The world of education is changing fast. There are new challenges, competitors and technologies around every corner.
Online learning, in particular, is evolving and growing rapidly. But whilst the pool of applicants for online courses has increased, with enrollment quadrupling in the last 15 years, competition for these online students is also growing.
With an international playing field, universities are having to find ways to make their online degrees stand out.
They can do this in a number of ways - by differentiating the course offering itself, by using innovative ways to deliver and facilitate education, or by promoting a range of commercial measures that will appeal to virtual students.
Coventry brings innovative online degrees to market
Flexibility has been a big factor in its success. Students are able to scale their studies up or down each semester according to their personal circumstances, using a pay-as-you-go model.
Once signed up, students become part of small groups with access to a network of tutors, learning coaches and technical support. And their qualifications at graduation are the same as on-campus students.
Taken in combination, these measures have significantly differentiated Coventry University's online degree offering. And the results have been impressive, with the institution claiming 96% retention and 85% student satisfaction rates across online courses.
"Try before you buy" online degrees
Coventry University has also benefited from an initiative allowing students to "try before you buy".
With such a large financial commitment the idea was to reduce the risk for prospective students in terms of institution and course selection by letting them engage in the first two-week course of each module, which is free, before enrolling in a full degree.
The University of London also offers a flexible approach, providing a number of free online taster courses designed to introduce students to the kind of themes that appear in their programs and to demonstrate the study methods used.
Purdue University offers it's undergraduate programs for an introductory 3-week period with no financial obligation beyond the application fee so that students can try out classes.
And Macquarie University in Australia offers a "stackable" format for some of its online degrees. Students can choose from a menu of options at a variety of price points that allows them to "try before they buy," develop their skills, and even stack up credits before committing to a full degree.
It's a new idea that demonstrates institutions are really focusing on the customer experience. And it seems to make sense for both parties when the institution is confident enough in its online degree offering to make the approach available.
Several other institutions are now also allowing students to "test" degrees by taking online courses that can eventually be combined to form a full degree.
Arizona State University is a good example of this. It gives students the option to take the first year online. They can then apply for the on-campus full degree at a fraction of the standard price.
Online degrees are disrupting the higher education market
Online degrees offer new ways to access higher education, giving traditional courses a run for their money. But with an international playing field competition is heating up for online students.
Institutions like Coventry and Purdue are already winning this battle using new tactics such as pay-as-you-go education models and "try before you buy" options that deliver flexibility to online students.
It takes a confident university to roll out these measures which lower the barriers to students exiting. But this could be the future of online and hybrid education - universities which adapt to students not the other way round.
Keep a look out for our next blog post on online degree series where we look at how universities can successfully deliver high quality degree experiences online.