By Yoram Neumann, PhD
Access, success and affordability of higher education are main topics of discussion among policymakers, students, parents and universities. An online university education can serve as an important vehicle for leveling the playing field and increasing the learning outcomes for many groups of students including, but not limited to, adult learners and first-generation students while substantially increasing the affordability of degree programs for those learners.
Our own experience, practice and research have revealed a distinct path for providing high quality and affordable online learning programs. Our path involves several evidence-based strategies that, combined together, are the cornerstones for outcome-oriented and cost-effective online education.
The Learning Model
The importance of a cohesive and consistent learning model that should serve as the guiding framework for all courses in a degree program has only recently been recognized as a necessary condition for online learning success. This pedagogical framework combines educational science knowledge, curriculum design, and subject-matter education with online learning concepts.
In a recent study, we found that the perceived quality of our learning model (named, “The Robust Learning Model”) was the dominant predictor of favorable alumni assessment of their online degree programs. These findings were consistent across all the assessment indicators as well as for bachelor and master’s degree alumni.
Integrated Information System
Effective online degree programs can be easily affordable with a fully integrative web-based network that would provide students, faculty, and staff a one-stop destination for all needed administrative and educational functions. In order to fully develop the competitive advantage of any learning model and business strategy, we integrated the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) with the Learning Management Systems (LMS). A fully integrated system did not only promote efficiency and productivity but enabled us to generate real-time learning analytics with special attention to educational outcomes and their predictors, faculty feedback, marketing metrics, and top management dashboards.
The Centrality of Faculty Role and Faculty Feedback
The faculty direct involvement in all facets of course development and management — including design, instruction, meaningful and frequent interactions with the learners and assessment — enhanced student learning across all degree levels and programs.
Our own study documented that the quality of faculty feedback was crucial not only to student learning and educational outcomes but was of utmost importance in the first core course in an online master’s degree program. Engagement in a variety of learning activities and assignments (problem identification, problem-solving, analytical tools, projects, discussions, critical thinking, and self-reflective learning) enhanced program educational outcomes when a component of quality faculty feedback was added to each of those activities. Quality of faculty feedback played the most dominant roles in predicting student’s time-to-degree, student’s performance in a capstone course, and graduation rate.
The Crucial Role of Self-Reflective Learning
The learning-to-learn ability can be articulated, developed, and enhanced through self-reflective learning. Self-reflective learning is the student self-assessment of his/her performance relative to a standard of comparison while using this comparison to improve his/her learning and to foster better learning outcomes.
Our incorporation of self-reflective learning through self-reflected essays at the end of each course had a strong impact on student success. First, engagement in a variety of learning activities and assignments (problem identification, problem-solving, analytical tools, projects, discussions, critical thinking), enhanced self-reflective learning when a component of quality faculty feedback was added to each of those activities. Second, self-reflective learning made uniquely strong contributions to enhancing capstone course performance and overall program GPA while substantially reducing the time-to-degree.
Innovate, Experiment, Test, and Implement New Learning Ideas
The field of online learning is rapidly evolving and requires a continuous improvement mindset. We carried out numerous experimentations with new ideas, technologies, delivery, and modalities. The major evidence-based change was the integration of the spiral curriculum into our learning model where the first four courses covered most of the program learning outcomes and the same program learning outcomes were later covered with increasing level of depth throughout the curriculum culminating with an integrative capstone course. The payoff was great. Retention and graduation rates were significantly enhanced, degree program capstone course performance and overall GPA were increased, and time-to-degree was significantly reduced.
Using verified steps toward educationally effective and financially affordable online education resulted in significant improvements in learning and educational outcomes as well as substantial productivity gains and lower tuition rates.
Yoram Neumann is the Chancellor and Chief Executive Officer of Touro University Worldwide and University Professor of Business Administration at the Touro College/University System.