When distance learning isn't enough.

The bigger challenge behind this fall's shift to online classes.

As marketers, we’re constantly trying to think from the consumer’s point of view: what are they thinking, how are they behaving, what worries or excites them? Based on recent world events, we know that gathering in large groups is a concern for many people – and students are no exception. So in our efforts to recruit students for the fall term – and into the foreseeable future – higher education marketers have started to lead with the promotion of online learning.

But by itself, ‘we offer classes online’ is not a strategy that will attract students – because these days, that’s something almost every institution can or will boast. If post secondary students are attending next semester from their laptops, a literal world of higher education options is available to them online. 

We’ve previously discussed the importance of differentiation for higher education institutions. For many institutions, this fall will test their ability to stand apart from competitors. An online learning delivery model is the cost of entry – differentiating your institution to be the most attractive destination could determine whether or not students log in on opening day. 

Understanding how the online learning delivery model became a cost of entry offering.

To appreciate why simply making distance learning available isn’t enough, let’s look at the adoption funnel in the context of online shopping – and then bring that metaphor back to higher education.

For years, people have been aware that online shopping exists. And while uptake has climbed during this time, as recently as 2018 online shopping only accounted for a tenth of total retail spending in the U.S. Put another way – having online shopping available (awareness and consideration) didn’t mean everyone immediately started sending their credit card numbers into the electronic ether (trial).

But the COVID-19 crisis accelerated online shopping’s adoption funnel at a breakneck pace. In April, online purchases and ‘buy online/pickup in store’ purchases exploded, with items such as pyjamas and groceries more than doubling in sales compared to the previous year.

Online learning is experiencing the same kind of surge in uptake. And like retail shopping, it’s been driven in part by necessity. When the pandemic took hold in North America in March, most schools were mid-semester, and pivoted to online learning to allow students to complete their studies for the term. 

While the technology for online classes has existed for some time (awareness and consideration), some data suggests that about one in six students opt to take their course load entirely online, with more choosing to mix online and in-person courses. 

This fall, the choice to study online – whether based on convenience or preference, and whether in whole or in part – looks like it will be taken away from many students. Those planning to start, continue or complete their higher education journey will find most classes offered remotely. 

And – having been forced into trial next fall by the pandemic – it stands to reason that in the years to come, more students will be open to taking a greater share of their courses online. At the very least, any preconceived objections they might have had about online learning will be replaced by first-hand experience. 

How do you retain and recruit students when location is neither a barrier nor a differentiator?

The imperative for higher education marketers won’t just be the need to promote that they offer courses online. It’ll be to promote how their online offering is different or better than other institutions. Because come fall, every school will be online in a bigger way than ever before.

This poses a unique challenge for a few higher education institutions in particular. Athabasca University and University of Phoenix have long planted their flag as leaders in distance education. Their corner of the market is about to become crowded with competition, though their head-starts as ‘first’ or ‘most experienced’ in this space could help them keep the lead.

The imperative for higher education marketers won’t just be the need to promote that they offer courses online. It’ll be to promote how their online offering is different or better than other institutions.

Other institutions won’t be immune to revisiting their previous claims to fame, either. If I say the phrase, ‘small class sizes’, you’re likely to think of a few universities and colleges in your market who rely on this claim. Smaller class sizes are usually used as features that enhance greater access to faculty and facilities. This fall, the shift to remote learning will arguably render the majority of class sizes to ‘one’ – and higher education institutions that have distinguished themselves on student-teacher ratio need to seek new ways to stand apart, and quickly. All the more reason that colleges and universities need to stand for more than just their list of attributes.

Even though they’re not leading-wedge claims, things like streaming quality, online security, and comfort with remote learning technology could become important decision criteria for students. In the last three months, we’ve each sat through a webinar or videoconference that required several minutes of tech support before it could start, or one that was plagued by horrible lighting, inconsistent audio and bad framing. 

As rudimentary as it sounds, the schools that can promise strong connection speeds and instructors who are trained on videoconferencing platforms may be able to claim a slight edge over those that don’t.

Of course, online learning doesn’t always involve live-streaming – or at least it hasn’t. Pre-recorded lectures and downloadable materials have long been accepted as a secure, predictable model for sharing resources. 

But two factors will probably influence students’ expectations of the traditional online module being enhanced this fall. 

First, if tuition costs for Fall 2020 courses remain at the same levels as they would if courses were offered in person, students will expect more than a list of downloadable links for their dollars. Your marketing and communication must powerfully define the value proposition of your online offering, and assure students they’re not losing anything. If they’re not convinced, many will opt out until they can attend in person.

And second, the adoption curve for videoconferencing has been accelerated in the last few weeks as well, ushering Zoom into verb status (like Xerox, Google, and FedEx before it). Online learning offerings that don’t incorporate some forms of interactivity and accessibility will feel outdated.

The million-dollar challenge: redefining student experience.

To recap: 

  1. Online learning is about to take on a more prominent role for all higher education institutions. 
  2. Offering online learning isn’t enough – your offering needs to be different or better than competitors, to stand apart.
  3. Learners are likely to have expectations of interactivity and real-time access from their online classes – or they’ll question the quality and value of the offering.

While those are some tangible takeaways, there is a bigger issue lurking beneath. We know that the post-secondary student experience isn’t just defined by the dissemination of knowledge. So much of that experience comes from the sharing of ideas with instructors and peers. When that community is taken away, is what’s left worth the same price of admission? 

That is the million-dollar question higher education institutions need to answer – and we mean that quite literally. If perceived student experience suffers, students simply won’t be willing to pay what they once did for higher education. They won’t feel the same affiliation with their alma maters. They won’t have as strong a tether to their institutions as alumni. And with less affinity, they won’t give back philanthropically at the same levels they once did. The impact could reverberate for years.

But behind every challenge is an opportunity: the playing field has been evened for higher education institutions. Those that can redefine (and appropriately market) the experience they offer to students – mostly online in the immediate term, and with a presumably larger proportion of blended learning in the longer term – may be poised for a huge leap forward in reputation and regard among competing institutions. 

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