Peaked in High School

Originally Published on Education Dive – February 2015

I love the Direct TV ads with Rob Lowe.  My new favorite is the ‘Peaked in High School Rob Lowe’.  It reminded me of where we are today in the evolution of online learning.

With the release of Babson Survey Research Group’s  12th Annual Higher Education Online Education Survey and a number of other groups that are slicing and dicing the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES)Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data, it is clear that online learning has turned  a corner in the U.S.  Online learning has moved from a ‘growth’ initiative to a mainstream form of delivery for schools and a desired choice for students.  While the growth-rate for online learning slipped into the single digits (3.7%) in 2014, it continues to outpace overall higher education growth, which has slipped into the red (-1.7%).  It is now time to ‘Graduate from High School’ and work together to take online learning to the next level.

There are five things that we can do to make this happen:


Gone are the days when a school can put a program online and see immediate success because it is ‘online’.  Access is no longer a differentiator that will drive growth.  I often tell our Academic Partners that there are four things that we need to work on together to deliver effective programs:

  • Leveraging / Developing a Strong Brand
  • Creating  Value for the Student at a Reasonable Price
  • Delivering Demonstrable Outcomes (i.e.  Ability to become employed in the field or increase the level of employment)
  • Delivering Unique Degree / Program Offering – (i.e. How can we differentiate the program from all others in the marketplace?)



Delivery:  Schools will need to go far beyond what we have done to date through online, on-ground technology infused, blended and flipped models of delivery.  The key here will be in developing models such as competency-based and credit for prior learning, that are 100% personalized and focused on meeting the needs of a wide range of students.

Technology and Instruction:   Over the past decade, we have only made incremental improvements in the actual form-factor of online courses.  New programs will require much richer design – imbuing Universal Design for Learning,  Cognitive Psychology, and differentiated instructional models (andragogy, heutagogy, etc).



One of the most important strategies that all great businesses utilize today was promulgated in Jim Collin’s ‘Good to Great’.  Identify and focus on ‘What are you best in the world at?’.  From there, find partners to help you with the things you are not best in the world at.  This approach ultimately leads to a more cost-effective solution and a much better experience for customers (i.e. our students).



A significant number of schools in the U.S. are Research Institutions.  These schools focus on setting up environments where risk can be managed and mitigated, hypotheses can be tested and new products and services can be born.  One of the biggest paradoxes we have in higher education is that we do not utilize this tremendous expertise to experiment on new educational models in our educational institutions.  We need to develop more educational ‘experiments’  that will lead to new modes of delivery and better services for students.



Paired with #4, we need to ensure we are creating a system where we are able to prune away the old in order to add the new.  In the ‘experimental model’ not everything will work so we need to be mindful of that and shut down those things that will not ultimately make the biggest impact on education.  This is going to require strong leadership and an entrepreneurial spirit but in the end, will result in the invention of game-changing new approaches.

Many of the greatest minds in our country are in our colleges and universities.  If we can unleash  just a small fraction of these  and remain 100% focused on the goal of improving educational outcomes, we will once again see strong growth for online learning (or whatever it becomes) and escape the trap of ‘peaking in high school’.

Follow Todd at @ToddAHitchcock and learn more about Pearson’s online learning services at