Distance learning is nothing new, with the first courses launching back in the 1890s. What has changed is that students now require much more than a traditional online course. Gone are the days when online students simply wanted knowledge. Today’s students are looking to gain trusted qualifications which are recognised by employers.
Whether you think of distance learning as a niche form of training or a gap in the market, providers help to fill an educational void. Many people want the flexibility of learning new skills online but are already in employment. To take advantage of new employment opportunities, they need to upgrade or achieve a new qualification, and distance learning is the only solution that allows them to do that in their own time while still working.
The challenge for providers is overcoming negative perceptions, delivering what today’s students demand and understanding what they will want in the future.
The only way distance learning colleges can overcome these challenges is to meet them head on, which means making some drastic changes to how you prepare and deliver course content, support your students and manage your reputation to help drive a positive future for your college. This requires a complete review of how you do things. This is what we have been doing at the Open Study College, a distance learning provider.
Distance learning providers have to fight to improve a reputation which has previously been blackened by some providers not delivering on promises. This is a hard perception to overcome. To start on our road to improvement, we had to review what the issues were.
We did a 360-degree assessment of our college and the business and took note of what we were doing well and areas in which we could improve. Then we involved all our employees in the process, asking for their input every step of the way to achieve buy-in. We needed a firm commitment from staff that, moving forward, they would think in the mindset of a “college” rather than a distance learning provider.
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Once we had staff on board with our plans, we started looking at other areas, such as what our students wanted from an online college. Times have changed and many of our students and potential students were looking not just to take a course: they wanted to gain trusted qualifications that are recognised by employers, such as the Association of Accounting Technicians or the Council for Awards in Care, Health and Education. In response to this, we have worked tirelessly to forge strong relationships with many of the accredited qualification providers and expanded our range to offer more than 450 courses.
The way in which people access information has changed and continues to do so. Reviewing our course materials was one of our first tasks. Our standard courses now include interactive and engaging materials, using video tutorials and online interactive lessons. The way we deliver courses also had to be revamped to be mobile-ready and accessible on the move, as today’s students demand. We are looking at how apps can help in future delivery.
We also took time to review how we communicate with students, asking their opinions and changing the way we do things to fit. Our website has been revamped and now links with our social media, helping us to deliver the instant responses that today’s student requires. Websites today need to be mobile-ready and device-responsive: we’ve taken the time to do this so that students can now access course materials on the go.
Today, students taking online qualifications are looking for the flexibility to complete their courses at a pace, time and place to suit them. Coupled with the workplace today being vastly different to how it was 15 years ago, this demands that colleges – be they FE, sixth-form or online – need to adjust the way they do things to meet these new needs.
Looking to the future, what will online learning look like? The online college will be one which offers time-flexible learning without geographical barriers. Improvements in technology such as virtual reality mean that even traditional colleges are and will be moving towards more learner-centred, less lecture-format classes.
Distance learning providers will need to have a comprehensive understanding of who their target market and demographic groups are. As students demand more in terms of qualifications, support and customer service, providers will also have to be more responsive. It’s time for a new era and for providers to prove their worth and superiority against sector competitors that now cover the globe. Ultimately, only the fittest will survive.
Steven Nash is director of marketing and e-commerce at the Open Study College