Why Virtual Learning Offers the Biggest Bang for Your Investment Bucks

As public and private funding for higher education declines in the face of a rapidly changing landscape, colleges and universities worldwide are turning to digital technology as a way to get a leg up on the all-important “numbers” game – i.e. generating sufficient revenue by enrolling more students.  And for good reason.

Predicted to generate annual revenue of around $325 billion by 2025, the global e-learning market is booming – which explains why online education has become a “go to” revenue growth strategy for institutions of all sizes and types.  To begin with, it provides institutions with seemingly unlimited reach for enrolling students of all ages and stages in life, from anywhere in the world.  What’s more, it generally yields a higher net profit margin than the traditional face-to-face model.

These findings are hardly surprising, given the higher cost of maintaining facilities, serving students, and supporting research on a physical campus, coupled with such other common enrollment barriers as proximity to classes, conflicting life responsibilities and ever-expanding visa restrictions.  Now factor in online education’s powerful economies of scale – particularly when we lower the cost of production and instruction – and well, you do the math.  In fact, after an extensive financial analysis that compared on-campus with online profitability, one private, non-profit university in the United States found that its virtual offerings were five times more profitable per credit hour and 14% less expensive to deliver.

Yet while these numbers are certainly top of mind for higher education leaders everywhere these days, we should never lose sight of the exceptional value that technology-enhanced education offers on two equally important fronts:  student success and environmental impact.  Here’s how those numbers stack up.

Technology as a student success driver

According to the 70:20:10 rule (often cited in leadership development training), 10% percent of what we learn comes from formal options, such as courses and classes; 20%, from informal, peer-to-peer relationships; and 70%, from hands-on experience.  So, today’s students are looking for academic options that incorporate active, authentic and customized learning experiences, designed to move them successfully from coursework to real work.

As a result, colleges and universities – with or without well-developed online programs – are investing in such high-impact digital learning enhancements as virtual reality (VR), gamification and artificial intelligence, with the goal of driving that success.  And these investments are paying big dividends when you consider numbers like these:

  • A 2016 study conducted in Beijing among two groups of 20 students each (one test and one control), found that a VR-enhanced curriculum significantly improved both knowledge comprehension and retention when compared to the traditional method of teaching, based on average exam scores immediately following the course – 93% for the test group and 73% for the control group – and two weeks after the course ended – 90% and 68%, respectively.
  • Another study conducted at a university in the South Pacific among 70 first-year medical students revealed a strong preference for augmented 3D holograms as a learning tool. Indeed, 82.9% of these students stated holography had a positive effect on learning, while 84.7% reported having a meaningful experience with this technology.
  • At the University of Colorado, adult learners who took part in gamified virtual learning experiences scored 14% higher on skills-based knowledge assessments and 11% higher on factual knowledge tests, while showing a 9% increase in retention of both.
  • Since implementing predictive analytics to monitor student success, Georgia State University has identified and tracked 800 different risk factors for more than 40,000 students, which led to some 90,000 remedial interventions in one year alone. As a result, this public research institution – which enrolls a large number of students from groups with higher dropout numbers –  increased its graduation rate by 22% between 2003 and 2017.
  • According to McGraw-Hill’s 2016 Workforce Readiness Survey, 85% of the college students polled felt that technology-enhanced learning has helped make them better job candidates.

Technology as an environmental conservation strategy

Technology-enhanced learning has also been touted by some as a sustainable growth strategy for reducing higher education’s impact on the planet – an assertion that research to date certainly support. In fact, the numbers speak for themselves when it comes to assessing the real value of technology as an environmental conservation tool.

European studies conducted by the UK’s Open University, in conjunction with the Stockholm Environmental Institute, found that online courses consumed nearly 90% less energy and produced 85% fewer carbon emissions than traditional on-campus courses. Moreover, given that online education eliminates the campus commute for remote students and faculty, reduced time “on the road” was cited as a significant factor in lowering both energy consumption and carbon emissions – an estimated 92% decrease in “travel-related environmental impact.”

Likewise, while campus energy consumption – resources used to power and heat facilities – accounts for a substantial portion of a university’s carbon footprint, it also drives the cost of operation higher (which, in turn, lowers net profit margin).  For example, a small private university in Texas decreased its annual campus energy consumption by offering more online courses, thereby saving 4,000 hours of lighting – and thousands of dollars in expense – while cutting CO2 emissions by 19 metric tons.