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Higher Ed Online: From ‘Crazy Idea’ to a Modern Student’s Expectation

Graduate hugging a child

Todd Hitchock says his work for today’s students seeking a degree in higher education is to help them connect the dots “from Google to diploma.”

A student might start the whole process by searching online for online degree programs.

And in his role leading Pearson’s online learning services in North America, Todd’s job is to make their pathway to diploma as easy as possible—from that first click, to graduation day.

These students have lives—they have full or part-time jobs, they might have children, they might live in an area where it’s tough to just get to campus.

These students have lives—they have full or part-time jobs, they might have children, they might live in an area where it’s tough to just get to campus.

Todd has been at this online learning work for a long time. He’s written about his first day in the classroom—25 years ago:

It was a sunny, hot, late-August day. Students filed in, racing for the newest of the 8086 machines in the room. This was before there were networks – these babies were smoking hot monochromes (green screen and orange screen) with 5 1/4″ floppys – some with dual drives! At that time, there were no methods classes/programs for teaching technology, no instructional or assessment strategies for integrating technologies into the curriculum. Instead, the people who taught these programs were real geeks (when it was not cool to be a geek).

A Modern Flexibility

“Nearly 3 million people are working to a degree today that’s fully online,” Todd says.

The majority of students choosing to study fall into two key categories: degree completers—those who at some point in their life started a degree, had to drop out, and are now coming back—and those seeking to advance their careers through profession-related degrees in areas such as business, healthcare, education, and engineering.”It’s so popular because of its flexibility,” he says. “These students have lives—they have full or part-time jobs, they might have children, they might live in an area where it’s tough to just get to campus.”

“It’s so popular because of its flexibility,” he says. “These students have lives—they have full or part-time jobs, they might have children, they might live in an area where it’s tough to just get to campus.”

“So we bring school to them,” he says.

Often, It’s All About Career

Todd says there are four types of students for whom online higher education is a great resource:

Career Starters: “These are students who just graduated from high school but are unable to get ahead in the workplace right off the blocks. They want a degree to be a more competitive applicant.”

Career Changers: “Halfway through life, these students decide that their live needs to change. Sometimes we call it ‘re-skilling.'”

Career Accelerators: “These are students looking for promotions or better jobs. It’s often a master’s degree.”

Career Crossers: “These are generally managers or senior managers with jobs that are expanding. They might be leading one department and start leading another department at the same time. They’re looking for expertise as their jobs grow.”

“What we do,” Todd says, “is work with our university partners to help students meet these goals—and help university’s provide the new set of resources these programs need.”

Enabling Colleges and Universities

“These are programs that run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year,” Todd says. “And since launching, managing, and growing online programs is becoming more and more complex, colleges and universities are looking for partners to help them with their programs.”

So Todd and his colleagues help with many of the core aspects of designing and developing online programs—including identifying students and programs that are the best fit for students and the university, faculty training, curriculum design and support, technology supports, and student coaching and mentoring in non-academic areas.

They work with faculty on course content as well as the student user experience.

Since students are not located in a physical classroom, they need additional supports that traditional students do not. In order to focus on student completion, they’ve also made sure that every student has an advisor who acts as coach and mentor, guiding degree seekers toward reaching their professional goals.

“We have expertise in ensuring a student-centered approach across the entire online learning spectrum,” Todd says, “but we also ensure there are checks and balances in place to ensure academic integrity by the instruction. The university maintains all of these core areas, which include program selection, admission requirements, admission decisions, instruction, and assessment.”

“We simply help colleges put their degrees online.”

Making Students More Competitive Applicants

In the past, colleges and universities might have chosen to add new classes to the course catalog based on new faculty hires.

“We work through an entirely different approach with our partners,” Todd says.

They conduct rich market research to understand which degrees will provide students with the greatest value—and which job sectors are growing or declining.

“The methodology we use allows us to identify the best programs for our university to offer that will align with their goals and at the same time increase employability options for students,” Todd says. “Being able to get a job or a better job is the number one measure of efficacy when it comes to degree attainment.”

A Change in Views

“In recent years, enrollment in higher education has decreased,” Todd says. “During the same period, online student enrollment has increased.”

A decade ago, he says educators initially thought this was just an alternative form of education that might be good for a few people. “Many believed it would never work at scale online,” he says.

Todd says educators feel differently now: “They now say online degree programs have to be a part of their strategy.”