9 actions for institutions to take when choosing an online course platform


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2021 has been an exciting year for online course platforms. User counts have grown significantly during the global pandemic, Coursera had an incredibly successful IPO, and EdX is being acquired by EdTech giant 2U.

With this in mind, would it be fair to assume that those institutions who offered their brands and valuable academic resources have found exciting new revenue streams? Unfortunately not. Academic institutions have neither significantly grown their revenue nor converted students to their primary offerings.

According to the Harvard Business Review article “The Pandemic Pushed Universities Online. The Change Was Long Overdue., higher education’s technological transformation has been a slow one and, up until recently, it has also lagged behind when it came to having a capitalized industry to support it. The article speaks about how EdX, for example, has had trouble converting learners to their thirteen online degrees with them seemingly giving up on their degree ambitions, only adding four new degrees in 2020 and losing one.

And these institutions desperately need the revenue!  With the rise of online education, they are competing for student enrolments as well. The default approach to this is digital marketing: aggressive spending on Google keywords and, subsequently, very expensive student-acquisition costs. According to The Report article2U + edX Analysis: Win for 2U, Risk for edX, Opportunity for Coursera, in 2020 2U spent $390 million on marketing and sales in order to earn $775 million in revenue. This meant that, on average, they spent around $3.9k to acquire a student. This is tough for independent institutions to compete with and they will need to find more effective ways to find and develop relationships with potential students.

Here is where I believe online course platforms can be incredible enablers for institutions to build audiences and find students. For this ideal course platform, a couple of features will be important:

  • It is important for educators to be able to promote themselves and be seen as leaders in their subject areas. They must be able to build and promote their public profile on the platform that is associated with their institution. This means strong integration with social platforms where they may be sharing ideas. 
  • Education is more than a transaction, it is a social bond. Students must feel a sense of community and connectedness with the institutions they study through by being included in news, campus life, and alumni events that are regularly circulated through the learning platform.
  • Community is an ongoing association, not a timed event. Institutions must be able to build communities off the back of both new contacts and existing students, as well as foster engagement through a sustained and meaningful sense of community and connectedness with the institution.
  • The relationship with the student is the precious commodity, not enrolments or completions on the platform. Institutions must own and nurture the relationship they build with the audience on their platform; not just the intellectual property of the content. They must be able to upsell their offerings to this audience, regardless of where these other offerings are hosted.
  • Each institution is unique in what it offers and who it serves. They must therefore have freedom to use the platform to create content, connections and links to offerings based on their own preferred approaches, rather than those prescribed by the platform’s category definitions.

If these features can be achieved, institutions will have plenty of reasons to invest in building on these platforms. They will create value for students and high-quality leads at a fraction of the cost of digital marketing.

So, how should institutions approach creating online course platforms to build their audience?

Have control over your platforms

Action 1: Ensure that, legally, you own your data and, practically, you are able to access it.

When users engage with platforms, they create precious data such as contact information, behavioural insights, and new content. This data is highly valuable for student recruitment, market feedback and developing new IP for institutions. The collective activity that constitutes community engagement is key to developing long-term relationships with students.

Action 2: Ensure user registrations to the platform are exclusive to the institution.

A proposed benefit of open platforms is that they allow students access to a broad set of courses from a variety of institutions. In reality, this dilutes students’ ability to form part of an institution’s community that best aligns with the type of education and support they need, rather overwhelming them with competing offerings from different institutions and focussing on the platform’s brand.

Institutions need a platform where they can have exclusive access to their students’ attention in order to best form relationships with them within the institution’s community.

Action 3: Ensure your platform allows for configuration of different course types and groupings.

Each country, jurisdiction, institution type and individual institution has its own approach to credentialing, program structures and offerings. Therefore, the platform needs to offer the kind of flexibility to allow institutions to map their unique approach to curriculum designs and offerings, as opposed to working in a prescribed model offered by the platform.

Action 4: Ensure your platform allows for complete LMS functionality, not just a single style of online course delivery. Start with the reports you will need.

Different institutions, offerings and educators have unique approaches to teaching. Whilst there are broadly established best practices for teaching online, individual implementations can be very unique. Teaching can range from content-driven and self-paced, to highly collaborative, facilitated, blended, and online/offline methods. There are many unique and precious ways to teach online! 

This means the platform must be able to allow unique enrolment, scheduling, content type, integration (e.g. SCORM, LTI, XAPI), workflow, communication automation, and assessment configurations – not just text, videos, quizzes and forums. This is usually easy to see in what a platform is able to report on: if reporting is comprehensive, it means platform functionality is comprehensive.

Action 5: Ensure your platform integrates with tools that enhance your educators ability to teach online and grow their audiences.

Your educators are your stars, your talent. They are what students will come and stay for. Your platform should enhance their ability to grow their profile and audience. The best educators are active on various platforms outside of their institution, whilst enjoying the benefit of the pedigree, infrastructure, support and community that their institution offers. Examples of these are LinkedIn, Medium, and Twitter.

If your platform can meaningfully integrate with other tools that allow your educators to promote their teaching, you will significantly enhance its value as well as increase educators’ willingness to participate on your platform.

Own the channels to your market

Action 6: Ensure control over marketing channels linked to your brand and online offerings.

When you search for an institution online, their website and their offerings should show up first in search results – not a platform they have partnered with. When an institution has control over their platform, this should be achievable.

This also means that any content created or digital marketing activity (paid, social or direct) should link directly to the institution and allow them to build their audiences as well as a potential student pipeline.

It is unrealistic to expect open, 3rd party platforms to provide exclusive promotion for the institution. It is therefore important for the institution to control their marketing themselves and to be exceptionally careful of platforms that want to associate with the institution’s brand without offering exclusivity in return.

Action 7: Ensure your platform can integrate with your student information systems.

By running a successful online course platform and building an engaged community, institutions will generate high quality student recruitment leads. This may be from new students or from re-engaging past students (alumni). Importantly, the platform needs to be able to connect with the institution’s student information system (e.g. a CRM or SIS) in order to both feed recruitment leads, and source existing student information in order to promote interest in the online platform.

Action 8: Ensure you have access to data and tools to analyze platform activity in order to inform market intelligence and guide students.

Educator and student behaviour on the platform will provide incredible insights on subject areas students are interested in, as well as the kinds of offerings they are interested in pursuing. This data could even be used to guide students towards relevant services and offerings in real-time.

Action 9: As far as possible, pay fee-for-service for your platform as opposed to revenue-share. Own your marketing channels and risk/reward.

The expectations on commercial arrangements with platform providers are determined by historic anchoring and driven by what makes for attractive reading to platform investors. In the software-platform world outside of edtech, there is absolutely no precedent when it comes to sharing revenue in order to use a platform. Most software platforms are ‘rented’ on a licensing / subscription model, or managed service agreement.

The reason a platform may justify taking a share of revenue is if they are sharing risk; typically expressed by their front-load marketing and platform-infrastructure costs. Whilst this has its relevance and can be an attractive option, it runs the risk of the institution never building momentum with their own online presence as they may become dependent on the platform-provider.

Where to from here?

The growth in online course platforms should excite institutions as they offer viable and effective ways to grow student bases. As per this article, the dynamics of how the platform is set up is important. Institutions will either have to do this themselves, or work with a provider that can help them enable this. If you want our help, Hubble Studios would gladly assist.

Hannes Geldenhuys is our CEO. You can find him on LinkedIn here.

Need to take your classroom online? Download our 6-step guide here.

Article by: Hannes Geldenhuys

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