Three Strategies for Online Credit Courses to Stay Competitive in 2013

Finish line.How will online courses for credit at traditional tuition rates be able to compete in 2013?

The year of 2012 is the year of the MOOC in the higher education sector. MOOC mania has me rather ‘MOOCed’ out by trying to keep up with the latest news and updates, though these massive open online courses are transforming education, despite a handful of details that still need to be worked out. The MOOC influence is so great, not only are schools changing policies on credit equivalency, the Carnegie Foundation the founder of the credit unit, is reconsidering its model.

These changes are significant, and no doubt will affect not just face-to-face courses, but online courses offered for credit. I’m referring to the hundreds of courses offered online by colleges and universities across the US. These courses serve a need for students looking to obtain general education credits [or other] towards a Bachelor’s Degree or certificate. Yet even these online credit courses may be threatened by MOOCs if the trend continues towards the granting of credit for certain xMOOC courses (courses offered through platforms such as Coursera or Udacity).

What can institutions that offer online courses for credit at traditional tuition rates do to compete? The answer is to differentiate—offer an educational experience that goes beyond what the MOOC offers. Below I’ve listed three strategies that can provide a unique and alternative experience to massive open online courses.

1. Limit class sizes for Personalized Learning Experience

Class sizes of up to twenty students is an ideal size for an instructor to facilitate discussion, provide meaningful feedback on assignments and give instruction to individuals and small groups. Up to thirty may be manageable, but beyond that, it becomes a challenge. One premise of MOOCs is the massive component, which usually means students are not able to develop a personal connection or receive individual feedback from the instructor.

By emphasizing personalized learning, students will be able to discern the difference in the learning experience between massive and personalized.

2. Create an Interactive Community with Synchronous Meetings

One significant drawback to online learning [in credit courses] mentioned frequently (by its critics and students)  is the lack of an interactive component as most classes are asynchronous. Though it is possible to create a connected learning community with a strong instructor presence, research shows students frequently cite lack of interaction with, and/or feedback from instructor as a significant drawback.

The solution to this conundrum seems obvious— offer a synchronous component where the instructor at least once a week addresses the entire class perhaps with a short lecture followed by a discussion, or break-out group sessions (possible with some tools such as Elluminate Live).  Instructors can also conduct one-on-one meetings with students for specific instruction or support. Offering synchronous class meetings in the past was challenging because of the lack of accessible tools for real-time meetings. Now there are numerous options that are accessible, offered at little cost to the institution and/or no cost to the student (if going outside the learning management platform) including:

  • Free video conferencing and screen sharing
  • Google + Hangouts: Free with Google + account
  • Go to Meeting: Free trial period, fee based afterwards
  • Big Marker: Free video conferencing and collaboration tools
  • Elluminate Live (which is available through most LMS platforms or independently outside of the LMS)
  • Skype: video calls

The second barrier often mentioned is the issue of students living in different time zones making meeting times challenging. In my experience with synchronous lectures offered in an online credit course I took in grad school, most students were able to make the meeting time. Our class included students all across the US and several in other countries. The session was recorded for later viewing for students unable to make the meeting. I suggest that time zone differences should not be a reason to rule out using synchronous meetings. Most conferencing tools have a recording option allowing the meeting to be posted later for students to view for the first time, or for review.

collaboration3. Build in Collaborative Group Work:

Building community with group work meets the needed social component, where students feel they belong, and are recognized as an individual. Research has found that the psychological distance, or rather lack of community in the online learning environment can result in student isolation, frustration, boredom, overload, and low course completion rates. Conversely, students that feel a social connection, which can be accomplished through group work, achieved deeper learning and higher grades (Young & Bruce, 2011).

Well-constructed group activities that require students to collaborate and not just cooperate (this post reviews the difference), have the opportunity to acquire knowledge through creating a product that represents their learning.  Furthermore, when groups create a product (i.e. slide share presentation) that is openly shared with other class groups, further discourse ensues which can promote deeper learning.

The key to successful group work is small groups, ideally between three and four group members, instructor guidance and sometimes involvement (usually at the beginning phase), and an application(s) that groups can use to meet both synchronously and asynchronously.

Resources developing group work activities:
5 tools for Group Collaboration Online, Online Learning Insights
Strategies for Effective Group Work in the Online Class, Online Learning Insights

Are institutions out there promoting courses with this kind of interaction as discussed here? Maybe. But there is a soon-to-be-launched consortium of ten schools Semester Online, that is planning on offering a differentiated online experience. They have  identified a gap between what traditional learning offers and MOOCs offer to students. Semester Onlines’ announcement in November seemed to slip under the radar, it wasn’t picked up by many of the online higher education newsletters. Here is an excerpt from Semester Online’s press release:

“We anticipate worldwide interest and demand for Semester Online courses. With that said our live classroom environments will be limited to 20 students per course section and we will closely monitor all courses to ensure the highest quality academic experience.” Chip Paucek, Co-founder and CEO, 2U Inc.

Closing Thoughts
No doubt 2013 will shape up to be just as tumultuous as 2012. It is an exciting time for education; barriers to learning are coming down like never before. Students are changing too; they want to be able to learn anytime, anywhere, and are seeking value. Any institution offering online courses for credit, is almost obligated to consider differentiating the learning experience by offering personalized learning, interactive learning communities and opportunities for rich learning through group collaboration. It is indeed an exciting and busy time for educators. Cheers to 2013!

Related Resources:
Tools for Synchronous and Asynchronous Classroom Discussion,(2012) ProfHacker
Classroom Community and Student Engagement in Online Courses, (2011), JOLT
Semester Online, Press Release

3 thoughts on “Three Strategies for Online Credit Courses to Stay Competitive in 2013

  1. Interesting thoughts on how to address frustrations with the low levels of personal interaction in online courses. What do you think about Minerva’s concept of having its online students aggregate in cities around the world to do the online coursework together? Perhaps even getting dorms (apartments) near each other to closer simulate the bonding and networking that are a significant source of value from the traditional degree.


    1. Nice to hear from you again! Minerva, yes an interesting concept. The idea I think has validity, trying to provide for the absent college experience that many critics of online claim is missing. Yet, it seems to be to be more of a very expensive field trip, that very few students will be able to afford, which in itself is not an authentic college experience, [granted they claim that the fees will be half of traditional elite schools]. They have already pushed back the launch date of the accepting the first class, originally is was to be 2013, now it is 2015. It will be interesting to follow, not sure if the model is feasible for our current times, time will tell. Happy Holidays to you!


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