If online education hasn’t already saved your university, it probably won’t

Online education is absolutely necessary. Excellent online education is even more important.

For many students, it’s going to be a welcome alternative, especially when someone figures it out enough to create a holistic, quality, interactive learning experience.

But universities need to realize that it won’t be the saving grace for every institution. Here’s why:

In an online world, where the cost of switching is almost zero, one or two entities always win out. 

Search engines? Google.

Online shopping? Amazon.

Wasting time? Facebook (kind of).

If you’re going to take online courses, why not take them from the best place to get online courses for the cheapest price? There’s no clear winner here yet, which means a lot of schools can take a small piece of the pie. But in a few years, a dominant player will emerge and the terrain will change.

Some schools will be able to carve out a unique niche with a specialized product. Someone may have the best training for sociologists. Someone else might have the best faith-based online curriculum. But for the majority of students looking for a certain degree online, there will be one or two dominant options.

What does this mean for colleges and universities? When it comes to online delivery, I’m thinking there are a few options:

1. Race to be the best (If you don’t already have a dominant program, you’re way behind).

2. Ignore it and focus on your campus experience (Some folks can do this well. It seems risky, but it depends on the context).

3. Form a network of universities with reciprocating agreements and offer a variety of online courses together (Thinking about scale here. How can you use technology to your advantage in a way that doesn’t require being the dominant player?)

4. ? (I’m sure there are innovative options here. Hybrid courses. Online options that partner with companies to train people to work specifically for them. There are lots of possibilities.)

No matter what an institution decides, it’s clear that each university needs to be able to clearly articulate their unique value proposition.

Why do you exist?

No, not to “educate students to become ethical leaders in a global society.” That’s every college and university.

Why do you exist?

That definition should drive the campus experience as well as the online options. We need to be mission-centered in new initiatives, too.

Technology has the potential to disrupt this whole educational experience. In a lot of ways, for students, parents, and anyone paying for the higher ed experience, that’s needed. But it means campuses need to do the hard work of deciding why we do what we do – why what we do means someone would go here rather than there.

(I think this change holds great opportunity for folks in Student Affairs. But that’s for another post.)

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