Online Education Poised to Help Individuals Make Progress

April 24, 2020

Online Education Can Help Marketers with Career

Editor's Note: This guest post was contributed by Michael Horn, Co-Founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute and author of "Choosing College." 

As the world lurches to find its footing, people are already looking to higher education for their next opportunity and stability. Online education providers have an opportunity to help individuals navigate a crisis that has no easy answers and to upskill during a time of physical distancing. For millions considering how to further their education, online schools that drive value for individuals are more vital than ever.

I recently joined a conversation of leading Chief Marketing Officers from online programs that LinkedIn convened. Here are five current insights from research on the nationwide shift toward online learning that I shared during the session.

1. Online and non-traditional education is gaining interest

Early data suggest new patterns of student interest as they weigh going back to school.

Adult learners are expressing far greater interest in online colleges and universities over traditional brick-and-mortar options.

The sheer volume and quality of online offerings today differs markedly from the last recession. That means students have far more options, from attending large non-profit and public universities to faster and cheaper last-mile training programs.

What kinds of programs will see the most demand is unclear. The shorter the recession, the more short-term programs that rapidly move a student into the job market will likely gain traction. The longer the recession lasts, learners are more likely to choose multi-year programs as they wait for the market to recover. Demand will also vary by industry as parts of the economy, like healthcare, remain stable and continue to hire.

2. New audiences for online programs

Students who would have attended a brick-and-mortar school are considering deferring admission or taking online programs.

Traditional schools are scrambling to transition to remote learning. Although they are getting somewhat of a pass right now, the longer physical distancing lasts, the more students will expect strong online programs. Established online programs that can deliver rich, valuable learning experiences will benefit.

Students will enroll in a variety of online programs. Some students will enroll in online programs that create partnerships with traditional brick-and-mortar schools. For displaced students, these partnerships will facilitate a seamless transfer back to campus when it makes the most sense. Displaced students may also take online courses part-time as they intern online or partake in gap-year programs.

Students will also look for more affordable programs, as they won’t want to spend what they would have for a brick-and-mortar campus experience when restricted to distance learning.

3. Online schools need to innovate and deliver

At this historical crossroads, online schools need to meet students on their paths. Why students seek education plays an enormous part in what type of educational opportunity they choose. Schools are in need of serious innovation to help students find the right fit.

In Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life, we identify the different motivators that cause students to choose a school. They are defined by the progress someone is looking to make in their current context. Although these underlying motivations do not often change, individual behavior—what people choose to help them make progress—can shift dramatically. Understanding and tapping into those motivations is therefore critical to identifying student need and providing real value.

One of those motivations is, “Help me get into my best school.” These students want the traditional campus experience at a school. They care about a great brand reputation and often want to reinvent themselves among new people. The online medium has historically focused on convenience and accessibility. To serve students with this motivation, online providers will need to innovate and offer the right set of experiences online to replicate these “best school” desires. That means establishing brand prestige and enabling students to build social networks where they can reinvent themselves with new people.

A second motivation is what we call “Help me get away.” Students who attend school to get away are trying to escape a bad situation—often at home or in their town. These online students—now homebound and unable to leave—are still driven by this promise of escape. Online programs able to provide students an experience that allows them to escape will win over the many learners anxious for a way out.

“Help me step it up” is one of the most significant job motivations our research uncovered—and will likely be amplified as people lose jobs or suffer dramatic pay cuts. These learners know they can do better. They have people who depend on them. And they are afraid of where things are headed if they don’t take action now to get specific skills and credentials. These students will flock to online-learning programs as a means of making rapid progress in their lives and getting back on course. The sense of urgency means they will prefer schools that offer convenience and accessibility and deliver on what they need as fast as possible. That gives all non-traditional institutions with robust online programs an opportunity to jump ahead of traditional brands—from for-profit schools to private and public institutions with deep expertise in online learning.

4. Empathy is critical

Individuals don’t just do things for functional reasons. Humans are social and emotional—and those social needs and emotions help drive the actions they take.

In helping learners “step it up,” the motivation is incredibly emotional. They need to succeed to support themselves and others. Their sense of self-worth is wrapped up in getting into a program that can elevate them, and they are desperately seeking social support to ensure their progress.

Our research shows that education seekers use the following language:

  • This isn’t me. I need to step it up. I know I can do better.
  • I need to get out of this current place in my life.
  • Time is running out. It’s now or never because... 1) Of a looming milestone (e.g., expecting a child, a mortgage payment) or 2) We can’t keep living paycheck to paycheck.
  • I’m afraid of where things are headed.
  • I need some specific, practical skills/certifications to help me step it up.

Empathy can help schools better reach and serve their potential and enrolled student populations. Framing conversations that are mindful of students’ emotional and social dimensions is part of establishing value consistent with student motivations.

5. Offering real value drives enrollments

In the recession, local universities will compete with mega-universities that offer dynamic online programs. Large, national online universities will compete with strong regional online programs that are rooted in their communities with strong brands, targeted programmatic offerings fit for the region’s economic needs, and established social networks.

Who will benefit the most? It comes down to performance, not necessarily traditional brands. Strong online programs, rooted in strong relationships in the local economies, that deliver real value to learners by helping them make progress in their lives will benefit the most. Local, regional and national players will all help students—but those that offer the most value will benefit the most. They’ll also prove what online education can do for students, both as a supplement and as a stand-alone educational path.