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Planning for the Future of Online Learning

Meeting the evolving demands of learners
University Business, June 2018

Delivering online learning has become crucial to satisfying the demands of nontraditional learners—who are quickly becoming considered “new traditional” learners. Meeting these evolving demands is a moving target for institutions, and as a result there are a variety of important considerations that are vital to building a program that succeeds both today and in the future.

In this web seminar, presenters discussed how to build a successful online learning program, and how to structure any online program so that it succeeds in the years to come. The executive director of the Sandbox ColLABorative, the research and development lab at Southern New Hampshire University, outlined some of the trends, strategies and best practices their research has identified about the future of online learning.


Brian Fleming
Executive Director, Sandbox ColLABorative
Southern New Hampshire University

Kenneth Chapman
VP, Market Research
D2L Corporation

Ken Chapman: What we’ve found successful is to start small and with a clear sense of how to move an online program forward. Are the system and these new practices that we’ve identified being adopted? Are people engaged in discussion and discourse over how effective they are? Are the changes resulting in real productivity gains? Are people getting their time back? Are the students able to complete more work or higher-quality work at the facilities that have been put in front of them?

Here are some of the things we see as necessary ingredients at a platform level for supporting online learning programs:

Modern platforms need to be acceptable and accessible at all levels—whether that’s the devices people are using to access online learning or the bandwidth they have access to. If a program is media-heavy and somebody is in a low-bandwidth area, that can be an accessibility barrier.

Assessment has to be extremely flexible. There are situations when individuals may require or look for the opportunity to test and recognize existing knowledge or existing certifications. There may be vocational or on-the-job types of programs, and online learning programs that require more hands-on assessments and demonstration of skills.

Learning online can be much more personal. Different ways of encouraging representation of ideas, demonstration of knowledge and engagement with a platform can be scaled up in a much more practical way in an online environment than can ever be done in a traditional classroom.

Supporting instructional freedom is still at the heart of the relationship that the student and instructors form in their programs, whether online or not.

Learners want to have a greater role in their learning overall. The apps, the communication channels and the discipline-specific materials that are out there are only growing and getting better. Being able to bring all those together seamlessly, particularly for the student, is key.

Data is important. The most successful organizations are those that understand that data, the reports and dashboards all serve a purpose. They’re all there to serve a specific student outcome.

Supporting flexible pedagogy is important. Online learning programs are as diverse as the students who take them. Online learning gives the opportunity for every individual to have multiple ways of engaging with content, multiple ways of representing materials and ideas, and multiple ways of expressing and demonstrating knowledge. That’s an incredibly powerful set of barriers that can be removed from the traditional classroom.  

Brian Fleming: Our Class of 2030 project is a re-engineering process where we start with the future. We imagine the experiences and the world of our students of 2030. What does their world look like? As you can certainly imagine, it’s an increasingly more complex world. A term that we have gravitated toward is the notion of a “VUCA” world—a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.  

As we think about the online education market of today and the online education market of tomorrow, there are several assumptions and insights that we bring to bear.

First of all, we know that our students of today, and increasingly of tomorrow, will be choosing from any number of “good enough” options. The online education market is very crowded. It’s a highly commoditized market. Customers have no shortage of options and they are, in fact, very pragmatic.

We’re also looking at a market where students are more empowered than ever before. They do their research. They narrow down their selection of where to enroll. Low price almost always wins, but quality is also critical. They are savvy participants and they are part of various value-added networks. The bottom line is you have to stand out of the crowd, and indeed, it’s a very big crowd.

Consumer-grade experiences are the name of the game to stay ahead. Your competitors—not just within higher ed, but beyond—are investing in superior technology. They’re focusing on high-impact experiences and they are differentiating based on outcomes.

The question is how to execute against this. Building trust in our brand is paramount. The sale may be done virtually, but there are interactions, relationships and emotions, and those are all personal. It’s important to think about humanizing the brand, which is always an interesting challenge in online education.

There are a number of assumptions that we can bring to this. We know that the future of learning will be a lifelong experience. We also know that learning is always on. We also believe that learning will increasingly be practical. Finally, we need to be personalized.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to