After years of steady growth, the number of students enrolled in online learning programs has leveled off: Between 2000 and 2010, enrollment increased, while a 2012 review showed enrollment leveling off. Still, education officials believe online education is an important part of their long-term strategy. 70.8% of chief academic officers see distance learning as critical to institutional advancement.
Some colleges and universities are implementing internal improvements to help distance learners succeed. Institutions are reimagining education business models, recruiting, and employment procedures. They are also introducing new ways of assessing student performance. These changes aim to serve distance learners better.
The state of Tennessee has changed how it funds higher-education institutions. This is important because of the Tennessee Promise scholarship program, in which any qualifying student in the state will receive free tuition to community college. So far, 57,000 students have applied for the scholarship. In the past, schools received funds based on enrollment numbers. Now schools receive money based on outcome-based funding methods, including the percentage of graduating students.
Making learning social
The Tennessee State University (TSU) Distance Education program initially focused on recruiting as many students as possible. Now it must focus on making sure admitted students perform well in class, encouraging students to enter a degree program and closely monitoring progress.
To do this, TSU developed a “one-stop shop” in which students can get needed assistance on a variety of issues. The concept of providing service will be even more important under the new funding model. Distance education was constantly explored as a new method of helping students succeed beyond a simple help desk.
Previously, distance education was just beginning to institute methods of communication with students that we now take for granted, such as having a social media presence. Now it has incorporated a second life as part of the program. It acts as a virtual campus and mimics the real-life experience of TSU’s campus. Distance ed students have real-time access to support services as well.
Improving customer service
The Tennessee state government plans to privatize its general services department, appointing a third-party organization to handle facilities management, procurement, and various customer service duties. While current employees are concerned about their future, the state government believes using privatizing services will improve performance in key areas. At some Tennessee colleges, for examples, students complained about customer service. Efforts to improve failed, and long-time employees were slow to take on changes. The hope is that the new plan will provide better results for students.
The privatization initiative will not affect all student services. Admissions, for example, will remain under the control of the universities. Yet admissions has been a primary target of student complaints. As the state has cut funding for higher education, many departments have needed to do more with less, and some employees asked to perform several jobs. These employees have required training. At TSU, an organization has provided customer service training in an effort to improve student satisfaction. The school also retooled its automatic phone answering service.
Improving funding methods
To make up for shortfalls in budgeting, schools are working hard to increase alumni donations. Schools are using databases to track potential donors, and easily available information regarding personal assets to identify potential donors. Buying new software to track donors can be expensive as hiring new staff. Schools must be inventive to find efficient ways to get a return on donor recruitment.
Social media makes campus safer
Student safety is another major concern. A few tragic incidents that recently claimed the lives of several students at the University of North Carolina have prompted the school to refocus its efforts on creating an effective warning system. Today, the university alerts students about potential problems via social media. Email alerts warn students about possible gunmen on campus. The school newspaper uses social media to update students on potentially dangerous situations. Fortunately, one recent incident turned out to be a false alarm, but students reported that the early warning system made them feel safer.
Colleges and universities must expand digital strategies beyond academics. Student services, business practices, and fund raising also stand to gain from advanced technologies in improving student satisfaction. After all, students are a school’s most important asset.
Learn more about digital transformation at Higher Education and Research. Reimagined for the new economy.