Erfan Dastournejad
16 min readDec 21, 2020

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Online Academic Education is Here, But Where is Everyone else? A comparative case study of exclusively online platforms, and academic online services.

Abstract

This paper is a comparative case study looking into online education services of Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Washington, to compare them with exclusively online education platforms: Khan Academy and Udemy. Since the admission process is an important factor to determine if potential learners are becoming students, the focus of this study is to compare admission within these services. I will look for pain-points in this online process for adult learners with English as a second language (ESL). My goal here is to suggest guidelines from an interaction design viewpoint, to improve university online admission services, to better accommodate these potential online ESL learners.

Introduction

With the current trends of persistent global pandemics and the sprawling expansion of online collaboration and education tools, it is easy to imagine a growing trend in online academic learning platforms both in the education industry and academia. In fact, global planners are projecting a 30% to 60% growth in online education for the next decade or so (Guterres, A. UN report, 2017). The use of asynchronous online learning platforms increased rapidly in correlation with generation four and incoming generation five (G5) internet and the growing access to smart devices all around the world (PEW research, 2014). These exponential expansions in both availability and variety of online education open up new opportunities both for learners and for learning platforms. The number of young adults between 18 and 34 who seek higher education is booming in developing countries (PEW, 2017). Nevertheless, there is a meaningful difference between internet users and the exclusively online students in universities. For example, Facebook had 2.3 billion active users in 2018, of which 41.6% are between 18–34 years old (Statista.com), while NCES.gov reports only 2.2 million exclusively online students at the academic level in the United States. This discrepancy between young adult internet users and US universities online learners, suggests that many of these potential students who do have access to the internet and want higher education (PEW, 2017), are not considering online education from a university, as a viable option. On the other hand, exclusively online platforms report fast growth both in learners and educators. For example, Khan Academy reported 18 million users globally (blog.khanacademy.org, 2020) which in itself is eight times more than all the US universities’ online students.

Adult learners in developing countries are a potentially prominent user-base for online education since they are proficient enough with the technology (O’Shea, Stone, Delahunty, 2015) and are in many cases seeking new opportunities amidst higher education (PEW, 2017). But what makes these potential online learners less inclined to seek an online degree from one of many accredited universities in the United States? Part of the answer is in the way universities structured their online admission processes.

Studies show that non-English speakers rank their self-competence lower when it comes to an English online learning platform (Thorne, Black & Sykes, 2009). The University admission process heavily relies on academic-specific language that could act as a barrier that will reduce self-efficacy among online ESL learners. Additionally, many services in universities are specialized for face to face communication and are not as efficient and reliable models when repurposed to act as a fully online service. This lower perceived competence in combination with the general face-to-face centered structure of the university admission process (Pintrich, P. R., & de Groot, E. V., 1990) (Martin N., Dixon P. 1994) work against the initial enthusiasm of these prospective students and negatively affects their online admission experience.

Literature review

The supporting literature for this paper has three main focuses, English as a second language (ESL) students, design for engagement, and contributing factors to self-efficacy.

Many peer-reviewed papers are looking at ESL students from various vantage points.

From an online higher education standpoint, ESL students find it more challenging to navigate admission steps such as evaluating the courses, communicating with faculty, payment options, and etc, to get into an academic online program (Sinnasamy, Janaki, 2016). In addition, there is a higher chance for them to lack traditional support platforms such as educated family members or school advisers experienced in online academic education in English to guide and collaborate with them. Consequently, their self-assessment on projected success would be lower (Fadda, H., 2019) which will directly affect their willingness to proceed with academic online education. Liang Chung (2015) pointed out the relation between motivation and self-regulation. The self-directed notion of academic online admission works against ESL Learners who lack this motivation and resources to self regulate their online learning process.

In Pintrich and Groot’s (1990) work, on motivation in learning, they talked about the relation between Self-regulation and motivation. In their correlational study, there is a strong relationship between intrinsic value and cognitive strategy which will contribute to better performance on starting a task. In other words, whenever students feel confident about their cognitive, academic abilities, they will do better in planning self-regulating strategies for academic success (Pintrich & Groot, 1990). Fadda introduced five factors contributing to self-regulation in an online learning platform.1.time 2.study 3.environmental management 4.help seeking and, internet proficiency. In addition to that, others such as Shieh (2010) suggest a social constructivist-based instructional design to help students integrate faster and more reliably with the current higher education environment. In his paper, Dr. Shieh proposed a flat facilitation model to improve participatory learning and reduce the instructor’s workload. This constructivist-based adult learning model puts the learner as a moderator which would facilitate a higher level of engagement in the classroom. This classroom engagement factor is being studied by O’Shea (2015) and Delahunty (2012) in detail. They suggest that group activities and collaboration would improve learners’ perception of their own abilities. Other researches show that self-regulation and autonomy are directly related (Eneau & Develotte, 2012). In conclusion, these studies show, creating a good self-directed interaction with any online learning service requires implementing both autonomies in interactions and social bonding between the learners.

Design for engagement is another vantage point in this literature review. Steve Krug in his famous book: Don’t make me think (2013) put a set of rules for usability which is crucial for online engagement. In his words “the definition of usability for a web page is refined in these attributes:

Useful: Does it do something people need doing?

Learnable: Can people figure out how it works?

Memorable: Do they have to relearn it each time they use it?

Effective: Does it get the job done?

Efficient: Does it do it with a reasonable amount of time and effort?

Desirable: Do people want it?

and delightful: Is using it enjoyable, or even fun?”

Later, these rules will be my main measurement to assess the usefulness of my examples. In order to attract and engage potential academic online ESL learners.

Methodology

The general path of this paper is a comparative case study that relies on peer-reviewed literature and research, to compare and evaluate online admission services from prominent universities. In this paper, I gathered examples from Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon Institute, and the University of Washington and compared them with Khan academy and Udemy (as successful examples) to evaluate their flaws in usability and user engagement. I also gathered peer-reviewed articles in three distinct areas: education, psychology, and design. To back up my meta-analysis and synthesis. Finally, I will use these analyses to create a set of design guidelines and conclude this paper.

Findings

Based on analysis of the works of Ruey, S. (2010) Pintrich P., & De Groot E. (1990) and Eneau, J., & Develotte, C. (2012) the self-efficacy of online learners manifests itself in their ability in critical thinking, self-regulating, their perceived self-competence and their social/academic engagement. On the other hand, O’ Shea, S., & Stone, C. (2015) and Park, T., & Lim, C. (2019) suggest a personalized design for ESL students would be crucial to their perception of their abilities. A well-oriented environment that is designed based on communication with Second language English speakers, with specific needs in mind, would positively affect their self-efficacy. This will improve their confidence to pursue academic online education.

Regarding these findings, this paper’s foundation consists of two distinct design aspects:

Design for Interaction: Aims to set the ground for arguments about usability and approachability of the websites. Since websites for each institute would be the first stop for any potential online student.

Design for engagement: Aims at the context and functions of communicating with ESL learners in order to create a social bond around them.

Together, these two aspects will form a set of principles for designing an online learning environment that is suitable for adult ESL learners. I based these suggestions on the groundwork of prominent design writers, Lichaw D. (2016), Krug, S. (2013), Löwgren, and Stolterman, (2007). These suggestions are intended to improve current online learning platforms to suit better for the online ESL learner.

Design for interaction

I look at online education as a product that institutions want to sell to potential learners. In this case, online education needs to be desirable and accessible to potential online ESL learners. This requires an informed journey mapping for this specific audience, before starting the design process (Löwgren & Stolterman, 2007). To loop back to the self-efficacy issue that we started with, a good interaction design for a website will reduce the cognitive load for the potential online students by mapping exactly what they want and presenting it in an organized hierarchical visual form. To borrow from Steve Kruger (2013) again, everything in the landing page must be useful, learnable, memorable, effective, efficient, desirable, and delightful for the intended audience. In this way, the website, especially the landing page, plays a crucial role in defining audiences’ experience and needs to be intentionally designed for interaction. Below I present examples from current schools’ websites.

University of Washington (UW.edu)

Stanford University (stanford.edu)

Carnegie Mellon (cmu.edu)

As you can see all these are designed with the needs and desires of the customer in mind. However in this case the audience is the university itself. Who would go to stanford.com to read about Stanford news? The answer is, the people who would be in the news. Faculty, staff, and some students. Having the news on the first page means that your website is geared towards serving the university as a customer. The information about news and events and honors (in CMU’s case) is indeed “useful” for some people but unfortunately, they don’t serve any purpose attracting new online students to get into the programs.

The next point is learnability, here a specific need might emerge since our target audience is not a natural English speaker, the use of academic specific vocabularies such as tuition, admission, and academics, are not the most learnable path since it might not be familiar for the ESL learner and hinder their interaction flow. We can make it easier for the ESL learners to find what they want, by switching to more common words such as “How much it costs and how do I pay for this?” and “Start your online education here”. These short sentences make it easier on the online learner since they match/complete a part of their thinking process, therefore they will guide the user intuitively without the need to use trial and error and clicking everywhere. Reading short, understandable words will be more memorable for ESL students. Overall writing that serves all the different English levels, would enhance the experience for more users. Since it will be a less stressful and more delightful interaction. Conversely, in these examples, the unrelated information and unfamiliar wording contribute negatively to the sense of belonging in online adult ESL learners (Sinnasamy, Janaki, & Karim, 2016). Also, the process of establishing autonomy in the student will be diminished. Self-regulation and autonomy go hand in hand and both can affect self-efficacy negatively (Eneau, & Develotte, 2012). if they are stuck and cannot find their way without asking for help.

Another important lens to look through is the efficiency of interaction: how many clicks and look and finds it takes to do the task of applying for an online school. The previous examples, UW, Stanford, and CMU are equally and objectively bad at making this an efficient interaction. Here is an example of my journey from CMU’s home page to actually getting an admission application. (I turned the saturation off to focus on the interaction).

There are eight steps that switch between three different websites and it is if you exactly know what you are looking for. This relatively simple interaction, getting an online admission form is hidden behind layers and layers of repetitive, unrelated interactions which makes it very unpleasant and inefficient. This kind of unnecessary complexity and inefficiency will contribute to a sense of inadequateness (Chung, L., 2015) in users who feel that this type of interaction is meant to be used for other more competent candidates. So the design itself will again contribute negatively to the self-efficacy of ESL learners.

Design for engagement

The second aspect of designing a better experience for online adult ESL learners is the engagement factor. O’Shea (2015 and Ruey (2010) draw a clear, direct relationship between the social aspect of engagement and the sense of self-efficacy. In other words, one of the ways for people to feel competent in doing a task is to be among a group of like-minded people and work together to achieve the same task. Despite this being a known fact in those researches, the online admission process is a very lonely and individual task. In other words, the whole process of finding a program, writing and submitting sops, waiting for results all processed individually. On the contrary, most of the other online activities are benefiting from this easy and for the most part safe platform for socialization. From online gaming to social media online social platforms are often a low-pressure and welcoming environment for second language English speakers since there are lower standards and less language-intensive methods for interactions (Thorne, Black, & Sykes, 2009). These principles could be a source for designing better engagement. The social aspect of online education is already established through numerous digital tools like MS Teams, Slack, Instagram groups, and other instant messaging services. Here we just need to extend it further to include prospective students and people who are browsing school websites too. However, there are a couple of do and don’ts in regard to creating and moderating these social platforms. The number of group members needs to be limited so everyone feels their presence and contributions matter. There is also a need for a low-intensity moderation too so it can feel the awkward moments and encourage less social members to comfortably contribute (O’ Shea, Stone & Delahunty, 2015). From the two main design aspects Design for interaction and design for engagement, it is beneficial to look into a more successful example in online learning platforms.

Khan Academy (khanacademy.org)

At first glance, you realize the major shift from traditional website design to more human-centered, interaction-based design. There is no unnecessary information and clutter. Clear short words direct the audience to their intended section and only one click on the “Learners” button will start the admission process. An online adult ESL learner here won’t feel overwhelmed by unclear options leading to layers of unrelated information. The designers designed this with a very clear user journey in mind and limited everything intentionally to keep the audience on that specific journey all the way to the end.

Udemy (udemy.com)

Udemy asks the user “What do you want to learn?” This is a very different approach from what I’ve showcased about the process of selecting a program in previous examples. The direct and simple approach to education makes for an effortless and efficient engagement with the content. Users spend less time navigating and translating endless menus, instead, they would spend a lot of time just browsing different courses and mapping their own program for learning.

Discussion

A valid counterargument here is accredited universities, like the University of Washington or Stanford, offer more than an online-only learning platform. There is a lot of information from various departments, intended for a wide variety of users that needs to be included in their website. Therefore it is almost impossible to make a simple sleek controlled design that meets everyone’s needs in one place. This is true! There are multi-levels of considerations and decision-making that goes on a university’s web page. There is never only one purpose and only one use-case to design for. But, there is no rule that dictates for everything to conglomerate into one website. In fact, research shows contrary to this fact. The more specific and tailored an online service becomes, the more students would feel confident dealing with it (Pintrich, & de Groot, 1990). Moreover, one solution is to make the online admission section specifically designed just for online admission and for that matter make it more usable for everyone with or without extensive knowledge of English. That way all the business parts and the online marketing campaigns could be directed to the online admission website and on the other hand, the general use website could be more tailored for the current students and the faculty.

Another counterargument to discuss is, just how much resources traditional universities are willing to divert from in-person learning to online learning. Although I don’t have exact numbers to answer that, and every university might have its own strategy, one thing that is obvious is that they are already in the game. Potentially speaking the market size for online learning is much larger than traditional education. Additionally, there are no physical limitations to the size of classes and online schooling has no logistic issues in the association with having too many people at one place. So it’s practically cheaper and more efficient and universities know it. There is a reason that every major university in the US today offers at least some, exclusively online degrees. They are already in it, and since they are already playing in the online education field, it would be beneficial to learn and adopt some new ways, from smaller but more successful competitors in exclusive online education.

Conclusions

In conclusion, the rising demand for higher education and the development of online collaboration tools created a new potential market for academic online education among people who don’t have access to traditional accredited universities. Universities all around the world are adopting their online courses and services to better accommodate this market. However, there is a simultaneous rise of non-traditional, exclusively online, learning platforms, which are competing with traditional universities in attracting online learners. With a quick glance at the numbers and statistics, it is obvious that these online education newcomers are doing much better in attracting new students. In this paper, we looked into this matter from the lens of interaction design and suggested a few guidelines to improve engagement and add a social aspect to the online admission process. For this, I used successful examples of exclusive online platforms (Khan Academy, Udemy) to compare with traditional universities (UW, Stanford, CMU) to point out the difference in the way they designed their service and suggest some improvements. These improvements suggest an exclusively online oriented website specifically for second language English speakers (since they are in the majority), that uses more direct simple language and more efficient interactions. The second suggestion is using social media or IM platforms to create a small peer group for potential students so they can collaborate and encourage a sense of social engagement in their experience. This paper did not intend to go into the details of students’ psychology, however, I think further work is needed to dig more data about human cognition and the notion of online education and how it is different from traditional ones.

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