Open Menu Close Menu


Campus Technology Insider Podcast August 2023

Listen: Why It's Time to Examine Institutional Strategy for a Multi-Modal Future

Rhea Kelly  00:08
Hello and welcome to the Campus Technology Insider podcast. I'm Rhea Kelly, editor in chief of Campus Technology, and your host.

Since 2016, the Changing Landscape of Online Education Project, also known as CHLOE, has been surveying chief online officers at colleges and universities across the country about the current state of online learning in higher ed as well as institutions' strategic vision for the future. A joint effort between Quality Matters and Encoura Eduventures research, the project recently released its eight survey report. Among the core themes: Growing student demand for online and hybrid learning is moving higher education toward a multi-modal future. For this episode of the podcast, I spoke with Dr. Bethany Simunich, co-director of the CHLOE Project and one of the principal authors of the CHLOE 8 report, about key takeaways from the survey and why institutions that aren't examining their online strategy may be putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Here's our chat.

To start, could you introduce yourself, your background, and your role at Quality Matters?

Bethany Simunich  01:22
Sure. And first of all, thank you for having me today. I really appreciate this opportunity to speak with you. So I'm Dr. Bethany Simonich. I'm currently the vice president of innovation and research at Quality Matters. I've worked in higher ed for about 20 years now. So I started out as a faculty member —teaching face-to-face by the way, and very happy in doing that. And I've told this story before, but the reason I got into online is one day they asked me to teach an online course. And I thought, well, how hard can that be? I would love to do that, because then I don't have to come to campus as frequently and whatnot. And I mean, this was many, many years ago, before institutions had the level of online support that they do now. So I quickly realized that it was not easy. It completely upended my teaching in many ways. And so very long story short, I made a move into working exclusively in online learning. So I started teaching online, and eventually became an instructional designer to help with online learning and did faculty development for online learning and teaching — just really wanting to support faculty in what I understood then was a much higher effort, you know, to deliver high-quality online teaching versus face-to-face. I've done a lot of research over the years in this area, as well as served as an online learning administrator and, and working specifically in quality assurance. So kind of run the gamut there, from, you know, teaching, to ID, to faculty development, been working with, with Quality Matters before I came to work for Quality Matters for a while, especially as an instructional designer as well. So happy to be there now.

Rhea Kelly  02:58
I love that story that you started online teaching just because they asked you to.

Bethany Simunich  03:03
Yes. And it was not a good experience. It was, it was the frustrations from that, really, that, that led me into online learning, you know, so I could, I could help faculty have a better experience than I did.

Rhea Kelly  03:15
So of course, the new Changing Landscape of Online Education report just recently came out, CHLOE 8. And one of the major themes is the growing student demand for online learning modalities. Is this a case of the pandemic impact kind of playing out with students getting a taste for more flexibility in their learning experiences?

Bethany Simunich  03:39
I think so. I think you're seeing a couple of things that are merging at this time. So you know, during the pandemic, I think you had faculty and students alike experiencing remote learning, when many of, you know, that group of faculty and students thought, you know, online teaching may not be for me, or online learning may not be for me as a student. And then you have this experience with remote learning, and you discover that maybe it is a good fit for you. Maybe it's a good fit for your lifestyle and your needs in terms of that flexibility. So I think that flexibility aspect especially of online learning really appealed to a lot of students. And that translated into this increased demand that we're seeing now, steady now for two years in terms of CHLOE reporting on this. So chief online officers telling us that there's, they're seeing a growing demand for online learning from their students. They're seeing higher enrollment in online courses and online programs. They're seeing those sections fill first. So a real big reason there is that flexibility. There's also, though, in tandem with that, the fact that institutions made investments in better online learning during the pandemic. It was a time where they needed to support remote learning. They needed to support academic continuity. They also had some, some funds to invest there. So, you know, now we're a little bit past that and institutions look at the strategic investments that they made. They look at the fact that they have faculty now who are more experienced delivering online learning. And again, some of their faculty also found a new home there. And you have students that had a remote learning experience hopefully that has matured into experiencing purposefully designed online courses, but they're seeing how well it fits in with their needs. So it's a couple of things playing out at once, but definitely all leading to what looks to be rising demand for online learning from our students.

Rhea Kelly  05:38
So student demand is one thing. But what did the survey find in terms of institutions putting policies and resources in place to really support that multimodal future?

Bethany Simunich  05:52
Yeah, that's a very good question. And, and I want to harken back first to CHLOE 7. So last year, one of the main takeaways when we were asking COOs, you know, just for their predictions in the next couple years, in terms of what type of experience are students going to have — traditional age undergraduates, adult undergraduates, and then we also asked about graduate students. And the majority of COOs reported this balanced campus experience, right? And that could have been interpreted two ways. That could have been a mix of face-to-face and online offerings, which I think was, you know, most of us interpreted that way, or it could have been a move towards investment in more hybrid learning. So when you're talking about a multimodal future, I think if you look at that data in conjunction with CHLOE 8 data, you are seeing that institutions are kind of pursuing augmenting campus-based student experience with some online options. So again, towards that greater flexibility. And then among different, you know, student demographic groups, especially adult undergrads and graduate students, you're seeing more fully online programs, more online offerings, because it really is such a good fit for students within that demographic. But you're also seeing an uptick, a consistent uptick, in traditional age undergraduates not only demanding online options, but in institutions meeting that. So when we talk about a multimodal future, institutions have to be, you know, really specific in what they're targeting and how they're serving their students. Is it, for example, a hybrid investment, or are we looking at this mix of face-to-face and online options? So looking at the data, you know, for CHLOE 8, I think it would be hard to make the claim that all higher ed institutions are moving towards strategic and deeper support for multimodal options. So one of the big takeaways, though, from CHLOE 8 was that only about 40% of reporting institutions feel that their strategic priorities are aligned with current and future demand. So not even half of institutions feel that they're currently in a place to really serve students with, with the institutional strategy that they're holding on to now. Others really said that they were struggling to keep up or that they're reexamining their strategic priorities in light of demand, and a much smaller percentage of institutions said that they had no plans to revise their strategic priorities. Now, you did have a certain portion from this group that said they're not attempting to accommodate increasing online learner demand. And part of that reason, I think, is saying, you know, we're a campus-based institution, and we're going to stay that way. So regardless of where, you know, the enrollment is pointing, we are serving a particular demographic of students. But that was a very, very small percentage of chief online officers who reported that. So the short answer is, I think it varies, and it varies for different reasons: everything from financial and resource considerations, to perhaps not having institutional expertise in growing online, to maintaining, like I said, the feeling of being a fully campus-based institution. I think, though, not managing this change and not rethinking institutional strategy to meet this growing demand is a risk right now. And institutions who aren't working to align their policies and their resources to the students that they're going to need to serve in the future may find themselves in a competitive disadvantage.

Rhea Kelly  09:23
What do you think are the biggest challenges for institutions that are struggling to meet that rising demand for online options? Is it a financial matter, resources, training, or culture? Or maybe all of the above?

Bethany Simunich  09:37
All of the above. I think those are some of the biggest challenges, yes. And some institutions are facing all of those and more. So for example, in past CHLOE reports, including last year's CHLOE 7, we saw an increase in online learning-related staff positions, such as instructional designers and educational technologists. In CHLOE 7, chief online officers reported about a 20% growth in IDs. However, that ID support really still varies widely by institution. So all of the data points that I'm talking about, they, you know, it's not as though it can be generalized to every single higher ed institution in the US. So that's an important thing to keep in mind. The majority of institutions are still reporting about two instructional designers, but only 10% of senior online leaders last year said that their ID capacity was fully sufficient for present needs, and only 3% said that it would meet anticipated needs. So that tells you something. It tells you that, that senior online leaders have an awareness that they are not appropriately staffed to meet future needs. And there's an awareness that they may not be appropriately staffed to meet current needs. CHLOE 8 showed that only about half of chief online officers reported that formal faculty training to teach online is required at their institutions, which is only a slightly better picture than last year. So CHLOE 7 reported that 47%, so a little bit less than half there, required foundational professional development for online teaching. And this year, only 30% said that a high proportion of their full-time faculty had online teaching experience. Only 22% said a high proportion of their full-time faculty have experience designing online courses. So right there, you have examples of all three of those things that you mentioned: resources, training, and culture. Some institutions have limited human resources, such as IDs to really help grow online learning in a way that truly supports faculty as well as institutional goals for online quality. And then some institutions have limited training resources. And that includes everything from limited or no expertise at the institution to develop and facilitate faculty development, for example, to limited resources for incorporating external training even. So I think bottom line, the biggest challenge is this idea of you don't know what you don't know. And that very much intersects with institutional culture challenges as well. So part of my own research interest outside of CHLOE is how institutions are implementing quality online learning, including that impact of senior leadership. And if your senior leaders are not knowledgeable about online learning, and they aren't aware that they might have some blind spots around growing high-quality online offerings, then you usually see this situation where institutional strategy is not shifting to align with meeting these current and future needs for online learning. And I think culture plays a unique role here. We don't have a great track record in higher ed about admitting when we're not experts, or might need to up our knowledge. Additionally, let's say that you have an experienced online leader at your institution, but the issue is shifting institutional strategy from perhaps a very campus-based, traditional face-to-face model to incorporating online. That's a culture shift that requires change management. So I think you truly hit the nail on your, on the head when you're looking at the confluence of those three things — resources, training and culture — and they really play off of one another.

Rhea Kelly  13:15
It strikes me that it must be really hard to assess the landscape of online education when all of the institutions are so different, and they have so many different priorities and levels of resources and, and you know, their strategic missions might be completely different, or the type of student they're trying to reach.

Bethany Simunich  13:35
Yes, absolutely. One of the things that we try to do in the CHLOE reports is to break it up not just by institutional type for certain questions, but also by level of online enrollment, because you are exactly right, there is no one type of public two-year community college, for example, or one type of private four-year. They really do vary. And part of it is exactly as you said, you know, what type of students are they trying to serve? And, you know, what is their student body now? What is their level of investment and whatnot? That's why especially for certain questions where we, you know, we saw a notable difference among institutional type or levels of online enrollment, we report that data as well, so that looking at those things holistically across the entire sample, and then by, by type, and then also level of online enrollment, it, I think it paints a more precise picture of what's going on. And my hope is that when people engage with the CHLOE report, especially if you're a senior leader at an institution, that you're thinking about it in terms of how does this look at my institution, and doing some benchmarking, even for institutional type, level of online enrollment, looking at your own institutional goals for online learning and how institutions like yours are responding to that. So I think that, that hopefully it's very informative for, for senior leaders, you know, in that way.

Rhea Kelly  15:03
Is there a particular institution type or sort of a profile of an institution that's really getting it right with their approach to online learning?

Bethany Simunich  15:14
Oh, that's a good question. I can't make that claim that there's, you know, one type that's getting it right. But I do think that CHLOE 8 showcased some really interesting data points by institutional type. One of the notable things, I think, in CHLOE 8 is how public two-year institutions specifically are approaching online. So they reported, for example, a higher use of asynchronous online courses, you know, almost 90% said that online courses are widely used for their traditional age undergrads, compared with about 60% for public four-years and about 35% for private four-years. So, again, you know, harking back to our earlier question, I think that speaks to that flexibility that students are looking for, right, and they are meeting that need. Community colleges, they also showed to be leaders in online non-degree programming aimed at adult undergraduates. You had about a quarter of your public two-year schools in the sample that serve this, this audience of adult undergraduates fairly well, and again, with asynchronous online non-degree programs, compared with not even 20% of the sample as a whole. Public two-years, I think are leading the way also in terms of online teaching and learning. They reported a greater alignment overall between institutional strategy and current and future demand. They were the institutional type most likely to require institutional training for online teaching. Community colleges were standouts in faculty approved to teach online: They reported a large proportion of their faculty were approved, about 65% versus 47% and 30% for public and private four-years, respectively. Similar patterns in proportion with faculty for online design experience. So I think all in all, that speaks to, you know, what is a very deep commitment, traditionally, among public two-years for high-quality teaching and learning, including, again, that full flexibility that's offered by asynchronous learning. They are an example, I would say, of getting it right by focusing on their strengths, as well as the students they serve. And I think those are two important points. That's what it comes down to, I think aligning your institutional strategy and investments to the students that you serve now, as well as the students that you're looking to serve in the future. And capitalizing on your strengths and focusing your investments to meet those goals. You know, so ask yourself questions like, what kind of institutional culture do you want to create around online learning? What type of expectations do you want to set? So when students, you know, engage with your institution, when they enroll, and they're taking even a fully online degree program, what are you promising them in terms of the quality of teaching, the quality of course design? So I think all of those things are considerations. So public two-years had some, I think, really outstanding data points this year. But in terms of getting it right, I think getting it right starts with your institutional culture and context, and then continues on with your goals and strategy.

Rhea Kelly  18:14
I know there's a sizable section of the report devoted to engaging faculty in online course design and teaching. Could you talk about the best way to incentivize faculty to move to these new modalities?

Bethany Simunich  18:30
So I think institutions are engaging in this incentivization in various ways — I would say mostly in the form of faculty resources and support such as professional development, the ID and tech support that I spoke about earlier, support in the form of even LMS templates that provide excellent structure and organization but they don't stifle faculty design, support for creating accessible courses as well. CHLOE 8 did ask specifically about faculty incentives, and really the standout data point there is 70% of chief online officers reported monetary incentives for developing online courses. That was not a surprise. About 40% reported giving faculty release time and about 30% referred to receiving a stipend if you're a course supervisor or coordinator. So what's the best way to incentivize the move to new modalities? I think, you know, again, that likely comes down to institutional culture, including existing faculty workload and support. Clearly, monetary incentives are the most widely used. And I think whether, whether it's financial incentives or release time, the crucial thing here is to recognize, respect, and reward the time that faculty must put into designing quality online learning. And I think again, this is an aspect of institutional leadership and whether you have senior online leaders who truly understand the work that it takes to design and teach effectively online. In CHLOE 8, for example, we had about a quarter of chief online officers reporting that developing online courses was recognized in RPT in some way, usually with teaching or service credit, and I think that's a vital way to recognize faculty efforts because it's tied to something that the department and the institution clearly value. What chief online officers should ask themselves is why faculty would want to put in the additional time and effort to engage with faculty development and ID staff in order to develop a great online course. Because if there is not a clear answer for how that work is recognized, and shown that it's valued, many faculty might not see a doable path in terms of moving forward with online learning, and they may choose to opt out. And how is that going to impact institutional strategy? So one of the refraining takeaways from all of the CHLOE reports are: How are you supporting faculty?

Rhea Kelly  20:52
That makes me wonder about supporting students as well. And during the pandemic, I noticed, you know, the move of student services to online — things like mental health services or, or you know, academic tutoring, or all of those things. So I'm curious about what the state of online student services is now: Is that a place where students are demanding more flexibility, similar to their classes?

Bethany Simunich  21:17
I think we do have some bright spots right now in the area of online student services, but also some places, I think, that warrant possible concerns or reconsideration. Last year, for example, CHLOE 7 did a pretty deep dive on how institutions are supporting online students. So again, we saw those reported increases in online learning staff as well as student advising for online learners. That was a notable data point. And we also saw that a high majority of institutions are maintaining or growing resources that are dedicated to supporting online students, like online career services, online tutoring and writing services, online technology support. The largest growth area that we saw reported last year was online mental health services, which was fantastic to see. And I think that speaks to a deeper understanding that online students need to be supported holistically, not just with select online academic supports. One area, though, to work on is really setting students up for success in online learning, including helping them transition still from that remote learning that most of them experienced during the pandemic to this purposely designed and much higher quality online learning that they are likely or hopefully engaging with now. Last year, a high majority of chief online officers reported having either a standalone online student orientation or one that was embedded within an online course or other type of student training, such as an LMS readiness training. Few institutions, though, reported requiring it — though private four-years were outliers here, with about 30% of them saying it was required. CHLOE 8 showed an even further decrease in requiring some form of online student readiness training. And we also saw an increase in institutions reporting that they don't even offer one. So we know that some reasons for this, looking at the open-ended comments, were difficulties with administrative oversight for required orientation, as well as the potential for pushback from campus-based students who maybe don't see this as something that's relevant to their needs. But aside from these implementation issues, there's also likely some staffing issues going on, such as around developing or facilitating these types of orientations. I think this is a potential area for concern, though, given that so many students were caught unprepared for the remote pivot and many students still have yet to fully understand the differences between remote learning and purposeful, quality online learning. The bottom line there, I would say, is that supporting students and faculty ad hoc, especially during a future emergency situation, will never be preferable to supporting them now in clear and strategic ways. I think we also need to do a better job with our communication loop with online students. For example, how are institutions gathering feedback from online students about the types of support that they need, but that the institution doesn't offer? So I think one clear takeaway here for institutional leaders is to really recognize the student voice in online learning and make sure that you are supporting the whole student. You know, again, when we're looking at current and future demand for online learning, supporting your online students well is one way to really differentiate yourself as an institution. That's an attractive opportunity for students, especially if you're perhaps a returning adult student and you're looking to engage with a fully online degree program, you want to know that you are going to be supported in that online learning environment.

Rhea Kelly  24:54
Another area of the, of the report that I found pretty interesting: It noted that the majority of institutions have trimmed back large-scale investments in new online learning technologies, and shifted their focus to more core systems, you know, things like retention. And so I'm wondering what's going on there.

Bethany Simunich  25:15
I think a few things might be going on. So CHLOE showed a pretty high investment in online learning technologies during the pandemic. It was largely spurred by increased funding for supporting academic continuity and remote learning and also future online learning. We're seeing, however, as you pointed out, more modest investments now, and CHLOE 8 noted that this might reflect some pandemic exhaustion with educational technology. Keep in mind that tech investments don't end with financial investments. So it then extends to staff and faculty training, institutional implementation, etc. So there are a lot of places along that pathway to develop technology exhaustion. I think the areas of support that we're seeing now, though, again, speak to a possible issue with shifting institutional strategy to better support the current and future online demand. CHLOE 8 primarily showed greater investments and capabilities in non-academic support, such as mobile learning and academic integrity, for example. However, other types of supports, such as OER and virtual labs, were rarely adopted institution-wide. And that's the other thing that we see, especially with, with tech investments. And this is common for various aspects of online learning: that whether we're talking about technology, faculty requirements, or quality assurance, most often it comes down to the programs or departments rather than strategically incorporating it institution-wide. So you'll see more experimentation, I think, with certain technologies at the program or department level, rather at the enterprise-wide adoption level.

Rhea Kelly  26:47
Lately, there's so much buzz about new developments in AI, generative AI, things like that, you know, is that something that you see being experimented with at the department or course level? Or are, is there a need to focus on that institution-wide?

Bethany Simunich  27:04
That's a good question. And I am not an expert in AI. And it's not something that CHLOE has addressed. But I will say that I think that there's some clear ways that AI can benefit how we support and serve online students, such as helping to identify at-risk students, supporting online students with individualized help, providing personalized tutoring, personalized feedback, using AI for self-service chats, and even low-level advising options, like course recommendations. Whatever the strategy, though, I think students need to know what their instructors or their institutions expect from them in terms of AI. There's a particular need, I think, for clarity in terms of academic integrity. So how can students, or how should they not be using AI for themselves, or for their assignments, or for the, you know, the assessments that they're doing for classes? Institutions, I think, are exploring some options like this, but we are still grappling with the effects, current and anticipated, for AI. I think it's something though, that we'll probably explore as a topic in CHLOE 9.

Rhea Kelly  28:08
You've given a lot of great takeaways kind of throughout our conversation. So, but I'm wondering if there's any other important takeaways you want to mention? What would you say people should come away with from CHLOE 8?

Bethany Simunich  28:23
The biggest takeaway is that institutions who aren't examining their strategy in terms of where we are now, meaning the current demand and the anticipated demand across all student groups for flexible online learning options, might be missing a vital time to rethink and refocus. And that strategic reexamination and that potential repositioning is key to so much of what we talked about here today: supporting online faculty and students, making wise investments in technology and training, deciding where to grow and where to scale back, such as focusing on online courses and programs that expand your appeal and your offerings without cannibalizing your face-to-face programs. Particularly I think, you know, one of the big takeaways from the report that maybe we haven't talked about, is this idea of quiet quality. So this is the second year in a row that we talked about how institutions are practicing quality assurance for online learning in broad ways. So not just looking at quality in course design or not just looking at quality online teaching, but looking at it holistically: How are you supporting students to have a quality educational experience? So one of the standout points this year is that we saw the majority of institutions are practicing the quality assurance measures that CHLOE 8 asked about. And that was commitment to reliable technology support for online students, commitment to quality online teaching, quality assurance benchmarks for online courses and programs, especially in terms of design, and then also quality options for academic support. So the majority of institutions across the board said these are things that we practice. But when we asked, "Do you communicate this to current students and/or to future students, using it to, you know, to recruit new students?" Minority. Minority are talking about these efforts. And this truly, I think, is poised to be a lost opportunity. Communicate what, what you're doing for quality assurance, communicate your quality assurance standards, or faculty training and involvement for effective online teaching, and use it to recruit. So using these measures to recruit new online students, that came out below even communicating it to current online students. So I would say that if you aren't paying attention to online quality, and more importantly, if you are not communicating that, that is potentially a big gap and a lost opportunity and a liability also in terms of putting in place policies and resources to support this multimodal future. Quality, I think, is one way that institutions are going to continue to differentiate themselves. So if you have a greater population of students across all age demographics who are looking for online options, that means that they have more options that they can explore. So why would they choose your online MBA, for example, over the many other online MBAs that they can enroll in? This is, you know, like I said, one way to talk about that. So, you know, again, it comes back down to institutions' strategic focus on supporting online learning moving forward, looking at those online academic support options, having online advising options. The fact that we still see a lack of those, we still see a lack of online student orientation or technology requirements, we still see a lack in some cases of faculty requirements for online teaching and online design and teaching in in multiple modalities — all of these things, I think, would impact the quality of the student's experience. And I think institutional leaders, they're in a tough place right now. They recognize that enrollment patterns are shifting, they may recognize that their institution, you know, needs to rethink their strategy and their focus. And yet, it's a tough conversation, because, again, you know, to bring it back to institutional context and culture, if you have a more traditional campus culture, and you start to really strategically align your goals for online learning, you're going to have some tensions. So there's some crucial conversations ahead. I think that the most successful institutions and the most engaged senior online leaders are really going to see that it does them well and serves them well to make this a collaborative campus effort to really get that buy-in for serving students well, offering them a quality online experience, not making this a top-down implementation, so that you're forcing faculty to engage in training or you're forcing faculty to spend time designing really great online courses but you're not recognizing that effort. This really needs to be an institution-wide effort. We need to start taking it out of the discrete applications and really successful applications that we're seeing in departments and colleges and programs, and moving it to a more institutional-wide investment and aligning of those strategic goals.

Rhea Kelly  33:31
I really like that message: Don't be quiet. Have the conversations and then also make sure students know that you're having those conversations about quality.

Bethany Simunich  33:42
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that was one of the things, honestly, that, that really flummoxed me personally. Like, you are doing these things, and you're doing a good job at doing these things. Why wouldn't you want to tell students about that? So don't keep quiet about the quality assurance practices that you're already doing. Shout them to the rooftops, like this is a reason to come to my institution. And if you're unsure, you know, how to pursue some of those things, I think going through the CHLOE report really can give you some information about how some peer institutions are pursuing that.

Rhea Kelly  34:17
Thank you for joining us. I'm Rhea Kelly, and this was the Campus Technology Insider podcast. You can find us on the major podcast platforms or visit us online at Let us know what you think of this episode and what you'd like to hear in the future. Until next time.

comments powered by Disqus