“The virtual university is the university made concrete,” said the animated young professor to my right, concluding his point with a flourish. It was London in the spring of 2000, a surreal no-man’s land between dotcom boom and crash. We were on a conference panel about this new-fangled thing called online learning, debating whether universities should salivate, laugh, or worry.

All these years later, the theory that technology can make institutional fundamentals more real has stuck with me. Since 2000, online learning has thrived: in the U.S., more than a third of undergraduates take at least one online course, and perhaps 40% of master’s students study entirely online.

But until recently, online learning has not lived up to this dictum. A new breed of company, in partnership with a rapidly growing number of college and university partners , is changing that.

The Trouble with Online Learning

In higher education, online learning succeeded in widening access and boosting convenience. But contrary to Professor James Cornford’s vision from 2000, it has generally failed to do more than replicate campus norms. In the heat of the dotcom era, scope for online to dramatically improve quality and lower cost—to problem-solve—was widely touted but rarely realized. Indeed, in the ensuing years, online made progress by emphasizing that it was the “same” as the campus: same faculty, same credential, and same price.

Online learning took on two forms: fully online programs, where the campus was dispensed with entirely, and online courses supplementing a face-to-face experience. Fully online programs maximized convenience but struggled with student engagement and the loss of in-person networking, while the integration of online courses on campus neglected the specific affordances of the two modalities.

Bandwidth limitations and primitive technology dictated these developments in the early years. Online has gone further than any prior form of distance learning, and technical limitations are in retreat, but there is still something missing. Millions of online students notwithstanding and accepting that online has rendered some elements of instruction more tangible, it is hard to argue that online learning has improved higher education rather than simply made it more widely available.

New Experiences

Enter a cluster of (mostly) young companies winning funding and clients, using familiar technology to problem-solve in higher education beyond access, and forge new kinds of “online learning.” Their main target is employability, claiming that many students lack contacts, support, skills, and experience, struggle to find good jobs, and take too long to be productive. In response, employers haphazardly search for talent in a sea of degrees and crude HR algorithms, discarding candidates both good and bad. Employability concerns feed anxiety about college costs and return-on-investment.

Both school networks (e.g., University Innovation Alliance, representing 11 public R1s) and employer collectives (e.g., T3 Innovation Network, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) are striving to smooth the school-work interface. Entrepreneurs also see the need for intermediaries.

These new firms—we call them experiential learning companies (ELCs)—create mentorship and work experience networks within schools, between schools and employers, or link individuals and employers directly. As primarily service providers rather than product purveyors, most fall outside the Eduventures Higher Education Technology Landscape.

Indeed, some might regard ELCs as not technology companies at all. That is the point. ELCs leverage standard online technology—databases, algorithm matching, video conferencing—to better realize relationships fundamental to higher education. All colleges and universities talk about access to inspiring faculty, experienced alumni, and eager employers, but most leave it to students to connect the dots. Many students fail to make the right connections. ELCs use run-of-the-mill technology to turn higher education “talk” into action. Technology is the enabler, not the value.

Figure 1 divides example companies into three areas of focus: mentoring, work experience, and job placement.

 

Example Experiential Learning Companies (ELCs)Figure 1.

 

The three areas of focus for ELCs can be summarized as:

  • Mentoring: Companies work with schools to create networks of students and alumni willing to mentor less experienced students, tackling academic development as well as career pathways.
  • Work Experience: Companies connect students looking for experience and employers looking for talent. Students complete short employer-driven projects, typically online.
  • Job Placement: The company provides paid training to current students or recent college graduates, and places them in partner companies.

All three types depend on standard technology to find, match, and evaluate. Also, there is no “best” placement on Figure 1. Some ELCs span more than one focus, and others (e.g., PeopleGrove) operate in the networking and work experience space but also leverage the same technology to help with student recruitment and retention.

Business models vary. Mentoring companies charge a per-session fee to partner schools. A per-project fee is levied by work experience companies, on both employers and schools. Job placement companies only get paid when a company hires a candidate, post-probation.

Virtual Concrete: Why are Experiential Learning Companies Important?

Individual ELCs are diverse and will come and go, but the category is a refreshing instance of using standard online technology to accomplish things that colleges embody at a high level but struggle to pull off at scale. Colleges extoll the benefits of their alumni networks, but most alums are disconnected from current students. Schools wax lyrical about graduate employability but know rather little about how students get their first real job.  And unlike job placement ELCs, schools “get paid” before rather than after a graduate is hired.

By adapting now ubiquitous technologies, ELCs help make these important but diffuse aspects of institutions more concrete.

Figure 2 contrasts the three ELC types, in comparison with conventional online learning, on three axes: adoption, effectiveness, and access vs. realization.

Adoption to date is modest compared to the scale of conventional online course and program enrollment, but this may be the beginnings of something big. Where standard technology can improve higher education fundamentals, not just provide alternative access to the norm, the potential impact is that much greater.

 

Improving Higher Education-Which Solutions Further Institutional Goals?Figure 2.

The Bottom Line

ELCs help institutions better realize their objectives and set students up for success, but are not a magic bullet. While they structure and strengthen relationships and opportunities, individual students, faculty, alumni, institutions, and employers must still put in the work. Learning is an inherently personal and social process, not a product or a service, but mature technology enables key relationships.

Online learning is an essential tool of contemporary higher education, affording access to millions of students for whom enrollment might otherwise be out of reach. But we must not confuse the power of access with the power of learning. By itself, being online does little to improve learning. Indeed, plenty of research shows a negative association between the academic success of less traditional students—disproportionately represented online—and online learning. New kinds of online programs, notably, certain MOOC degrees and micro-credentials, and outliers like Minerva, suggest both learning and access gains—a trend we have covered in previous Wake-Up Calls— but these remain exceptions.

ELCs also risk reinforcing existing disparities. Just as our work on student retention solutions found that the most selective schools are most likely to have such a tool, ELCs may do most business at similarly advantaged institutions.

Job placement companies are most “concrete,” linking training and jobs, and face the highest execution bar. It is a tall order to only get paid for an outcome you do not fully control and one that only happens long after your investment. It goes without saying that few experiential learning companies are yet profitable.

The pandemic forced online learning to carry higher education, an impossible task for a modality built to enable access for nontraditional students. The conversation that schools focused on traditional-aged students should be having, looking past the current pandemic, is: what combination of campus and online learning better realizes institutional goals? The “hybrid” modality that most schools are being cornered into this fall will provide plenty of evidence, good and bad.

Where is Dr. Cornford today? He is a professor at the University of East Anglia in the U.K., and I thank him for his inspiration all those years ago. You can read the abstract to one of his early “virtual university” journal articles here.

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Richard Garrett

Eduventures Chief Research Officer at ACT | NRCCUA
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Hindsight is 2020. While the uncertainty of the past several months has provided us with unforeseen challenges, it also offered us guidance on how to better prepare for the future.

On September 3rd, President Brent Ramdin was joined by University of Tampa’s AVP of Enrollment, Brent Benner, as well as Encoura Enrollment Consultant, Tye Mortenson, as they discussed how University of Tampa was able to navigate the challenges of the last recruitment cycle. The conversation focused on the impact of test optional on admissions, the increased competition for out-of-state students, and the urgency to pivot to virtual recruiting methods.

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