“I’d rather sing you a song than draw you a picture,” is what I’ve been telling my math classes for almost 20 years now. I’ve always enjoyed music (I was one course shy of a Music minor) and I always enjoy an opportunity to sing. Even in my math classes, I would sing the quadratic formula to the tune of “Pop! Goes the Weasel” – something which my students always enjoyed.
When it comes to drawing however, that is a whole other matter. My stick figures are embarrassing, so you certainly don’t want me to draw complicated 3D figures in Calculus. If only I could sing about washers and cylinders for volumes of rotation in Calculus; unfortunately, a picture is better than a thousand words, or songs, in my case.
A Q&A with Heather Clarke, Associate Director of CRO, Pearson Online Learning Services
Institutions are seeking more inquiries and enrollments from their online learning program websites. Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) can help them achieve this goal. To explore how, we spoke with Heather Clarke, Associate Director of CRO, Pearson Online Learning Services.
Q: What is CRO (sometimes called website optimization)? How does it relate to marketing online learning programs?
A: CRO is the scientific process of testing for improvements on site elements and a user’s movement towards a purchase decision, with the goal of improving on-site conversions.
I emphasize the word “scientific.” We use the scientific method to collect performance data and user feedback, to form hypotheses, and to test them. Based on data, we create a test variation that we hypothesize will improve performance. By testing with a control, or testing one change at a time, we can attribute any measurable shift in performance to our change.
CRO helps mitigate risks and save time and money. By testing and evaluating (vs. blindly implementing changes), we let learners — through their actions — tell us what works for them and what doesn't.
CRO is continuous. Sites are never 100% optimized. The digital landscape evolves every day. Learners' needs and environments evolve, too. To serve them well, we must keep a pulse on all these changes, and quickly evolve alongside them.
Q: Who should a university leader of an online learning program talk to about CRO, and what questions should they ask?
A: Talk to your marketing team — and first ask if they have a conversion rate optimization team monitoring day-to-day site performance. Then, you’ll want to know:
What does my online learning audience look like? Who are we targeting?
What is the data telling us? What pages get the most traffic and prospective students? Why/why not?
What elements on the site get the most engagement?
What content is the online learner looking for to decide? Do they need more or less of it? Are they finding it easily?
Are the pages actionable? Are the calls-to-action (the next steps you want the visitor to take) clear?
Does our content accurately reflect our online learning program and institution?
Q. How do I judge the conversion rates we’re achieving?
A: Good and bad conversion rates are relative, so there’s no definitive answer. We track baselines and trends to measure success. Our advice: establish a baseline for your site, and constantly strive to improve it.
Once you’ve determined your site’s typical performance (which can vary seasonally), dig into your data, learner behavior, and learner feedback. That's how you identify opportunities to improve.
Q: How can CRO improve performance?
A: CRO’s goal is to find variations of your site that provide a statistically significant improvement in conversion. When you’re regularly making the right content available in a friendlier format, site performance should improve incrementally. More interaction with your forms = more prospective students.
On-site performance is key, but that’s not all that matters. As you get the right decision-making content onto your pages, deliver more relevant information, and help visitors act on it, search engines notice. Your rankings improve. That helps you acquire more learners and decrease acquisition costs.
Q: What tips would you offer to improve conversions?
A: These 6 tips can help you improve significantly:
Listen to your site's visitors. Do this by drilling down into your data, tracking chat topics and search queries, and surveying/user testing your audience. People will tell you their pain points if you listen. Which leads to...
Implement the right tracking. The full story is more complicated than just clicks and conversion. To optimize your site’s layout, you need to know how people move through it. What interactive and non-interactive elements are they interacting with? Where in their journey do these interactions happen? In what order do they click on elements? How far do they scroll?
Simplify, don’t clutter. Focus again on your site’s goal and what learners are telling you. What information do they need before moving forward, and what is your call-to-action? Make it easy for them to get that information. Don’t overload their senses when your page loads.
Create experiences that reflect your knowledge of the learner's journey. You don’t have to do 1:1 personalization, but if you know someone has visited you before, they may need different information to move forward. If they've clicked from a specific campaign, what they see should relate to it. Mobile and desktop users are different, and may need different information. Beyond this, while it’s challenging to link on-site behavior with offsite data via a larger Customer Relationship Management (CRM) database, doing so can take your on-site targeting to the next level.
Don’t make people dig! Your most important content should be higher on the page. Check out your site’s “scroll depth”: how far down the page typical visitors scroll. Anything people need to make a decision should appear above that line. Similarly:
Content should be quickly digestible. What's the average time on site (or page) for site visitors? If your content takes longer than that to skim, you may lose people. They’re in a hurry — just like you.
CRO is constantly evolving. As Heather Clarke’s team tracks the changing web environment, they continually identify new ways to improve performance. In the meantime, the lessons offered here may well help improve your web page conversions.
Giving faculty the tools they need to be better online instructors is essential to having a successful course, program, and learner experience.
Develop online courses that work for students and faculty
The best online courses are co-created with learning experts who know how to communicate the faculty member’s message most powerfully. These experts help instructors from concept to delivery and have provided these tips to help you think through your online presence.
Create an effective online course
Your faculty are experts in their disciplines, with strong networks in their fields, and a deep commitment to students. But they may not feel comfortable with teaching online or structuring their course content. That’s where higher ed leaders can make a positive impact. You can provide experts and training to take courses designed for an in-person classroom and adapt them for the virtual world.
Administrators can provide guidance on structuring and organizing course content to make it as engaging and informative as possible. And they can connect faculty with resources and tools to review the courses before they go live with students and help standardize instructional design across courses so students are immediately comfortable when they start a new course.
Keeping learners engaged in pursuing their degrees, certifications, or development of new skills is essential to keeping them enrolled. And for adult learners, engagement and value go hand in hand. Take for example, Jan*. At the start of COVID-19, Jan’s position was eliminated, so she decided it was the perfect time to go back to school.
Excited to continue her education — and excited to be able to do it from home — Jan jumped into her first few courses expecting the best of what 21st century online technology had to offer. What she found instead was a lot of discussion prompts asking “reflective” questions, written assignments, and a few quizzes along the way.
After only three courses, Jan was fed up. It was not so much the money she was paying for her online program, but the lack of any learning that she could use in the real world. She was not in this for a grade — she was in this to up her skills, learn new things, and re-emerge into the job market better than when she left it.
Communicating value through authentic assessment experiences
Jan is not unique. She is an example of the 74% of past, present, and prospective online college students that Magda and Aslanian (2018) found are pursuing their degree program for career-focused reasons, including:
transitioning to a new career field
updating the skills required for their job
increasing their wages/salary
Today's online students want learning they can immediately put into practice, so institutions will have to meet their needs with learning experiences designed with career preparation and upskilling in mind.
Unfortunately, many online courses do not provide the opportunities students need to practice and immediately implement the skills they’re learning. So, like many online students, Jan decided that the lack of actual application of the things she was supposed to be learning was enough to make her quit.
While quitting is an extreme swing of the pendulum, student frustration stemming from the lack of real-world application in online courses isn’t the only concern. What about the hordes of students who graduate and haven’t put their nursing, or engineering, or accountancy skills to the test in a safe learning environment? What about their patients and clients? We can solve both of these concerns using authentic assessments.
What is authentic assessment exactly?
Authentic assessment is a form of evaluation that asks students to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate their understanding of and ability to use the skills they’ve learned.
Wiggins (1998) identifies a few key criteria for an assessment to be considered “authentic”:
It requires judgement and innovation.
It asks the student to “do” the subject.
It replicates or simulates the contexts in which adults are “tested” in the workplace, in civic life, and in personal life.
It assesses the student’s ability to efficiently and effectively use a repertoire of knowledge and skill to negotiate a complex task.
It allows appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and get feedback on and refine performances and products.
When every enrollment matters to the health of an institution and, more importantly, to the dreams of every student, keeping them on track to graduate is vital. And when you have a nontraditional student body, they need a student support services team to step in to play a central role, helping students transition back to the classroom.
As student support specialists at Pearson, my team has the privilege of connecting with online students, supporting their goals, and providing resources for their success.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we worked closely with our retention managers and institutions (we call them academic partners) to alleviate some of the additional stress this pandemic has placed on students.
Along the way, we learned three key lessons that can help your team whether your student support services are provided by a partner or from an in-house team.
Help nontraditional learners balance school and life
When nursing student Mary* called me in March 2020, she was in her final semester and didn’t know how she was going to earn the remaining credits she needed to graduate. With elementary-school age children and a newborn, she was already juggling a lot. And with facilities closed, she struggled with figuring out how to meet her program’s clinical requirements.
We worked with her institution to communicate the school’s policies with Mary. But, more broadly, our student support services team became a crucial lifeline for students. We reached out proactively to:
educate students on how credits for the clinical portion of the program would work
share the university’s plans for a virtual graduation ceremony
ease their fears about how colleges and universities could continue to operate seamlessly and safely
Nontraditional students tend to be older than traditional college students. They have careers, marriages, and children to contend with on top of managing their studies. The students we support reflect this reality as well. According to the 2020 Pearson Enrollment Experience Survey, for enrollments in our graduate programs:
the average age is 37, compared to a traditional graduate student at 32 years old
over half (53%) are married and have children
students are working/experienced, with 78% of students working full-time and 50% having at least 7 years of work experience
Focus on student mental health and wellbeing
Like everyone everywhere, our nontraditional learners grew weary as the months dragged on and the pressures mounted. They had jobs, kids, and life stressors on top of working toward completing their degrees. Their previously mapped out routines of school, work, and family had dissolved. Some students continued to juggle homeschooling kids with work and school. Others struggled to find work while keeping up with their education.
While online courses remained constant, the balancing act became harder. We spoke with students, employed as front-line workers, who contracted COVID-19. We became the ear for many, helping students cope with all the changes. We realized that we needed to:
direct students to mental health resources
advise them on time management and organizing tips
encourage students to keep going or take time off for self-care when needed
Serve nontraditional students in novel ways
When nursing student Josefina* needed to find a clinical placement, she faced a roadblock that could have derailed her studies. She was living overseas with her military spouse and didn’t have many options for placement since the country where they were based was in lockdown.
Our solution? Josefina participated in a Zoom session with her academic advisor and student support specialist to develop a plan that would help her lock in a clinical placement on the base.
We learned to:
tailor solutions to the student
connect students with program staff
coach them on options to complete program requirements