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The 3 Keys to Developing Successful Online Education Programs

Marie A. Cini, Ph.D.

Chief Strategy Officer, ED2WORK

According to the 2020 Online Education Trends Report, the majority of online learners in the United States are career-focused working adults in the 24-44 age range. Most have complicated lives with job and family responsibilities.

These working learners are studying online because the programs are accessible and flexible. Learners can fit their education around the needs of their families and the jobs that allow them to support those families. 

The accessibility and flexibility of online programs are important features for working learners, but they also create potential problems. Without a weekly class to attend, regular attention to classwork may get lost in the day-to-day responsibilities of living a complex life. By the time working learners have fallen behind, they may not be able to catch up. 

With COVID-19, an increasing number of working learners will be learning online as they retool to seek new jobs. And with high unemployment rates, food insecurity, and the general chaos COVID has brought, working learners may find it more difficult to focus on their own learning needs.

Colleges and universities that have specialized in online education have created support mechanisms to increase the likelihood of success for online learners. But the large number of colleges and universities that rapidly migrated to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic may not know the types of support that learners need to be successful online.

A success pathway consists of attitudes, practices and policies that encourage student success and development, without detracting from the quality of learning outcomes. The key aspects of a success path include attitudes, practices, and policies.


It is important that all faculty and staff believe that no matter what occurred in their past, working learners are capable of success in learning and completion. The “self-fulfilling prophecy,” based on research, demonstrates that students will live up to (or down to) expectations that are communicated to them. And since they may not have had positive experiences with formal education in the past, working learners can benefit from coaches and advisors who support and believe in them.


For working learners to succeed in online programs of study, three principles are most important: well-designed learning experiences, attentive faculty, and connections to career interests.

  • Well-designed learning experiences: Working learners allot a certain amount of time to their own education. They need to spend that time on actual learning, and not on navigating disconnected courses or poorly designed project descriptions. Particularly for online education, instructional design support can help faculty create positive learning experiences.
  • Attentive faculty: Online does not mean “self-taught.” Online faculty should create a safe, positive, and structured learning environment. Frequent interaction with learners is a must.
  • Connections to career interests:
  • Working learners report seeking better jobs and careers so that they can provide for their family. This means they want to see how their education connects to their career interests. Allowing for real-world projects instead of traditional exams, supporting connections to career mentors, and building virtual internships into the programs will all go a long way toward meeting learners’ needs.


Many of the policies that were developed for traditional-age college students don’t support working learners well. Online educators should review their policies to make sure that they support learners with complex lives.

For example, working learners often bring a great deal of college-level learning they have garnered in their jobs or community work. Rather than require them to take courses with content they already know, programs for working learners should have policies to recognize all prior college-level learning. This saves working learners time and money, and boosts their commitment to finish.

Likewise, due dates for projects and papers should be flexible. Working learners already meet the deadlines of the “real world” every day. Instead, the emphasis should be on learning, not meeting an artificial deadline. An effective practice may be to create “windows for submissions” so learners can submit perhaps over a week.

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