Online Education: Meeting Educational and Workforce Needs through Flexible and Quality Degree Programs

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Dr. Kristen Betts is an Associate Clinical Professor in the School of Education at Drexel University. She is the Director of the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership & Management for the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania campus. Dr. Betts has over 15 years of experience in higher education, leadership, and online and blended education. Dr. Betts publishes and presents nationally and internationally on online and blended education, student/faculty recruitment and retention, Online Human Touch, effective communication, student generated content, cooperative education/work integrated learning, leadership, academic advising, and faculty training. Dr. Betts served as the founding director of the Master of Science in Higher Education (MSHE) Program at Drexel University. In 2008, the MSHE Program received the Best Practices Award in Distance Learning Programming from the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA). In 2009, Dr. Betts was named as one of Drexel University’s award recipients for Outstanding Online Instructor. Prior to coming to Drexel University, Dr. Betts was the principal of an educational research company that worked with corporations, government agencies, and educational institutions to maximize administrative operations through data driven decision-making, strategic planning, and eLearning. For more information -  or contact Dr. Betts at
William Lynch, PhD,  is the Dean of Drexel University’s Goodwin College of Professional Studies which is comprised of two distinct academic units, the School of Education and the School of Technology and Professional Studies, and a division incorporating Continuing Education and Customized Learning Solutions.   Dr. Lynch’s previous experience includes serving as vice president for operations and acting CEO for GWSolutions, Inc. and executive director of George Washington University's Center for Distance and Mediated Learning.  At GWU, he also served as an associate professor of Educational Technology Leadership, during which time he received the United States Distance Learning Association’s “Most Outstanding Achievement in Distance Learning” award.  Dr. Lynch has experience as a public school teacher, professor of education and a higher education administrator.  He has overseen numerous funded research projects, and has conducted workshops and presentations to K-12 teachers on the use of technology in the improvement of learning, especially in mathematics and science.

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Dr. Kristen Betts, Associate Clinical Professor, School of Education, Drexel Unv
Dr. William Lynch, Dean, Drexel University’s Goodwin College of Prof Studies

Online education provides higher education institutions with innovative opportunities to increase student access to flexible and quality degree programs. Recognizing that educational attainment is linked to employment, career advancement, and increased earnings, it is critical that higher education institutions development online degree program options to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population and the current and future needs of the workforce. According to Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States 2009, online enrollment growth rates now far exceed the overall higher education growth rates. However, student attrition in online programs is reported to be 10 to 20 percent higher then traditional, face-to-face programs. To proactively address online student attrition, a conceptual framework for Online Human Touch (OHT) was developed by Drexel University’s Higher Education Program. Through the integration of OHT strategies into instruction and programming, retention across cohorts in the Higher Education Program has ranged between 81percent to 88 percent since the program was launched in fall 2005. In addition, approximately 30 percent of the Higher Education students are promoted or transition into new positions before graduating from the program.


Online education is now an integral part of the higher education landscape. In fact, the growth rate for online student enrollments now far exceeds the growth rate of the overall higher education student population. According to Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States 2009, a national report released by the Sloan Consortium in January 2010, the online student enrollment growth rate increased 17 percent between fall 2007 and fall 2008 while the overall higher education student population increased just 1.2 percent.
Online education provides increased student access worldwide to accredited degree programs and new career opportunities. For individuals who are unable to enroll in a traditional, face-to-face program due to work or family obligations (e.g., children, parents), online education provides flexible educational opportunities. For the millions of individuals who are unemployed, displaced, dislocated, or in fear of losing their jobs, online education provides viable options for degree enrollment while seeking new employment. Online education also provides opportunities for the increasing number of individuals who had planned to retire but who are now seeking degree programs to rewire as they prepare for encore careers.
Educational and Workforce Needs
The Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census Bureau have linked educational attainment to both employment and earnings. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in the current recession is “twice as high for those with just a high school diploma (9.1 percent) than for those with a college degree (4.5 percent)” (Carter, Cox, & Quealy, 2009). Additionally, US Census Bureau reports that workers with just a high school diploma earn on average $26,000 less annually than workers with a bachelor degree (Edwards, 2009).
In the United States, only 29 percent of the population 25 years old and older holds a bachelors or advanced degree. This means that just under one-third of adults 25 years old and older benefit from the link between educational attainment, employment, and increased earnings. While this percentage of degree holders has increased from 27 percent to 29 percent over the past five years (Edwards, 2009), the American Council for Education projects that a college degree will be required for 63 percent of all jobs by 2018 (Hernandez, 2010). Acknowledging the gap between educational attainment and workforce needs, the Lumina Foundation (2009) projects  “there will be a shortage of 16 million college educated adults in the American workforce by 2025” (p. 2). Therefore, higher education institutions must develop flexible, quality degree programs to prepare today’s diverse student population for employment in an increasingly competitive global workforce.
Online Growth and Quality of Online Education
In fall 2008, the Sloan Consortium reported that over 4.6 million students were taking at least one online course 2008 term (Seaman & Allen, 2009). According to Ambient Insight, “over the next five years, 22 million students will be taking at least some or all of their classes online” (Nagel, 2009, n.p.). The Chronicle of Higher Education (2009) also projects increasing online enrollments and they have stated that by 2020 over 60 percent of students will be taking all of their classes online.
Although online education provides accredited degree programs, there have been skeptics who have questioned the effectiveness of the online delivery format. To address questions and concerns regarding online education, the United States Department of Education published a report in 2009 entitled Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies that specifically examined the quality of online programs compared to traditional face-to-face programs. The report included a meta-analysis and a systematic search for empirical studies of the effectiveness of online learning. According to the report, “The overall finding of the meta-analysis is that classes with online learning (whether taught completely online or blended) on average produce stronger student learning outcomes than do classes with solely face-to-face instruction” (US Department of Education, p. ix). While the report does state that the “studies in the meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium,” it goes on to state that “online learning is much more conducive to the expansion of learning time than is face-to-face instruction” (US Department of Education, p. ix).
Online Program Considerations & Student Attrition
Over the past two decades, online education has transitioned from an emerging sector to a
multi-billion dollar market (USDLA, 2009; Kopf, 2007). However, transitioning on-campus programs to online or developing new online programs can be very time consuming, costly, and may require institutional, state, and accreditation review. Therefore, administrators must consider program viability and sustainability prior to developing and launching new programs, particularly since there is extensive competition already within online education sector. 
Another key consideration in offering online programs is that student attrition rates are typically reported to be higher for online programs than on-campus programs which can greatly affect long-term program sustainability. Attrition rates in online education have been cited as being 10 to 20 percent higher than traditional on-campus programs (Angelino, Williams & Natvig, 2007; Carr, 2000). Recognizing that the average attrition rate for undergraduate students is 42 percent, this then results in higher education institutions losing approximately half of the students who enroll in online programs.
Challenges leading to attrition in online education include isolation and feeling disconnected (Angelino, Williams, & Natvig, 2007; Bathe, 2001; Stark & Warren, 1999) and a lack of personal interaction and support (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). A recent study by EducationDynamics reported the primary reasons for attrition in online education included: financial challenges (41 percent), life events (32 percent) health issues (23percent), lack of motivation (21 percent), and lack of faculty interaction (21 percent)
(Schaffhauser, 2009).  EducationDynamics further reported that 40 percent of online students who dropped out of their degree or certificate programs failed to seek any help or support services before abandonment” (Schaffhauser, 2009, ¶1).
Student Engagement & Online Human Touch
The long-term sustainability of online degree programs is highly dependent upon student engagement and retention. Therefore, with increasing numbers of non-traditional students returning to higher education through online programs, it’s critical that institutions personalize the online experience and develop strategies to bring the campus to this growing student market.
The Master of Science in Higher Education (MSHE) Program at Drexel University developed and implemented the concept of Online Human Touch (OHT) in 2005 to increase student engagement and retention for its fully online degree program. The OHT concept asserts that students are more likely to persist in an online program if they are engaged in and outside of their courses and if the educational experience is personalized (Betts, 2008). The OHT concept is a holistic approach that builds upon the program director, faculty, adjunct faculty, and academic advisors developing a personal connection between Drexel University and each student. The OHT concept begins with the first point of contact that the MSHE Program has with potential students during the application process. It is a bond based on human interaction fostered through instruction, programming, and personalized engagement with potential students, matriculated students, and alumni.
Since the launching of the MSHE Program and the implementation of OHT into instruction and programming, the online MSHE Program has grown from its first cohort of 26 students in fall 2005 to over 200 students in fall 2009. Overall cohort retention rates from fall 2005 to fall 2008 have ranged from 81 percent to 88 percent. In 2008, the MSHE Program received the Best Practices Award in Distance Learning Programming from the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA).
In June 2009, the MSHE Student Survey was distributed to 186 students enrolled in the MSHE Program in spring Quarter 2009. A total of 114 students responded representing a 62 percent response rate. As part of the 2009 MSHE Annual Student Survey, students were asked to select their top three reasons for enrolling in Drexel University’s MSHE Program. The top three reasons included: (1) flexibility (69 percent), (2) need the degree for career advancement (57 percent), and (3) curriculum (49 percent) and national reputation (49 percent). In terms of feeling connected to Drexel University, 69 percent of the students stated they felt connected and very connected to the faculty and adjunct faculty. Additionally, 67 percent of the students stated they felt connected and very connected to students in their cohort.
In terms of satisfaction, the majority of the students stated they are very satisfied (67 percent) or satisfied (25 percent) with the MSHE Program. Students also stated the online MSHE Program offers the same (50 percent) or higher academic (43 percent) quality of courses than on-campus programs in which they had previously attended. Almost all of the students (97 percent) stated they would recommend the MSHE Program to individuals seeking to advance their career in higher education and 91 percent stated they would recommend the MSHE Program to individuals seeking to transition into higher education. Additionally, approximately 30 percent of students were promoted and transition into new positions while enrolled in the MSHE Program.
Program Perspective: 10 OHT Strategies to Increase Engagement and Retention
There are 10 OHT strategies recommended for all online programs to increase student engagement and retention.
1. OHT Training:  Provide training to faculty, adjunct faculty, and academic advisors on how to incorporate OHT into online degree programs. Employee orientation and professional development should include an overview of the OHT conceptual framework and strategies on how to incorporate OHT into instruction, programming, and advising to engage and connect students to the institution
2. Online Open Houses: Engage prospective students through online Open House events. This is an ideal venue to introduce potential students to the program director, academic advisors, current students, alumni, and future peers.
3. Congratulatory Calls & Emails: Personalize the acceptance process. In addition to sending official acceptance packets, academic advisors should send personal emails to incoming students congratulating them and providing program information and a plan of study. It is highly recommended that the program director personally call each accepted student to welcome her or him to the program to develop an early sense of community prior to matriculation. This congratulatory call should be followed up by a call by the academic advisor to welcome the student to the institution and discuss details regarding matriculation and key points of contact.
4. Orientation: Develop orientation materials that introduce students to online expectations and provide points of contact before courses begin (e.g., email addresses, phone numbers, Skype accounts, etc.). Orientation materials should include a detailed email from the academic advisor directing students to the information needed to be successful in the program. In addition, students should complete an orientation to the course content management system.  
5. Online First-Year Experience: Connect students to the institution through an Online First-Year Experience. Innovative strategies and events should bring the campus to the students. The Online First-Year Experience may included, but is not limited to a Virtual Orientation Tea, a Virtual Wine & Cheese lecture series, Student Services Guest Lectures (e.g., CEO Leadership Workshops; Optimizing Student Services - Library, Writing Center, etc.; Time & Stress Management, etc), on-campus events that are broadcast online (Latino Heritage Month; Presidential Debates; sporting events, etc.); Alumni Lecture Series; and a celebratory graduation event for the program (new students listen to graduates discuss the value of the program and career plans and watch a video collage of photos sent in by graduates).
6. On-campus Venues: Provide opportunities for online students to attend on-campus events, such as convocation, graduation, a leadership lecture series, and conferences that are simultaneously broadcast through the Internet using streaming platforms.
7. Resources Portal: Develop a portal to serve as a hub for information and provide a blog for updates, information, resources, and to encourage student engagement.       
8. On-going Reminders: Send updated program information, important dates, events, and news on current students and alumni through a quarterly newsletter, e-mail, or posts on the resource portal.  
9. Mentoring Program: Establish a mentoring program to connect new students with experienced students or recent program alumni who can provide new students with support and networking connections.
10. Data Driven Decision-Making: Collect and utilize formative and summative data for continuous quality improvement. In addition to course evaluations, conduct an annual survey regarding the program, support services, expectations, and satisfaction.
Administrative Perspective: Increasing Access to Quality Programs
From a “Dean’s” perspective, online education provides a college or school with the opportunity to meet its institutional mission, increase student access, and optimize student services and resources. A university Dean has a critical leadership role in the development and implementation of online education programs by providing the conditions necessary for success. For institutions that would like to develop online programs, the Dean should be pivotal in creating the vision for online education in the college or school in collaboration with the faculty.  The vision should build upon and stretch the institutional mission by providing increased access to quality programming, student services, and innovative learning strategies in the context of a rationale business plan. 
When starting an online program, the Dean should be instrumental in establishing the rationale for the program and motivating the faculty and staff most likely to become involved.  Although a Dean can play a more passive role, an active Dean can help programs develop quickly and reassure all involved of their commitment to quality online development.
When developing new online programs, the Dean should be involved, directly or indirectly, in the following key administrative activities:
• Identify or recruit a faculty member, or several, who enjoy innovation and a challenge who will act as a champion for the project;
• Provide everyone with a clear vision of what an online program can do for students, for their program areas, and for them;
• Reassure the faculty and staff that the quality of the program is of the utmost importance and that any thing less than the equal of a face-to-face program terms of learning outcomes is not acceptable.  Provide guidance of the necessary conditions for program quality, including teaching excellence, library resources, curricular design elements and technical requirements;
• Hire technical support, in the form of faculty or expert staff that can be part of an online provider team. As much fun as creating online lessons may be, the faculty do not need to spend time with purely technical tasks. Along with technical support decisions about learning management systems and other technical tools should be researched and commitments made;
• In addition to the academic and technical issues, the Dean should provide or support the development of a business plan for the program. The business plan should include strategies and protocols for marketing, revenue and cost projections;
• Prepare for high quality academic advising and customer support. Nothing is more important than establishing and maintaining a supportive connection with students;
• Consult with experienced online instructors and program managers. Learn from their experience about what works in general and in certain knowledge domains;
• Provide lots of economic and knowledge resources in the beginning.  Online pioneers need to have incentives; emotional, intellectual, and financial to persist to excellence;
• Above all, remain connected to the project and ensure that the resulting learning experience is of the quality which the whole college can and will be proud.
Responsibility of college Dean
Maintaining an online program is an equally significant phase of responsibility for a college Dean. Therefore, the Dean should be responsible for the following administrative tasks:
• Guiding the management of the program budget, including recruitment targets, associated costs, and optimal class size and necessary faculty and staff resources;
• Developing strategies for assessment of program quality including student learning, retention, job placement, and program reputation;
• Continually monitoring program quality, student satisfaction, and program reputation;
• Conducting strategic planning for program growth and development including curricular revisions, additional faculty and expert recruitment, program enhancements such as online resources beyond course materials, and continuous alignment with program related careers.

Finally, the Dean is responsible for program advocacy within the home institution and among external constituencies.  With unapologetic enthusiasm, the Dean should promote the quality of education and service online students receive. There are still many who look at online learning with a suspicious eye and wonder how it can work. The Dean must know how and why and explain it thoroughly at every opportunity, giving full credit to the intellect, talent and creativity of the faculty and staff involved.
Discussion & Conclusion
Online education is a growing multi-billion dollar market that has not reached its full potential in terms of educational outreach. However, online education is not simply about money. It is about increasing access to flexible and quality degree programs that prepare students for the current and future workforce. Online education is about increasing opportunities for employment and career advancement. This is particularly important during an economic crisis since “experience shows that the longer people stay out of work the more their employability deteriorates, making it progressively harder to get back into work” (International Labor Organization, 2009, p. 1).
Advancements in technology and telecommunications provide extensive opportunities for higher education institutions to develop flexible and quality degree programs that personalize the educational experience for online learners. Within colleges or schools, the development, implementation, and sustainability of online education programs require leadership from the Dean and a collaborative commitment from the faculty, academic advisors, and support staff  to the online vision. This “online team” works together to engage and support students through innovative programming and quality curricula. Many online students may only step foot on campus at graduation, but the implementation of OHT strategies through instruction and programming can assist the “online team” to bring the campus and support services to students worldwide by personally connecting them to the institution as well as forming a lifelong bond with future alumni.
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