Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
6th May 2020

The future of education is online, at least for now

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Students’ expectations for instructional quality and a better technical experience online will rise throughout the year
  • Many schools and universities will rely heavily on online delivery for much of 2020
  • Listening carefully to what students want regarding online learning is crucial right now

As we approach the end of the second quarter of 2020, educators and recruiters are looking ahead to the rest of the year and wondering whether it holds the possibility of reopened campuses and in-person instruction. Because there is not yet a vaccine for the virus, and because the pattern of the pandemic is still in question, there are few clear answers at the moment.

For educators hoping to recruit new international students and retain the ones they have, this unpredictability means that they must continue to quickly improve the online learning experiences they can offer to students.

Most students were tolerant of the transition from in-person to online learning earlier this year (though of course some were not) because they understood it in the context of the pandemic’s effect on absolutely everyone, schools included. But this patience is not everlasting. They will expect a high-quality online learning experience in the second half of this year, and one with a smooth transition to on-campus instruction, where applicable. Otherwise, more students may opt to defer their studies until the pandemic has run its course.

Quality in online learning

Most institutions faced with the sudden onset of COVID-19 had to reckon with both technology-related and human issues (i.e., faculty told that they needed to immediately adapt to teach online). For some institutions, it was the latter that was particularly challenging. For example, Vickie S. Cook, executive director for online, professional, and engaged learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield, told Inside Higher Ed that investing in preparing teachers to teach online is a priority, saying that “online learning is a type of teaching that requires very specific pedagogical skills…the pedagogy is more important than the technology."

Flower Darby, director of teaching for student success at Northern Arizona University, agreed, noting that,

“Good online courses do not have to be high-tech. You can be fully asynchronous and fully low-tech and still have quality learning."

As for the technological challenge, this is a frontier that was initially pushed by MOOC pioneers over the past several years but which is now a Wild West of players, platforms, and investors working round the clock to come up with the best online learning environments and experiences.

A discerning audience

Gary Hepburn, Dean of the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, makes a great point in a recent article on Medium that the factors influencing students' choice of education provider are changing. Because of COVID-19, he explains, students have become a new kind of consumer. As well as being influenced by destination, institutional reputation, safety, cost, and work/immigration factors, students will now be much more influenced by what an institution can say about its online offerings, and by how it generally positions itself online and on social channels:

“Since students are now in a stronger position to choose how they wish to be educated, higher education institutions are going to have to pay more attention to student preferences. The era of the student consumer has arrived, and institutions have to become far more responsive to what they want. We cannot take student preferences for granted, and we need to invest in understanding them. When it comes to the delivery of education, it’s no longer about us; it’s about them.”

Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), is very much on the same page as Mr Hepburn. As reported in Quartz, he believes that, “Students will take ownership over their learning, understanding more about how they learn, what they like, and what support they need …. they will personalise their learning, even if the systems around them won’t.”

According to Mr Schleicher, “Real change takes place in deep crisis; you will not stop the momentum that will build.”

Planning for quality

Keeping in mind Mr Schleicher’s opinion that we are at the point of no return regarding students’ new expectations of online learning, what’s the best way to move forward?

  • Listen in carefully on the social media conversations about your school, competitor schools, and studying in general in this unprecedented and disruptive time. Ideally, survey students (with incentives such as being entered in a draw for a prize for participating) to see how they are adjusting to the new mode of instruction you are providing for them. What are they satisfied with? What would they like to see more of? What just isn’t working?
  • Check in on what educators in your competitive set are doing. What are they saying in their emails and other communications to students? Are they using ready-made platforms such as OpenClassrooms or Coursera? Have they adopted other general-use tools such as Zoom or Google Hangouts? What are they doing that is working well and giving them a potential recruitment advantage?
  • As you chart the future of your online strategies, prioritise helping students with any current pain points. Have your technical support staff address any common challenges students are having (e.g., forgotten passwords, browser problems, etc.) and make sure staff is ready to quickly help them with those issues.

For additional background, please see:

• “With 9 in 10 students affected by Covid-19 closures how is the shift to online learning going so far?
• “Social media engagement is up and so is interest in learning online
• “On campus or online? Looking ahead to the coming academic year

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