Reshaping Higher Education: A Look at Modality Innovations
According to the most recent CHLOE Report, an overwhelming 94% of chief online officers are either aligning strategy and resources to meet rising online demand or they see online demand increasing in the future. This only further underscores the changing student modality preferences we have seen since the pandemic.
While many institutions are actively embracing this new reality, there is a select group of forward-thinking schools that were contemplating modality transformations even before the pandemic struck. These schools have initiated changes in course delivery, organizational structure, and student support systems, among other areas.
The question now becomes: Which modality innovations can spark fresh perspectives and strategies for your institution?
Eduventures’ annual Adult Prospect Survey™ has long shown that hybrid is the most preferred modality among all adult prospects. Often touted as the best of both worlds, hybrid can provide both the flexibility and convenience of online learning and the in-person elements that allow for relationship development.
But “hybrid” is a big tent. Dividing a program’s courses into online and campus-based, for example, is simplistic in 2023, and an increasing number of institutions are exploring modality in more advanced ways. Below, we highlight three intriguing examples of modality innovators.
Portland State University: Attend Anywhere
To serve an undergraduate population that includes a sizeable number of students with children (25%) and students aged 25-and-over (34%), Portland State University (PSU) needed to provide greater flexibility in its courses. Years before the pandemic, it launched the Attend Anywhere initiative, expanding it campus-wide in Fall 2021.
Attend Anywhere equips physical classrooms with video technology that allows streaming and recording of in-person lectures. This version of HyFlex, where campus and remote students are taught simultaneously, has increased in popularity among many institutions following the pandemic.
But Attend Anywhere is just one option. PSU employs the full array of learning modalities, as shown in Figure 1, where it describes its offerings as “Hybrid,” “Attend Anywhere,” and two different versions of online—one with campus meeting times and another without.
Portland State University Course Delivery Methods
*An additional online course fee of $22 per credit is assessed for online courses.
Source: Portland State University
PSU, like a lot of regional public institutions, has seen undergraduate enrollment declines. PSU, however, had 10% growth in undergraduates enrolling in some distance courses between 2019 and 2022. While this initiative has not reversed overall undergraduate enrollment challenges, it is making it easier and more flexible for those students who do enroll to make education fit into their lives.
Our take: This approach—maximizing student flexibility and choice—requires more intensive faculty buy-in and depth and is not for every institution. But for those who can pull it off, the key is to ensure pedagogical alignment between modality and student outcomes.
Unity College Reorganizes and Reinvents Itself
In rural Maine, Unity Environmental University (formerly Unity College), had just 700 traditional-aged undergraduate students in 2017. Like many small schools, the pandemic presented challenges for Unity, including a $12 million budget shortfall, staff lay-offs, and furloughs, which prompted an exploration of selling campus assets. In August 2020, mid-pandemic, the Board of Trustees announced a permanent transition to a hybrid learning model.
But Unity had laid the groundwork prior to the pandemic. In 2017, it implemented an enterprise model as its organizational structure, similar to a matrix organization, which allowed it to be more flexible and creative. Instead of having academic colleges, it has independent Sustainable Education Business Units (SEBU). Each of these units is decentralized and responsible for program development to serve specific audiences. Unity has three academic SEBUs—Distance Education, Hybrid Learning, and Technical Institution for Environmental Professions—and one business venture SEBU, Sustainable Ventures.
Unity Environmental University, by changing its name to incorporate its main academic focus, has made itself highly attuned to its core students. Combining this highly-focused program positioning with Unity’s strong pivot toward online and hybrid learning, the school is welcoming about 1,000 new full-time students for the Fall 2023 class. While the average age of Unity’s undergraduates is 28 years old, 43% of total enrollment is still 24-and-under—showing astounding growth and success across both traditional and adult undergraduates.
Our take: While most schools cannot easily change organizational structure, this example shows an institution thinking creatively with intense focus on its core students and identity. Institutions trying to serve too many students may end up spreading themselves thin, watering down who they are in the process.
Bay Path University’s SOUL
Bay Path University, and its fully online division, The American Women’s College, was awarded a $3.5 million grant in 2014 through the “First in the World” competition administered by the Department of Education. Its proposal was to develop the Social Online University Learning (SOUL) platform. Undergraduate programs delivered via SOUL use accelerated courses and competency-based evaluations to allow students to complete course content faster. Included in SOUL is wrap-around support where each student is partnered with a dedicated Educator Coach to help throughout the program. Bay Path University describes SOUL as:
“…an adaptive learning platform that helps to create a personalized learning environment for each student, further customized by data-triggered interventions and tailored wrap-around support strategies. These high-tech, high-touch practices are intended to promote the primary goals of The American Women’s College model: ensure completion, shorten the time it takes to earn a degree, increase flexibility, and increase affordability.” – What is SOUL? website.
While Bay Path University has seen declines in overall undergraduate enrollment, it did report that two-thirds of undergraduate enrollment in Fall 2022 was fully online, up from 48% in Fall 2019. With fewer students in the pipeline, Bay Path reports they retain and graduate adult online learners “at rates 20% above the national average.” This focus on attainment is a key to Bay Path’s success.
Our take: As competitive pressure mounts for institutions to enroll students, the need to support students—regardless of modality—will be a key factor to ensure financial sustainability.
The Bottom Line
Despite inherent implementation challenges, institutions are facing a hybrid reality. Workers are prioritizing hybrid and remote work, and the overwhelming consensus among online leaders is that learners will be doing the same when it comes to their educations.
These examples show that modality innovation is not just for the program level. Forward-thinking institutions are taking an institution-wide approach, often at the adult undergraduate level, to better serve these students, improve outcomes, and make an impact.
Evaluate the Success of Your Programs to Prioritize Innovation
The Program Strength Assessment (PSA) is a data-driven way for higher education leaders to objectively evaluate their programs against internal and external benchmarks. By leveraging the unparalleled data sets and deep expertise of Eduventures, we’re able to objectively identify where your program strengths intersect with traditional, adult, and graduate students’ values, so you can create a productive and distinctive program portfolio.