In-person vs Online Universities

What Traditional Universities Can Learn From Online Schools

Summary: The 2020s pandemic pushed students out of the classroom and onto a laptop at home, shoring up the previously questionable reputation of online courses. Now that the proverbial genie is out of the bottle, some students might be reluctant to head back to campus. How can traditional higher ed stay in competition with online universities, and how can marketing reflect that strategy?

We all have to face one sobering fact: We should have seen this coming. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed bringing online schools to the foreground, that wave was a long time coming. EdSurge pegs the year at 2010 when the earliest Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) emerged. Internet-based educational options have ever since been growing to compete with traditional higher education institutions. COVID-19 just gave them a niche in history to propagate.

We should have seen this coming because the tech revolution of the past few decades has purged whole industries as remote digital equivalents replaced them. Take the movie theater industry, for example. Actor Jim Belushi recently polled his audience on Twitter, asking if people are willing to head back to movie theaters after the pandemic. Responses are very mixed, but a substantial percentage responded that they’re perfectly cozy at home streaming their Netflix, HBO, Disney, and Paramount services.

Like the various entertainment industries, higher education may undergo its own evolution. But the comparison is different this time because education isn’t just a matter of media. The full campus experience is difficult to replace with digital analogues, even though a classroom lecture is easy to reproduce over Zoom.


Pros and Cons of Remote Learning

In January of 2019, Inside Higher Ed covered a report which concluded that fully online education doesn’t effectively substitute for a traditional in-person experience. A few of the issues with online learning are stated as…

  • Employers perceiving online degrees less favorably than traditional degrees
  • Skepticism of online education compared to face-to-face education
  • Students from disadvantaged backgrounds under-performing
  • Online education failing to reduce costs, offering a lower ROI
  • Reduced student-instructor interactivity decreasing online education’s quality

For-profit, online universities are another factor contributing to pessimism towards online education. As one might expect, for-profit institutions have a “well-established and long record of predatory behavior and compliance troubles.”

Two grains of salt may be prescribed with this report, however. The article itself points out skepticism about the report, with critics citing outdated information and a blanket attitude of condemnation for online learning. And of course, the report predates the COVID pandemic when online learning switched from “optional” to “necessity.”

So much for the “cons.” On the “pros” side, online learning offers:

  • Flexibility – No longer limited by physical campus location or classroom size, students can pick and choose programs that tailor to their field of study
  • Convenience – We all know that taking a class is easier when you can do it from the couch at home
  • Digital accessibility – You can still jump into chat rooms with your fellow students, have virtual study groups, and pick your own schedule for more activities
  • Advantage for the motivated – The self-starter who is well-prepared benefits from not being held back by the slower members of the class
  • Decreased negative social interaction – Students who are disproportionately targeted for their gender, race, or religion may enjoy some protection in anonymity online

We can all think of many benefits that digital technology, in general, provides for the education experience. Indeed, the whole World Wide Web was created to assist academia in the first place. No less than Sir Tim Berners-Lee has called publicly for increased access opportunities for young people, in the form of government-supplied universal broadband by 2030, citing in part the need for access to virtual learning.


Adopting the Good Traits of Online Learning

If you’re looking for a less wishy-washy take on online learning, look no further than the Harvard Business Review, which has boldly stated that the time for universities to adopt online learning was “long overdue.” This attitude draws a firm line, sorting the universities which will adapt to make digital transformation and technology a central priority and which ones will not – and hence perish.

There is much more to “remote learning” than a mere Zoom lecture, Harvard points out. Cloud computing can warehouse data, virtual SMS assistants are the new classroom tutors, and artificial intelligence can be harnessed to assist in grading assignments and to deliver adaptive content. Some of these services are significantly optimizing student support. Meanwhile, schools that adapt to a more embedded technology role benefit from saving labor on administrative functions.

Furthermore, there are quite a few schools already adapting. The University of Illinois has pounced upon the opportunity to reduce faculty labor using technology, creating a program where thousands of students can pick up an M.B.A. for $22K. Georgia Tech offers a master’s in Comp Sci costing only $7K, currently enrolling 10K students. Universities such as Stanford and Oxford have begun digitizing their libraries for easy student remote access as a service to their online programs. US News lists several more accredited online colleges, and they’re not all for-profit online diploma mills.

How are schools able to afford these competitive rates? We mentioned before things like those chatbots. Well, there’s much more to that story. Chatbots are not limited to those tacky little eCommerce customer service scripts. They are becoming virtual avatars with personalities, using machine learning to become competent at handling admissions, campus tours, and even student counseling.

There’s so much more that is possible when a university integrates technology with its infrastructure. While artificial intelligence systems are expensive to implement, once they are running, they become a tireless, full-time employee who never needs a paycheck nor calls in sick.


Targeting the Online School Audience With Digital Marketing

The summary of all of the above knowledge is to consider that your potential students are doing precisely this kind of research. They are also discovering an online MBA degree from UI for $22K. They are also weighing the pros and cons of remote learning versus the full campus experience.

But we have also seen where a strictly online class is not for everybody. You miss out that way on the hands-on course and lab work, don’t get the luxury of hanging out on campus networking with stimulating peers, and don’t get the full learning bandwidth that in-person class allows. So how do we market to all of these diverse needs?

The answer is easy: Have it your way! Why not offer the best of both worlds? The concept is called “blended learning,” a mixture of in-person and remote delivery where the online portion replaces some of the face time.

National University in La Jolla, California, has a page up with exactly this message. Take an example from there and use it for the first key in your marketing materials:

#1: Be Frank About the Pos and Cons of Online vs. In-person Learning

On the pro side, students may be more attracted to online learning for its flexibility, lower expense, and less need for commuting. Or they may be more attracted to in-person learning for the distraction-free environment, hands-on experience, networking opportunities, and increased guidance.

Tech-savvy students who have high personal motivation may do better with online courses. Students who like learning the analog way or would prefer more guidance in budgeting their time may find that in-person classes work for them. Still, other students may prefer a blend of both approaches. Address all of them and your school’s openness to taking the approach that works best for students.

#2: Offer the Same Perks as Online-only Schools

This is easier said than done, but if your school is at all on track to fully embrace tech innovation, your advertising can echo every single enhancement. Beyond mere “Zoom courses,” you can tout your smart virtual assistants, networked student hangouts, supplemental materials on campus blogs and YouTube channels, bustling online campus culture, and so on.

Don’t forget to compete on the price point too. We hesitate to advise you to start placing dollar amounts in every ad like a used car lot would, but students should be aware that if they are getting a pared-down experience through a monitor, they should expect to get the savings passed on to them as well. Remember, your online courses have no limit on size; you can enroll more students and make up the tuition discount in volume.

#3: Offer Something That Online Schools Can’t Match

Of course, you can also compete with online-only schools by offering something they don’t have: a campus! For those students who prefer an in-person or blended approach, your physical university facilities still provide that advantage.

One should note that certain fields are more suited to online learning than others. You’ll find many online-only computer science courses because being on the computer counts as a hands-on experience there anyway. Likewise, an MBA program doesn’t lose much when taught remotely; the spreadsheets and accounting parts are used on a computer regardless. But there are other pursuits, such as the performing arts or medical courses, which benefit from in-person instruction and lab work.

So you can broadcast a course portfolio that encompasses the spectrum from remote-only courses to in-class and hands-on instruction, plus the options that offer a blended approach. If you have made it this far in the pandemic, you have already partially adapted to offering more technology-based instruction methods. There’s no reason to throw them out after the pandemic has ended.

#4: Address Student Motivations in Learning

This generation of students views “learning” as something accessible anytime, anywhere, right on their phone. Their motivation in going to university is to get that degree and the career assurances that come with it. PwC, UK, has a report on the 2018 Digital University which points out…

“Students increasingly see universities as the main means of securing their future employment, rather than simply learning and self-development. The value proposition for universities is therefore changing, and this means that employability and the student experience is more critical than it has ever been.”

In other words, students don’t necessarily equate a lack of continuing education with a lack of knowledge. In many ways, the Internet functions like the world’s biggest encyclopedia, all free. Their attitude is, “If you don’t know it, Google it.” They come to university instead for that piece of paper that certifies their official credits for a field related to, hopefully, their career.

Your marketing message can focus on the end goal rather than the journey. True, we will still have students who want the full experience of classroom discussion, debate, guided practice, workshops, and exercises. Not everyone learns the same from just hours of reading text, and even the best book is no replacement for the give-and-take with a spirited professor. Your marketing content can, again, showcase the flexible options for each style of learning.


Conclusions: The Hybrid School

This article at Visible Body speculates on the future of higher ed, concluding that a hybrid approach, the blended learning model, will become the standard model for universities. That’s one more source forecasting a significant sea change in the education industry.

As we say at the beginning, we should have seen this coming. Science-minded universities have already been offering online options, such as MIT’s Open Courseware project. This is an initiative to publish all of the educational materials from its undergraduate and graduate courses online, where it’s free as rain for anyone to access. Instant class, just add instructor and exam.

Modern students look to the future when they think about school. Your school should do the same and message that vision to potential enrollees.

Interested in improving your college’s marketing and thinking of shifting to an online/in-person hybrid approach to learning? Let us help! Atlantic is a digital marketing agency with seasoned professionals who are eager to help take your higher ed institution to the next level. We specialize in SEO, PPC, reputation management, and everything in between. If you would like to know more about us, click here.


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