Thoughts from higher education leaders: Challenges and emerging trends to consider in serving nontraditional learners

Executive Summary

Most colleges and universities have online programs. Many of these programs grew organically out of academic units who saw a need within their student population or wanted to experiment and innovate. Most senior administrators now agree that online learning is a strategic imperative and are beginning to centralize strategic decision making around these programs. The primary drivers of this centralization are: risk, efficiency, and quality.

We engaged individuals leading these efforts to collect their opinions and advice on how to develop an effective online learning strategy. This report summarizes our findings.

Among other things, postsecondary leaders recommend tapping into existing expertise across the organization in areas such as online pedagogy, organizational models, lean innovation, and post-traditional student success. They also offer advice for how to avoid potential pitfalls involved in scaling online programs and centralizing related decision making and resources. Finally, many suggest that ensuring a good experience for online students benefits all students.

Project Background

InsideTrack, the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education began this effort by surveying 675 senior administrators at UPCEA and NASPA member institutions to better understand trends in strategic decision-making efforts to support the success of students in online programs. Of the 236 respondents, 112 were chief student affairs officers and 124 were the senior most administrator in charge of online, continuing and/or professional education. The organizations then jointly presented the resulting data and hosted discussions at 3 national conferences—the Summit for Online Learning and Strategy hosted by UPCEA and the American Council on Education (ACE), the UPCEA Annual Conference and the NASPA Annual Conference. In between conference presentations, the group conducted one-on-one qualitative interviews with several survey respondents and other senior leaders responsible for online learning strategy at their respective institutions. The survey, discussions and interviews each involved individuals from a broad range of institutions representing public and private, small baccalaureate through large research institutions, all regions of the U.S. and all levels of student selectivity.

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