The Pulse of Higher Ed

Perspectives on Online and Professional Education
from UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Experts

What Do Students Want from Their Online Programs?

A person (Marie Cini) smiling

By Marie Cini

Knowing what our potential students want is critical in a time of greater competition for students who will enroll in our programs. 

Things have dramatically changed since the early 2000s when almost any online program was successful by almost any measure. Demand for online education was growing, while the supply of online programs could not keep pace. The standard advice to any leader in higher education seeking to increase enrollments was “go online.” 

Fast forward to 2024, and online programs are no longer a major growth engine. They are simply “the cost of doing the business of education.” According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 53.3% of students were enrolled in distance education courses in 2022. This means that if you want to serve all your students well, some segments will demand flexible online models. If you are not providing that, others most certainly will.  

The risks of going online or expanding your online offerings are also higher now. Not all online programs are good bets. Not all have a large potential student enrollment base. Pinpointing what your students look for in an online program will be important to developing a healthy program mix. 

It is also true that students may not actually know what they want before they enroll. It’s only when they don’t get what they expected that the gaps become clear to them. 

During my career in online education, I’ve seen a lot of these “broken expectations” and have worked diligently to raise the bar for online program quality. I offer these thoughts here, categorized by what students want from their institution, their program of study, their faculty, and their technology platform. 

It’s important to note that students don’t really differentiate among the various departments of an institution. To our students, everything is the “Institution.”  We may know internally where program-level decisions end and faculty preferences start, but students don’t. Our internal processes and departments are not transparent to our students and shouldn’t have to be. Students are best served when the institution has a tightly integrated and well-defined student experience. 


What Students Want from their Institution? 

While students view their entire experience as “the Institution,” the following aspects of what they need can only come from institution-level support. With strategic and resource support, these aspects will be easier to introduce. 

Well Designed Programs and Courses. This means that the program should have a clear set of outcomes, that courses are all clearly connected to those program outcomes, and that these outcomes are all clear and transparent to the students. Programs of study need to have this explicit integration so that students can spend their energy on learning rather than trying to make sense of the intersections of the curriculum. Are your programs built using a backward-design model? They should be. This is the best way to ensure that program outcomes are all integrated and at the appropriate levels of knowledge so that students can learn without getting lost in the content. 

Career Relevant Knowledge and Skills. The debate about whether an institution education should prepare students for life, community engagement, or their careers is unnecessary. A degree can and should prepare students for all aspects of their lives. However, our students will struggle with all aspects of their lives without a good career, so career preparation needs to be high on your list. If your institution does not provide intensive career development services, internships, and career placement opportunities for your online students, that should become a priority in your planning. 

Affordability. In my experience, affordability and financial assistance are high on the list of what students want. According to the EducationDynamics Online College Students 2024 report, affordability is the #1 factor in the student’s decision-making process, followed by the programs as #2. In a time when adult students juggle their own educational costs along with family and career responsibilities, the price of a degree is a significant factor in their decision. Keeping tuition low, ensuring that additional fees don’t add up to higher costs, and keeping the costs of course materials low help students afford an education and stay away from burdensome debt. Financial assistance for online students is a must. Online programs cannot be considered the “cash cow” for the institution. 

Support Services. Online students want and deserve the type of support that on-campus students have come to expect. Academic advising, student success support, access to a help desk, online library services, fast turnaround times from faculty to their questions, and disability accommodations are table stakes for a sound online program. Have you audited your support services for online programs lately? 


What Do Students Want from their Faculty? 

Our faculty are really the frontline of our interaction with students. To most students, their interactions with faculty represent the largest and most significant set of engagements with the institution. You need to help faculty maximize their impact as they interact with students online. Not all faculty know how to do this if they have taught only in live classrooms. How well are you developing your online instructors?  

The Chronicle of Higher Education article, “How to Be a Better Online Teacher”, while a few years old, provides practical advice for faculty to improve their online teaching that still holds true today. 

Interaction and Engagement. In my years as an administrator, the thing students complain about most is when faculty do not respond to them. This is the equivalent of an instructor not showing up for a face-to-face class. You should monitor faculty interaction in the online classroom and help those who do not meet the standard to improve. Even better, train your online educators in the innovative practices of effective online education and provide them with continuing education regularly. 

Meaningful Assessments. High-stakes assessments that are more recall than application are not the optimum way to assess student learning, nor do they help students learn deeply. More frequent, application-based assessments are far more useful for student learning. If your model is to have faculty develop their own assessments, be sure they understand how to create meaningful ones. 

Empathy and Understanding. Most students today are juggling a myriad of responsibilities. Many are not comfortable in a college setting and do not feel competent or confident. Faculty who are understanding and empathic and who will help students overcome barriers to their own learning and success are important in the online classroom. Do you educate your faculty about empathy in the online classroom? 


What Do Students Want from their Technology Infrastructure? 

You may think I would list Artificial Intelligence as the first thing students want in their online programs. But the truth is that we don’t know that yet. Do students understand AI well enough to “want it” in some way? That is doubtful. Most administrators and faculty are still figuring it out. Frankly, we need to understand AI so we can add it as appropriate to our operations and learning experience in ways that deepen student learning. 

Intuitive/Easy Navigation. Right now, your LMS is the front door to your institution for your online students. Is it intuitive? Mobile-first? Easy to navigate? Don’t make assumptions. Test this frequently and ask your students. They are the best indicators of how easy it is to navigate your LMS environment. If it’s not easy, students will move to an institution that makes it so. 

Easy Integration with Other Applications. The world of online education is really an integration model. As we choose new products for our students to benefit from, easy integration with the core LMS is important. You don’t want your students to leave the LMS and sign on to a different system just to access a tool related to their course. We don’t want students getting lost on campus; make sure we aren’t losing them online! 

Reliability. If you’ve experienced a service break with your LMS that prevented students and faculty from logging in for some time, you know the negative consequences this can cause. Students have come to expect almost no downtime in their ability to “go online” and complete their work in an asynchronous environment. So, monitor this closely and have a plan to communicate with students and faculty as soon as an incident occurs. 

The 2022 Educause Students and Technology Report:  Rebalancing the Student Experience, speaks to these points, as well as to the shifting preference for online course options. 


Advice to Online Administrators 

If I could boil my thoughts down to a concise set of recommendations, there would be three: 

  1. Design (or redesign, if it exists already) the program with the students in mind as the clear “end learners.” Determine what the students seek to learn, why they want this degree, and how you can support them. 
  2.  Focus on affordability. Find ways to keep costs to students low. Provide financial assistance and payment plans. Those who need a college education the most are often the ones who struggle the most to afford it. Find ways to break the cycle of ever-increasing costs to students. 
  3. Integrate all aspects of the learning experience: the courses, the instruction, and the technology. Anytime a student faces a barrier or a gap in the program, it can be a moment of failure for the student. If a student loses momentum or confidence, they can walk away, blaming it on “life got in the way.” I believe we should develop programs that help students continue and feel confident despite life’s vicissitudes. That’s why our students come to us—to help make their lives better. 

Marie Cini, Ph.D., is the Provost and Chief Academic Officer at UoPeople, the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, American, accredited, online university.  She has over 30 years of experience in online and adult education, and currently serves as a Strategic Advisor with UPCEA.  


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