David Kaiser is an enrollment specialist with AllCampus. He draws on his expertise in this role and his recent conversations with prospective students to provide context for how they are becoming increasingly more comfortable learning in the online environment.
The college campus was once synonymous with luscious green quads sprinkled with students reading under the shade of trees. Studying at a university meant commuting to class, packing into a lecture hall and scribbling notes as a professor spoke. Now, through online learning, the traditional campus has expanded to home offices and coffee shops around the world.
While classroom whiteboards are being exchanged for Learning Management Systems (LMS), our shift to digital technology has enabled universities to drastically expand the reach of their academic communities while also scaling their marketing and recruitment efforts to more effectively speak to a global audience.
The impact of online learning on our world has been immeasurable, and its evolution is not slowing down.
Among the chief online learning officers surveyed in a recent Changing Landscape of Online Education report, 77% expect “some or major acceleration” in trends toward online education. Many schools that had offered mostly in-person classes made significant investments in educational technology as a result of COVID-19. The expanded investment in online learning led to a dramatic increase in students attending four-year institutions and enrolled exclusively in online courses, growing from 1.1 million students in Fall 2019 to more than 4 million in Fall 2020.
The research labs, lecture halls and marble columns are still iconic pillars of university life, but, increasingly, the students I talk to have found that experiencing school spirit themselves only requires an internet connection. From single parents juggling work and childcare responsibilities to professionals looking for a career boost, the virtual classroom and other flexible learning options like upskilling can reach an impressively wide audience.
Meeting Students Where They Are
In my conversations with applicants as an enrollment specialist at AllCampus, the topic of what it is that distinguishes the on-campus experience from virtual learning comes up frequently in conversations. Prospective students already recognize the value of being on campus and its importance as a cornerstone of university culture.
This is exactly why universities that have succeeded in online education bring more than just their programs’ curricula and assignments into their virtual classrooms. They leverage collaboration and social media technology to replicate their on-campus culture and to encourage authentic professional connections between students.
When the applicants I talk to begin to recognize that the same quality of education can be attained online, flexible course schedules and workloads become an even more important factor in comparing different schools.
With the technology and social support for online education growing every day, colleges have an opportunity to digitally replicate the culture and passion for learning that has made their on-ground campuses exceptional places to study.
Flexibility and Convenience
When considering the time constraints for a working parent, or recent graduate adjusting to the professional world, the implications of being able to sneak in an extra hour to study are hard to quantify. For professionals who need more education to advance their career, cutting commute times or having the ability to work on assignments after putting kids to sleep can make earning a master’s degree a reality.
Many universities offer courses with mixed synchronous and asynchronous components or short on-campus immersion weekends, along with video office hours and access to campus resources. More than 20% of chief online learning officers believe that new online graduate courses are “very likely” to include at least some synchronous components. These high touch programs fulfill the desire for a more interactive and collaborative grad school experience.
The most successful asynchronous curricula provide flexibility while also encouraging lively discussions on the school’s LMS platform. Students find that programs incorporating additional synchronous sessions or on-campus elements offer a “best-of-both-worlds” alternative to fully in-person degrees.
Enrollment specialists at AllCampus are equipped to not only guide prospective students through the application process, but to set them up for success in the program. For example, when I first joined AllCampus, I was thoroughly trained on the ins and outs of the programs I work with, including expected workload, curriculum design and student support resources.
Being armed with knowledge on the demands of each program enables me to work closely with students to set clear expectations long before even being admitted to the program. This ensures that the students will be good fits, and it increases the likelihood of long-term success in working toward their goal of graduation.
Removing geographic limitations allows applicants to vastly broaden the list of schools they can consider. In the case of prospective students in more remote areas, an online degree may provide the only feasible opportunity to attend grad school at all.
I often speak with people from rural communities or small towns who lack access to premier universities. Imagine living in a state with a world-renowned university, but that education remains out of reach due to hours-long commutes and high transportation costs, all while needing to take kids to school and clock in and out at work.
Other students may live in a large urban area but want to search across the entire country for the best program for their career. When universities offer online learning opportunities, doors are opened to highly qualified students who otherwise may have never found a way into the program, benefiting both the student and school.
Pursuing an online master’s degree opens students to a world of new perspectives that enrich the learning experience for everyone. At larger universities, students benefit from the online format because department faculty across different campuses, as well as adjunct professors from around the world, can teach their courses.
An intentional shift to online degrees, or expansion of existing online programs, brings opportunities for broader institutional growth. Universities can maintain their distinct campus culture while extending its reach and investing in faculty and students who had previously lacked access.
In the same way that online courses reduce the barrier of entry into degree programs, the expansion of virtual learning provides networking opportunities not previously afforded to the student facing a long commute from a rural community or the working parent with no extra time to attend a career fair or seminar on campus. Anyone who has attended grad school knows that networking is a critical component of postgraduate education. With global alumni networks now largely virtual anyway, why not open those doors to online learners?
The leap from cocktail receptions to virtual networking is not far. Classmates utilize Zoom, informal WhatsApp groups and discussion boards to make connections with peers, faculty and alumni from anywhere in the world. Online enrollees often have access to the same campus resources as their full- or part-time peers at the university, which means they can take advantage of career development opportunities, the alumni network and other popular student support services.
I have found that students are often pleasantly surprised that the unique experience of online learning actually fosters stronger lifelong connections among classmates, professors and alumni than traditional on-campus degrees.
The New Normal
The pandemic only accelerated trends toward online learning that were building momentum before COVID-19 shook up the ways society operates. Hesitancy to embrace what may seem like norm-shifting change is natural, but, ultimately, the goal of higher education is to best serve the needs of students. In many ways, COVID-19 forced people everywhere to think outside the box and question long-held assumptions.
The “be scrappy” culture of AllCampus has given me the space to speak to prospective students, not from a script, but from my own passions and interests. As enrollment specialists, we approach our conversations with an active listening mindset. When I listen to students, I hear them asking for more flexibility, accessibility and broader options without sacrificing academic rigor, networking opportunities and the community experience.
Enrollment specialists at AllCampus share a deeply held belief in higher education and embrace our role as advocates for our students. As higher education and online learning evolve, we will also continue to support prospective students right alongside this growth.