How to succeed with online learning for colleges and universities

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If you are a bricks and mortar college or university, you may be considering offering online courses. Heck, you may have already begun to offer them.

The problem is there is a right way to do it and lots of wrong ways to do it. What I’m seeing is a lot of bad.


When you ask folks what was the first 100% online university most will say the University of Phoenix. Sadly, they would be wrong. The first was Jones International, which also was the first accredited online university. The problem with JI was their name. I mean if you saw that a person had a degree from Jones International, you would immediately think to yourself, “Is that a paper mill school”?

After Jones International, the number of “for-profit” online universities started to pop up everywhere. Yet they still face the same challenges as that of Jones International (despite what they may say).  As one Wall Street exec recently told me, when he sees a degree from University of Phoenix he questions whether or not the curriculum is as strong as say a bricks and mortar college.

This is not to say that University of Phoenix or its fellow “for-profit” institutions lack substantial programs nor they are lesser than a bricks and mortar college, but in some people’s eyes they have a perception of such.

Research on online universities

Back in 1998, while working on a doctorate, I conducted extensive research on whether brick and mortar colleges and universities could succeed in generating revenue and increased students without suffering from poor execution and processes.

I equally explored factors which would enable any college/university (regardless of size and name) to achieve real growth and revenue.

What I found was that not only was it possible, but quite doable. The challenges were tied directly to the colleges themselves and the way they develop their online courses, create their processes and understand the online learning angle.

The funny thing is that those same factors and same challenges still exist today. While people swarm to the big name institutions and are willing to pay the $$$ to do so, plenty of smaller colleges and universities could equally achieve the $$$ and numbers needed to sustain and grow.

Free Courses

Make no mistake that free courses available to students and anyone for that matter is creating a new challenge. However, what they fail to offer are specific courses tied to a true path and more importantly, degrees. 

Yeah it comes from MIT, Harvard and an ever increasing consortium of various colleges and universities not only in the U.S. but around the world, but it lacks the degrees and the curriculum necessary to benefit all students.

Another con to such freebies are the number of courses in specific subject areas. Business Administration for example is quite extensive in terms of offerings and courses, yet with the freebies there tends to be a general approach along with the standard fare – such as accounting.

Additional cons include the method in which the course offerings are available. If I was a brick and mortar college offering online courses I would play against that and use it to my advantage.  However what I am seeing is a “hands off” approach.  In all honesty, it is not working.

For Profit

Let me be very clear on this. Despite what colleges and universities say about themselves, in the end their goal is to generate revenue. Without money coming in, the inevitable happens:

  • Full time faculty are replaced either with adjunct or just not replaced
  • Courses are removed – no longer available
  • Resources are scaled back
  • Areas such as the library and their books, etc. are downsized, even hours available are reduced

Three huge problems are facing brick and mortar colleges as a whole

  • Spiraling costs to students
  • Reduction in non-traditional students (i.e. 25 or older)
  • In small colleges, reduced numbers of students

How to Succeed

Succeeding involves three key components

  • Business processes
  • Learning approach
  • Marketing

Business Side

On this front, I could easily write a whole posting on it.  As a whole, brick and mortar colleges are absolutely horrendous when it comes to effective business processes. As a result, the impact in achieving success for online learning results in total chaos.

This chaos appears in specific areas (for example Arts & Humanities), which then drills down to departments and thus faculty.  It equally occurs in registration methodology, recruiting and overall approach within the university.  A university/college cannot think or act in the same fashion as they currently do, when it comes to online learning.  Yet, they do.

Ways to change

Let’s start with some basics.

  • Strip the cost of in-state versus out of state for students who have no desire to physically attend your school – people are accessing online courses not just within your university but outside as well. If they are taking the courses and have zero desire to enroll then why charge “out of state” fees? It makes absolutely no sense. The same applies to an application fee. Ahem, they are not attending your university i.e. bricks and mortar.
  • Reduce the costs for non-traditional students who desire to take a few courses here and there. Adult learners make up a huge market for the “for-profit” universities such as University of Phoenix, so follow the same manner. In today’s world, many folks are going back to school to learn new skills or build upon previous skills.  Some people just want to take a course or two and nothing more.  What hinders many colleges and universities who offer online courses are the costs for such.  Again, unless they are physically attending your school, offer a plus for taking only online courses
  • For students who are attending your university, reduce the cost for taking online courses. Revenue abounds here so reducing the cost to take these courses, only benefits your institution, because the more students who take the online course means more money for you.
  • Offer online degrees – this means offering a complete set of courses including the appropriate credit hours to achieve the degree.  General electives are the easiest to create for pure online learning and while Junior and Senior level can be difficult they are doable.  Even if you are a two year college, a pure online degree makes smart business sense.
  • Go with a commercial LMS – whether you focus on one that is geared towards higher education or not, you will need to make sure it comes with e-commerce. Why deal with an open source system that will cost you more than you think, when one that is turnkey will suffice. The argument that costs will be high for seats, doesn’t fly.  Colleges and universities have leverage and many LMS vendors offer discounts beyond the typical, due to education.
  • Include m-learning and focus on vendors who are moving to online/offline synch with tablets. Research shows that college students are heavy users of tablets.
  • Provide digital textbooks. Ditch paper based. There are a lot of digital textbook platforms out there which offer the biggest names in the textbook space. Strike deals with them, enabling students to purchase digital textbooks.
  • Change the way you think. This means cut the red tape and extensively long process to offer online learning. By the time it goes through committees and etc., you are now behind.  I don’t care if you are a big name institution – hubris only hurts and if you think other big name institutions are sitting around, while you assess – you are living on fantasy island (and no, Ricardo M. is not coming).


In today’s higher education e-learning world, synchronous based learning rules.  Frankly, I believe it is major mistake.  What schools are basically doing is shoving instructor led training online and thinking that will entice students. Yeah it is online, but boring.  In the end it is similar to what occurs in a classroom.

Some people are paying attention – i.e. completing the assignments/projects, etc. before it is due, others wait to the last minute and some just fail to turn them in.  The discussion threads follow the same pattern. Some people respond quickly and exceed your expectations, others respond minimally and a few just ignore it.

In the group setting, what occurs in the classroom follows suit online. You have a leader and then followers.

While some groups work equally well together and jointly do what is assigned to them, others will collapse – with a few people doing all the work (and notifying the professor that X or Y didn’t do anything) and other students will fail to deliver.

Recording of the faculty member and providing it – is one sided. It tends to be too long and honestly boring. I often wonder if the faculty member who does this, would listen to the whole thing if they were not the ones creating it.

When you consider that DVRs are all the rage, people are constantly flipping channels, what makes you think someone will listen to a recording of you talking for 35 minutes staring at the camera or writing on the blackboard.

Some universities have set times and present the faculty member live. Sounds great, until you realize that people taking online courses may not be in your time zone or even in your home country. 

Faculty Issues

Here is a reality check. If a professor/instructor is outstanding in the classroom, then they tend to be outstanding with an online class/courses. They tend to be very active in responding and assisting students. The same applies to someone who is poor, but in this case they are awful teaching/providing an online course.

I know of plenty of students who are taking online courses at all levels including graduate who complain that their professor takes weeks to respond, fails to respond to their postings and places restrictions on online projects/assignments as though they are teaching in the classroom.

The notion that it is easier to create an online course/class than teaching it in the classroom is absolutely bogus. In fact, if it more difficult, because someone who is truly dedicated to it – must upload all their materials, including assignments, etc. before the class is even launched (if they follow the synchronous based approach). 

Asynchronous learning

I know it is the big bogeyman for colleges and universities who are offering online classes. Yet when you look at the business side, what types of courses are they offering? Asynchronous.

What would you rather prefer?

  • A synchronous based course/class which provides no real engagement or interactivity and is truly one sided – linear?


  • A course that is self-contained, provides a real life scenario or scenarios which can be built upon what they learned – either through their digital materials, inc. for example digital textbook or a series of information built within the course (preferably, along with say a digital textbook for those who use them)?

I would go with the latter.  Best of all, you can still offer online office hours (which you should) and follow up with students via social avenues rather than the standard discussion threads.

Here are some arguments I surmise on why colleges/universities do not want to go with asynchronous

  • Time – not true. Once you create a series of modules which would constitute a course, you are done. Any modifications can be achieved quickly
  • Lack of tech skills – Every university I have been to or even at the one I taught at, had IT people available, including those dedicated to faculty in a computer lab of some fashion. These folks – the IT ones tend to expand their skill sets. Why limit yourself to a teaching assistant, when you can have someone who knows Adobe for example, and work with you? As for 3rd party authoring tools, if someone knows how to use robust software, they can learn how to create a robust course, even a simulation.   If your university offers instructional technology/design degrees – have those students (juniors or seniors) work with the faculty members to create the courses.
  • Costs – again, once you build them the cost is offset. Can you create a great scenario course at a low price point? Sure.  If you want to hire some outside folks to create the courses, depending on where you go, the costs can be higher – but the reward may be worth it.
  • Subject areas – Totally a cop out.  I cannot think of one subject area that cannot go asynchronous.
  • Fear – It often ties into any of the above. If you are leery of going pure asynch. try a few courses. I’d focus first on some of those general electives, such as history or foreign languages – which make awesome asynchronous based learning courses.

Mix and Match

As stated above, start small. Test out asynchronous based learning with a few areas and see what happens. If I am taking a course in HR law for example, I’d rather be placed into a business situation with real life issues and learn from that, rather than have to do assignments and projects which can become quite subjective.


As a former full time faculty member, I was never big on exams (although I had them).  I taught a full 100% online journalism class back in 1999, and went with scenarios rather than examinations. 

If you want to include examinations/tests in your online courses, regardless if you go synchronous or asynchronous, realize the following:

  • Students will have all the materials, including textbook at their location – wherever they are taking the exam (as long as it is not in your classroom).  As for faculty who think a student could not answer all their questions in a timed test with materials visible – you would be wrong.
  • Timed tests are worthless. See above. Yeah it is timed, but materials will be visible.
  • No one cheats. We would all love to believe that honesty dominates academia, but some students will cheat, just as some do in the classroom
  • We track their IP address. Absolutely worthless. I can have Bob come over to take my test for me, on my computer. Whalla -my IP address remains the same.
  • We require you to have your web cam on at all times. Unless their web cam moves where they move to (and some do), then you have zero idea if Sally is providing the answers on a doc. and handing them off to Steve. 
  • We require them to provide their license and social security. Personally, I think it is a very bad idea to provide Soc. Sec. and I wouldn’t do it.  As for the other – okay, I provide it, but Ralph is helping me and you have no idea.
  • Unless you go with https://, I would be extremely leery of providing you with any information such as license, social security, or other personal. Anyone can hack that and before you know it, identity theft will occur.
  • We proctor the exam and provide you with the web cam, etc. – This is growing and has real potential, but it requires the proctor to constantly look at all the students, and when you have 75 online students, there is no way one person can stare at everyone. 
  • We require biometrics – Only a couple of systems offer this – and again offers potential, but it doesn’t stop me from providing it and then having my books, materials and Carolyn helping me.
  • We require you to go to a physical location somewhere and take the exam. What’s the point of having an online course/class?

Speaking of https

Whenever you have someone buy a course(s) or take online classes and purchase them online, make sure to use not only https:// but also have your system with a minimum of AES 256 bit security.  Nothing is 100% hack proof and if someone really wants to do it and knows how to do it, they will.  But I have yet to hear of any commercial LMS being hacked.


Simply put, you have to know how to market your online courses/classes. Just having them in the catalog will only go so far. Academia as a whole is awful in marketing.

I don’t care whether you are big or small, you must maximize your marketing capabilities. This includes using social media and not just say Facebook. It includes a constant strategic approach using tactics that are effective.

Too many colleges use say their marketing professors to market, but no offense, some of these folks have zero idea about social media, let alone new digital marketing techniques which are essential.

Bottom Line

Online learning in higher education is not just placing some courses online and having students in them. It is a providing something useful, powerful and offers unlimited potential.

It is true that there are plenty of academia institutions offering online classes/courses and even 100% online degrees (often seen at graduate level). 

But they are still failing in their business and general learning approaches, which only impacts the people they are trying to serve – the students.

Students want to be engaged and while in the classroom it is a mixed bag, it doesn’t have to be with online courses.

It just doesn’t have to be.

E-Learning 24/7


  1. Thanks for this informative and thoughtful post! I just found your blog and look forward to reading more from you. As a Policy Analyst at a state higher education coordinating board I am highly interested in the route the e-learning movement takes over the next few years. I am also working on my PhD in higher education leadership and am interested in research on non-traditional pedogical methods.

  2. I have taught asynchronous and synchronous courses for New York University and, based on the concrete feedback of my students, the synchronous course model is vastly superior to the asynchronous model in terms of engagement and interaction and the level of critical discourse. It closely mirrors the brick and mortar paradigm. The connection is more palpable in real time; questions are addressed in the moment, and debate and extrapolation are embedded in the ebb and flow of discussion.

    1. All I know is that a fully robust asynchronous based course with avatars or human form like characters in an interactive process is far superior to any synchronous based course. Not saying that your course wasn’t that, but most asynch. I have seen is heavy text oriented with some images, maybe an audio/video file part of it.

      If the asynchronous included numerous real life scenarios – again action driven and not text driven, I would suspect students to prefer it. Synchronous based learning is also linear, asynchronous is not (but if you want it to be you can).

      I have taught students and learners with both formats and universally asynchronous dominates without question. But it comes down to fully interactive and engaging. If those two key components are lacking than you have nothing more than a textbook with images online.

      1. For those interested in digital textbooks. A new law went into effect this year in California:

        “will give students free digital access to 50 core textbooks for lower-division courses offered by the University of California, California State University and California Community College systems” – This policy will kick off for the 2013-14 school year. If folks want hard copies, each paper one is $20.

  3. Dear Craig, I would like to inform you that one of the leading events in learning innovations and quality will take place this year in Rome. Please join and share your expertize

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