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How to select courses and programs to build a successful online portfolio

04 December, 2022 | by Andrea Burrows, Managing Director, OES UK

While world class academics, research and citations, industry income and international outlook are all important indicators in a university’s rankings and reputation, a key plank to success in the online education strategy is the course portfolio.

Understandably, universities entering the online space want to design and deliver a viable, relevant course portfolio that supports its priorities and strengths. Universities also hope to avoid the red ocean – crowded market spaces that their competitors already occupy. Finally, universities want their new online course portfolio to increase reputation and graduate employment outcomes compared with higher (campus-based) institutions.

Is this asking the impossible? No, it’s not, but in my experience, it can be challenging for institutions to get their online course portfolio right. In my role at OES, I have partnered with multiple institutions to ideate, develop, and launch online course portfolios that do achieve university goals. There are several themes that consistently underpin institutional success.

Ask the right questions, and ask them early

As a first step, I recommend universities consider three essential questions:

  1. Where are the careers of the future?
  2. What skills will support employability and what can you offer in this space?
  3. Where will your courses resonate in the world?

As OES, we use relevant insights to find the answers to these questions for our university partners. We underpin course portfolio development with exclusive employment market insights accessed via our partnership with SEEK – a diverse group of companies, comprised of a strong portfolio of online employment, educational, commercial and volunteer businesses. SEEK has relationships with more than one million hirers and 245 million candidates globally, which is why their job and employability insights can be used to identify the emerging skills gaps and new geographic markets that will give our partners an edge.

Understand the online student

Pre 2020, many universities saw online as a separate revenue stream; an opportunity to reach a global audience; but often just as a pilot study. In 2022, delivering education online has evolved to be part of the vernacular. It’s front and centre of university strategy as a pure play or a hybrid offer.

The global higher education market is currently valued at £31.5bn, projected to grow to £57.2bn by 2025 Acceptance of online education has increased, and OES predicts that it will continue to grow, in particular from two student cohorts:

  1. Mature age students who value the flexibility that online learning provides as they balance study with multiple work and life commitments
  2. The traditional school leaver cohort who will increasingly look for digital options that provide them with the flexibility to pursue other goals alongside study.

Successfully appealing to these student cohorts will make or break an online course portfolio. This means drilling into the key criteria that students use when selecting an online programme and what their motivations are for studying online. As a high-level guide, students consider flexibility, support, the programme itself and how it will escalate their career development as top factors driving their selection.

Design a compelling digital offering

Digital is becoming a core part of the university and a quality online education offer is critical to be attractive and competitive in this growing market. So how can universities build out a successful digital education offering?

At OES, we base our approach on a framework for strategic online portfolio design, which aims to maximise university reputation while generating revenue and student volume. The framework typically includes three types of online courses:

1. Strategic choices of contemporary courses that align to the university’s strengths

  • What is the university known for?
  • Which courses involve renowned academics?
  • For courses that are already popular in the market, what is it that the university delivers (as a module or approach) that sets this course apart?

2. High volume popular courses to drive scale

  • How can the university reach students globally? Look at popular courses that can support students in their vision to change themselves or change the world.

 3. Curricula of the future

  • What courses can you include in your portfolio that are based on emerging jobs, skills and employability outcomes?

Throughout our analysis we focus on establishing a value proposition that strategically attracts students and differentiates from competitors, securing strong market share and driving an important commercial return for the university. OES’s methodology to support the university in this strategic decision stage of the online strategy includes:

  • Collating inputs from proprietary and secondary research including market trend data.
  • Analysis to review the current state of the university’s strategy, strength and opportunities
  • Interpretation and analysis of the university’s qualitative and quantitative data.

From this analysis, OES outputs usually include course recommendations, a target markets launch roadmap, and a pricing and distribution strategy.

Digital education is a great leveller not only for the student but also for the university. The selection of the online education portfolio is a key differentiator and success factor and should be regarded as a foundational element for the university of the future.