The Learning Experience

Introduction:  Learning Experiences in Higher Education

Of the elements that impact learners, none is more important that the actual learning experience.  The diversity of learning experiences is increasing, just as the types of relevant credentials are increasing.  These emerging learning experiences trend towards the short form – more immediately relevant in the workplace, targeted more to the needs of post-traditional and non-traditional learners.  These short (or shorter) form credentials are designed in response to pressures in the marketplace, and political and practical concerns about the relevancy and worth of college degrees.  It impacts everything from the length of the learning experience (whether in time or in competency achievement) to the learning delivery (modality) to the learning model itself.

“…the current trend towards major curriculum review and change is part of a more fundamental shift in universities, and is taking place at a time when the nature and purpose of the university as well as higher education are very much in question.  We have already noted trends towards mass higher education and its treatment as a commodity, the impact of globalization and of growing pressures for research” (Blackmore & Kandiko, 2012, p. 128).

Let’s take a look at some of the learning experiences that range from common and traditional to more cutting-edge and divergent.  A continuum of learning experiences is delineated below.

(1) on-campus with online elements, (2) blended/hybrid courses, (3) single online courses, (4) fully online programs, (5) competency-based education, (6) MOOCs and Micro-Credentials.
Continuum of Learning Experiences from Traditional to Divergent

This continuum from traditional on the left to least traditional on the right doesn’t account for all of the types of learning experiences that are available online—as an example, there are certain programs that have large components that are synchronous video with small courses.  Typically those types of programs are higher cost and are operated through Online Program Management companies (OPMs) like 2U.  In 2016, Blackboard conducted a study of how instructors used the LMS.  Their findings revealed that:

“Blackboard today released a study on how instructors and students in 70,000 courses across 927 institutions used Blackboard Learn, the company’s learning management system. The research found five course patterns or archetypes (below). The majority of the courses fell into the category of content heavy, with low interaction. Roughly a quarter were in a second category, which feature one-way interaction through content, announcements and a grade book” (Fain, October 28, 2016).

53% of instructors use Blackboard as a supplemental, 24% as complementary with one-way content, announcements and gradebook, 11% use it with discussion forums and heavy interaction, 10% use a lot of assessments, and only 2% use the LMS in a balanced way across assessments, content, and discussion
Blackboard Study Results on How Instructors Use the LMS

Describing Types of Online Learning Experiences in Higher Ed

On-Campus Courses with Online Elements

More and more on-campus courses (also known as “brick and mortar” courses) are including online elements.  The vast majority of these online elements utilize a Learning Management System (LMS) like Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas (by Instructure) or Brightspace (by D2L) in order to host documents, track grades, and utilize discussion boards.

Blended/Hybrid Courses

Many institutions utilize blended or hybrid courses that have online elements and on-campus elements.  An example of this is the widely known flipped classroom model wherein learners consume content in the online format (for example watching lectures, reading articles, etc.), and engage in interaction in the face-to-face elements of the course.  This still espouses the largely “broadcast” model of online education.

Single Online Courses

Single online courses are often used as part of on-ground programs, and have gained significant popularity.  Numbers of learners in fully online courses are included in IPEDS data, however this ends up reporting learners who take one or more fully online course and comparing those enrollment numbers to learners who are exclusively in online programs, thereby conflating the type of enrollment.  Models for single online courses are widely inconsistent.  At the low quality end would be courses that largely require learners to read a textbook and then take auto-graded quizzes.  On the higher-quality end are courses that are organized around objectives, not textbooks, that use a variety of resources in multiple formats, that require a variety of interactions (learner-to-content, learner-to-instructor and learner-to-learner), and have authentic assessments.

Fully Online Programs (Degrees and Certificates)

More and more institutions are offering fully online programs.  These programs look very different depending upon the type of institution offering the programs.  Those institutions that have the largest enrollments in online programs, like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Colorado State University Global Campus, University of Pennsylvania World Campus, and Purdue University (all non-profits, though Purdue University acquired the previously for-profit Kaplan University in 2016), and University of Phoenix, Capella and Strayer Universities (not merged), American Public University System and Liberty University (all for-profits), all utilize a one-to-many model whereby courses are centrally designed and developed.

Fully online programs at other, mid-sized institutions use a variety of models, some being more faculty-driven like University of Central Florida.  UCF, however, has very robust faculty training requirements, and faculty must have 80 of training and work with a designer to create their courses online.

Many mid- and smaller-sized programs rely on OPMs (Online Program Management companies) that run the marketing, recruitment and retention aspects of the programs, and sometimes the instructional design and development.  The advantage of this is that smaller colleges often don’t have the start-up capital in order to support the initial investment needed in creating the infrastructure.  Some common OPMs are listed in the below chart:

Online Program Management Landscape
Online Program Management Landscape from

Some fully online programs require synchronous video interaction and are highly exclusive.  Just because a program is fully online does not necessarily mean that it is intended to scale or be open access, though the goals of most universities are to scale their online programs.  Growth of online programs has been instrumental in the sustainability of some institutions; indeed it has saved institutions from closing.

Next, let’s take a look at some less-traditional models.