Authors: Felipe Child, Marcus Frank, Mariana Lef, and Jimmy Sarakatsannis
Affiliated organization: Mckinsey & Company
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: October 18th, 2021
The education sector was among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools across the globe were forced to shutter their campuses in the spring of 2020 and rapidly shift to online instruction. For many higher education institutions, this meant delivering standard courses and the “traditional” classroom experience through videoconferencing and various connectivity tools.
The approach worked to support students through a period of acute crisis but stands in contrast to the offerings of online education pioneers. These institutions use AI and advanced analytics to provide personalized learning and on-demand student support, and to accommodate student preferences for varying digital formats.
Colleges and universities can take a cue from the early adopters of online education, those companies and institutions that have been refining their online teaching models for more than a decade, as well as the edtechs that have entered the sector more recently. The latter organizations use educational technology to deliver online education services.
Create a seamless journey for students
The performance of the early adopters of online education points to the importance of a seamless journey for students, easily navigable learning platforms accessible from any device, and content that is engaging, and whenever possible, personalized. Some early adopters have even integrated their learning platforms with their institution’s other services and resources, such as libraries and financial-aid offices.
- Build the education road map
In our conversations with students and experts, we learned that students in online programs—precisely because they are physically disconnected from traditional classroom settings—may need more direction, motivation, and discipline than students in in-person programs. The online higher education programs that we looked at help students build their own education road map using standardized tests, digital alerts, and time-management tools to regularly reinforce students’ progress and remind them of their goals.
Brazil’s Cogna Educação, for instance, encourages students to assess their baseline knowledge at the start of the course. Such up-front diagnostics could be helpful in highlighting knowledge gaps and pointing students to relevant tools and resources, and may be especially helpful to students who have had unequal educational opportunities. A web-based knowledge assessment allows Cogna students to confirm their mastery of certain parts of a course, which, according to our research, can potentially boost their confidence and allow them to move faster through the course material.
The University of Michigan’s online Atlas platform, for instance, gives students detailed information about courses and curricula, including profiles of past students, sample reports and evaluations, and grade distributions, so they can make informed decisions about their studies. Another provider, Pluralsight, shares movie-trailer-style overviews of its course content and offers trial options so students can get a sense of what to expect before making financial commitments.
Meanwhile, some of the online doctoral students we interviewed have access to an interactive timeline and graduation calculator for each course, which help students understand each of the milestones and requirements for completing their dissertations. Breaking up the education process into manageable tasks this way can potentially ease anxiety, according to our interviews with education experts.
- Offer a range of learning formats
The online higher education programs we reviewed incorporate group activities and collaboration with classmates—important hallmarks of the higher education experience—into their mix of course formats, offering both live classes and self-guided, on-demand lessons.
The Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, augments live lessons from faculty members in its online graduate program in data analytics with a collaboration platform where students can interact outside of class, according to a student we interviewed. Instructors can provide immediate answers to students’ questions via the platform or endorse students’ responses to questions from their peers. Instructors at Zhejiang University in China use live videoconferencing and chat rooms to communicate with more than 300 participants, assign and collect homework assignments, and set goals.
The element of personalization is another area in which online programs can consider upping their ante, even in large student groups. Institutions could offer customized ways of learning online, whether via digital textbook, podcast, or video, ensuring that these materials are high quality and that the cost of their production is spread among large student populations.
Ensure captivating experiences
Delivering education on digital platforms opens the potential to turn curricula into engaging and interactive journeys, and online education leaders are investing in content whose quality is on a par with high-end entertainment. Strayer University, for example, has recruited Emmy Award–winning film producers and established an in-house production unit to create multimedia lessons. The university’s initial findings show that this investment is paying off in increased student engagement, with 85 percent of learners reporting that they watch lessons from beginning to end, and also shows a 10 percent reduction in the student dropout rate.
Other educators are attracting students not only with high-production values but influential personalities. Outlier provides courses in the form of high-quality videos that feature charismatic Ivy League professors and are shot in a format that reduces eye strain. The course content follows a storyline, and each course is presented as a crucial piece in an overall learning journey.
Utilize adaptive learning tools
Online higher education pioneers deliver adaptive learning using AI and analytics to detect and address individual students’ needs and offer real-time feedback and support. They can also predict students’ requirements, based on individuals’ past searches and questions, and respond with relevant content. This should be conducted according to the applicable personal data privacy regulations of the country where the institution is operating.
Cogna Educação, for example, developed a system that delivers real-time, personalized tutoring to more than 500,000 online students, paired with exercises customized to address specific knowledge gaps. Minerva University used analytics to devise a highly personalized feedback model, which allows instructors to comment and provide feedback on students’ online learning assignments and provide access to test scores during one-on-one feedback sessions. According to our research, instructors can also access recorded lessons during one-on-one sessions and provide feedback on student participation during class.
Include real-world application of skills
The online higher education pioneers use virtual reality (VR) laboratories, simulations, and games for students to practice skills in real-world scenarios within controlled virtual environments. This type of hands-on instruction, our research shows, has traditionally been a challenge for online institutions.
Arizona State University, for example, has partnered with several companies to develop a biology degree that can be obtained completely online. The program leverages VR technology that gives online students in its biological-sciences program access to a state-of-the-art lab. Students can zoom in to molecules and repeat experiments as many times as needed—all from the comfort of wherever they happen to be. Meanwhile, students at Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas are using 3-D games to find innovative solutions to real-world problems—for instance, designing the post-COVID-19 campus experience.
Provide academic and nonacademic support
Online education pioneers combine automation and analytics with one-on-one personal interactions to give students the support they need.
Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), for example, uses a system of alerts and communication nudges when its digital platform detects low student engagement. Meanwhile, AI-powered chatbots provide quick responses to common student requests and questions. Strayer University has a virtual assistant named Irving that is accessible from every page of the university’s online campus website and offers 24/7 administrative support to students, from recommending courses to making personalized graduation projections.
Many of these pioneer institutions augment that digital assistance with human support. SNHU, for example, matches students in distress with personal coaches and tutors who can follow the students’ progress and provide regular check-ins. In this way, they can help students navigate the program and help cultivate a sense of belonging. Similarly, Arizona State University pairs students with “success coaches” who give personalized guidance and counseling.
Getting started: Designing the online journey
Building a distinctive online student experience requires significant time, effort, and investment. Most institutions whose practices we reviewed in this article took several years to understand student needs and refine their approaches to online education.
For those institutions in the early stages of rethinking their online offerings, the following three steps may be useful. Each will typically involve various functions within the institution, including but not necessarily limited to, academic management, IT, and marketing.
Assess your current online offerings. An initial diagnosis could provide an understanding of how satisfied students are with the existing online experience, their expectations and preferences, and the competitive landscape.
The diagnosis could be performed through a combination of focus groups and quantitative surveys, for example. It’s important that participants represent various student segments, which are likely to have different expectations, including young-adult full-time undergraduate students, working-adult part-time undergraduate students, and graduate students. The eight key dimensions outlined above may be helpful for structuring groups and surveys, in addition to self-evaluation of institution performance and potential benchmarks.
Set a strategic vision for your online learning experience. The vision should be student-centric and link tightly to the institution’s overarching manifesto. The function leaders could evaluate the costs/benefits of each part of the online experience to ensure that the costs are realistic. The online model may vary depending on each school’s market, target audience, and tuition price point. An institution with high tuition, for example, is more likely to afford and provide one-on-one live coaching and student support, while an institution with lower tuition may need to rely more on automated tools and asynchronous interactions with students.
Design the transformation journey. Institutions should expect a multiyear journey. Some may opt to outsource the program design and delivery to dedicated program-management companies. But in our experience, an increasing number of institutions are developing these capabilities internally, especially as online learning moves further into the mainstream and becomes a source of long-term strategic advantage.
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