trying to compete with large schools on an uneven playing field.

In my next blog in this series, I’ll discuss in greater detail the thinking and process you’ll want to pursue to inspire a new style of collaboration. For now, check out our white paper, “Transform the Educational Experience Through Blended Learning”, to learn more about how blended learning can help you compete and win.

Author Bio

Teresa de Onis joined Apogee in 2019 and is a 25-year Austin marketing veteran with marketing expertise in distance learning systems, IT, and higher education. She combines strategy and storytelling to create and execute compelling and authentic value propositions, communication plans, brand architectures, sales enablement plans and tools, campaigns, and customer experience journeys. Teresa holds an MBA, BA, and certificate in change management, all from the University of Texas at Austin.

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