A Holistic Look at the Field of eLearning

Online learning, eLearning, virtual learning – all of these terms (and probably a dozen more) refer to the online delivery of learning experiences.  Learners are increasingly preferring online courses and programs to those that are campus-based, which parallels the demographic trends showing the increase in post-traditional and non-traditional students at colleges and universities.

This introduction provides a snapshot of a holistic look at online learning, and some of the components that make up the field.


Now that you have the brief snapshot, take a look in a little more detail on an overview of the marketplace of online learning.

Presentation: Overview of the Marketplace of Online Learning in Higher Education

This presentation shares an overall enrollment view of online learning.  Linked here you can find an accessible PDF version of the presentation, and also the notes pages.



Digital Learning Compass Report 2017

This report is one of many field reports that reviews the current state of enrollments in higher education institutions regarding online courses and programs.

Read the Executive Summary of the Digital Learning Compass Report on Pages 4-5.

Read the infographic overview of key findings.

Elements of Successful Online Programs

There are many elements that are necessary to set the stage for successful online programs.  Universities utilize many different models that combine elements in different combinations according to their strategic goals that they have for their programs and the culture of their institutions, ranging from centralizing these elements in a division that provides a holistic set of services, to those that have no strong central division, wherein support is highly distributed.  Typically, institutions that have seen significant growth or that have substantial online enrollments have strong centralized support services.  Some examples can be found below.

Enrollments are based on 2016 IPEDS data, which is somewhat misleading in the case of certain kinds of institutions, as these are based on learners in one or more fully online course.  Most of these institutions are fully online, or vast majority fully online, institutions.  Other universities that are higher on the enrollment list, for example the University of Cincinnati is listed as having 14,491 learners, but of those only 5,000 are in fully online programs.  Also note that Purdue University is not listed here, as it acquired Kaplan University after the enrollments for 2016 IPEDS were reported; their regional accreditor, Higher Learning Commission, approved this merger/acquisition in Spring 2018[i].

Institution For or Non-Profit Enrollments Type of Structure
University of Phoenix For-Profit 129,332 Centralized design, development and delivery, relies heavily on adjuncts.  Centralized learner support; designed to scale.
Western Governors University Non-Profit 84,289 Centralized design, development and delivery.  Utilizes full-time student mentors for learner support (single point-of-contact), and full-time remote faculty in courses.  Competency-based model, subscription pricing.  Entirely created as a non-profit online institution.
Grand Canyon University Non-Profit 68,542 Recently went from being a for-profit to being a non-profit, but there is still a central entity that provides all the administrative components (marketing, retention, etc.,) which is for-profit, almost like an in-house OPM.
Liberty University Non-Profit 67,786 Structured as a largely online institution, strong centralized services, design and development.
Southern New Hampshire University Non-Profit 63,973 An entirely separate division was set up – the College of Online and Continuing Education – which is the centralized support services, design and development, etc.  Model relies heavily on adjunct professors.
Walden University For-Profit 52,565 Centralized design, development, and support.  Utilizes largely adjunct faculty model.
University of Maryland University College Non-Profit 50,932 Centralized design, development, and support.  Leader in Open Educational Resources.  Utilizes adjuncts.

There are additional for-profits and larger non-for profits on the list of those institutions with the highest online enrollments including American Public University System, Excelsior College, Ashford University, and Kaplan University.  Then public institutions start appearing on the list, including University of Central Florida, Arizona State University, the University of Florida, Kent State University, University of Cincinnati and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  The next type of non-profit public institutions whose enrollments are fully online programs as opposed to individual courses includes Pennsylvania State University World Campus (13,411) and Colorado State University Global Campus (11,605).  Both of those are stand-alone divisions that centrally market, recruit, design and develop their courses, and rely on a model of adjuncts and full-time faculty.

Institution For or Non-Profit Enrollments Type of Structure
Arizona State University Non-Profit


About 55,000 between 2 campuses Centralized marketing, and recruitment, previously outsourced most of this to an OPM. Central design and development support.  Centralized technology and innovation division.
University of Central Florida Non-Profit Public 36,107 Centralized marketing and learner support.  Greater use of full-time faculty.  Strong faculty development component, with design and development supported centrally, but also utilizing faculty in developing courses.  Eighty hours of progressively rigorous training is required to teach online.

Of public non-profit institutions, those that have been most successful with fully online programs are those that have some version of relatively stand-apart central divisions.

Marketing and Recruitment

Marketing and recruitment is a central need for online programs.  It is increasingly expensive to recruit new learners, which is why retaining current learners is so critical.

  • “According to a 2015 report issued by BMO Capital Markets, a private investment firm, nonprofit schools (including public schools) spend an average of $38.53 for a lead—just for the name and information of someone who may be interested in attending their school. It costs more than $380 to turn that lead into an application and more than $2,200 for every student who actually enrolls.”[i]

Leads are learners who have expressed interest; those who follow through apply to the institutions.  Of those, many enroll.  Of those that enroll, some pay for their initial deposit and do not start courses.  This last loss to learner enrollment is referred to as “melt”.

Core elements of marketing include search engine advertising, video ads online and on traditional distribution avenues, radio ads, print advertising, representation at events, social media ads, and even billboards.  Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is an important part of this strategy.

Find below an example of an effective ad that has been a very successful one.


[i] https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/06/for-profit-companies-nonprofit-colleges/485930/

[i] https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2018/Q1/purdue-university-receives-hlc-approval-for-purdue-global.html