Determining How an Institution Will Win Online

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Questions: How will the institution win? Will it be by image, customization, price, specific learning pedagogies, technologies (or combinations of technologies) that uniquely support the institution, community building, career services, etc.?

Higher Education Strategy Series: This is entry #12 of this series. This page describes the whole series and provides links to all of the articles.

Details: The Generalized Differentiation (GD) competitive strategy certainly began to address this issue, and it provides a foundation for thinking about the questions. Here I will focus on some of the ways an institution can differentiate itself. It must be emphasized that the institution has to understand customers in its target market deeply in order for any differentiation strategies to have a chance of success.

Learning pedagogies

If an institution has a pedagogy that is effective and well understood by its faculty, then it can be used as a point of differentiation. The institution will have to determine how it can effectively communicate the pedagogy to its target audience. It will also have to be persuasive about its relative effectiveness. Prospects are bound to be skeptical about the supposed effectiveness of some educational approach they have never experienced. Perhaps a “try before you buy” marketing approach would make the most sense in this instance.

Community-building support

This facet of online education has not received the attention and, therefore, investment dollars that learning pedagogies have received. Given that, the field is wide open and opportunities for differentiating are abundant. What tools, personnel, and processes are needed for a program to differentiate itself based on the ability to build community among students and/or faculty, alumni, and community?

Academic mentorship/student support

Another way to differentiate a program is through the student support services that it provides. A wide range of options exists here, including preparatory courses, peer mentoring, professional academic advising, tutoring services, online study guides…the list goes on. An institution should investigate the problems that students have encountered in its on-campus programs as a first step. How are their concerns addressed? Further, would it be possible to build an approach that would help both online and on-campus students? As with differentiating through pedagogy, an institution must determine how to effectively communicate the benefits of its student support services to target prospects. If they don’t choose a program based on this feature, then there’s no reason to market it to them. It doesn’t mean that there’s no reason to build it; it’s simply that the benefits might be measured by another metric (e.g., higher retention rates).

Career support

Providing career support is another way to differentiate a program, and it can have multiple other benefits. An institution might build a set of technologies, processes, and academic service staff that supports a wide and deep connection with interested companies. The value provided to those companies then makes it easier for them to learn about, work with, and hire students. Further, the connection allows faculty to invite professionals from the companies into their classes as well as use data from the companies in their research. This would clearly be an investment worth making, almost no matter the cost, but it would likely be significant and take many years, which is why there have been no clear winners here yet. The investment would have to be meaningful in all dimensions of the solution (i.e., technology, processes, and staff). It would take so long to implement that it would likely span multiple institution presidents; the board would certainly have to be involved.

Finally, don’t forget that none of the above differentiation choices can be effective if target prospects don’t know about the feature, if they don’t value the feature, or if the feature doesn’t meet their expectations. The basis for all decisions has to be profound knowledge of the target prospects.


For this series, I am posing activities for an educational leader to complete. The unifying project for these activities is to define a medium- and long-term plan for competing and winning online.

  1. How will your program win online? Will it be one of the above, a combination of the above, or something else entirely? How can you be sure that another school will not beat you in this same dimension?

Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or comments. 

Keep Learning

Define and Act on Your Institution’s Strategy

Dr. Scott Moore has written a 15-part series on defining and acting on a higher education strategy to guide leaders during these difficult times. It is targeted at educational leaders who are participating in shaping their school's actions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.


Dr. Scott Moore

Dr. Scott Moore is a former Principal Learning Strategist at Extension Engine. In this role, he led the global Custom Learning Experience practice. He worked with dozens of nonprofit, higher education, and learning business organizations as they considered using online learning to support their mission and margin, using his deep understanding of organizational dynamics, online learning, strategic differentiation, decision-making, and more. Prior to joining Extension Engine, he was a faculty member, administrator, and dean at Michigan Ross and Babson College for 20+ years. He holds an M.B.A. from Georgia Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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