Online Learning is Here to Stay

Why universities must develop sustainable online degree programs.

GUEST COLUMN | by Ronald Wagner

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, online education has been thrust into the spotlight. Higher education’s response to the crisis has demonstrated many institutions have learned to use technology to become more resilient and capable of providing instruction to students around the globe, however rudimentary their online course designs may be.

Prior to the pandemic, many universities did not embrace online instruction, leaving much to be desired during the rapid shift to remote learning this past spring. Moving forward, institutions will have a critical decision to make: Weather this crisis with the hope of returning to business as usual, or seize an opportunity to commit to building online programs that grow enrollment and lead students to degrees that matter.

‘The growth of online instruction isn’t slowing, so it is imperative for institutions to start thinking critically about implementing long-term online degree programs…’

Specialized online degree programs can revolutionize higher education in more ways than one. Here are the primary reasons universities should consider developing robust online degree programs, and how to get started.


Online courses offer much-needed flexibility to students with rigorous job schedules, childcare and family responsibilities, or disabilities that complicate travel. International students can also complete their degree from anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection.

When students aren’t in the classroom, they are able to interact with content anytime. They can rewind and pause and re-watch lectures to catch information they might have missed in a lecture hall.


It’s no secret tuition has soared in the past 30 years. Between 1989 and 2019, the average rates have tripled at public four-year institutions and more than doubled at private ones. Coupled with an unstable economy and limited job prospects, the traditional college experience is out of reach for an increasing number of young adults.

A fully online degree doesn’t include expensive “add-ons” such as room and board, meal plans and parking. Most online classes also use open-source material rather than expensive textbooks. Many online classes leverage open education resources rather than expensive textbooks.


A 2018 Harris Poll found two-thirds of 14 to 23-year-old students want a college degree in order to gain financial security, while surveys of incoming freshmen repeatedly show “being able to get a better job” is the main reason the majority of students go to college.

In other words, it’s vital for universities to offer degrees that will ensure their students get jobs after graduating. To keep up with the fast-paced degree market, academic programs must consider how industry shapes both demand and employability.

In the traditional higher education model, many degree programs fail to keep up with ever-changing industry demands. Online degree programs can be easily updated year after year to ensure students are prepared to enter the job market.

How to Get Started

Successful online programs are designed to promote student success while also achieving the institution’s goals. We’ve seen the potential online courses have to create enriching experiences, from a drama course at New York University that allows students to “act” with each other in virtual reality to a music professor at Stanford who trained his students on software allowing musicians in different locations to perform together using internet streaming.

Most university and college faculty are experts in their fields, not course management systems and adaptive learning technologies. If institutions are serious about launching successful online programs, they must work with an instructional design team to build them. An instructional design team can handle everything from course design to development and quality review and collaborating with IT departments to build courses and support faculty. If you do not have an instructional designer on staff, consider partnering with an online program management firm.

Designing online content takes time as well as careful consideration of how students learn best. It also involves working with instructional design teams. Once the program has launched, instructional designers should regularly survey faculty members and students for feedback about ways to improve it.

Even before COVID-19, online learning was becoming a key component of higher education. The growth of online instruction isn’t slowing, so it is imperative for institutions to start thinking critically about implementing long-term online degree programs to ensure their own success and that of their students for years to come.

Dr. Ronald Wagner is the founder and CEO of Relearnit, Inc., an online program management firm that partners with universities to identify market opportunities, develop online curriculum, recruit and train online instructors and create marketing and recruitment campaigns to attract students. He holds a bachelor’s degree in athletic training from Southeast Missouri State University, a master’s degree in exercise science from Eastern Kentucky University, a master’s in instructional technology from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in kinesiology from the University of Arkansas. Connect with him through LinkedIn.


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