By definition, online education has always been innovative. But as the years go by, and as the number of traditional schools with opportunities for online education continue to increase while fully online institutions continue to grow more diverse, so too do the number of ways in which colleges and universities can innovate.
Since the advent of the World Wide Web and the first online lecture by Harvard physics professor Dr. Eric Mazur in December of 1996, twenty years have gone by in the blink of an eye, and a full-fledged industry has grown up around the the marketplace, ideaspace, and industry of online education. To put the growth of this industry into perspective, enrollment in online courses has jumped from less than a fraction of a percent of college-level students in 1996 to 28% of college-level students in 2016, a development which if projected linearly, would translate to 1.4% growth, or greater than 200,000 new students per year enrolling in some form of online education. 28% also means 5.8 million online learners in the U.S. to date: that’s more than one in every four U.S. students enrolled in some form of online education today. And that number is fast-approaching 6 million—over a quarter of the 20 million students who enroll in college every year—a number that will be reached in 2017 if the growth rate follows the trajectory of its multi-year trend of outstripping the overall rate of enrollment in traditional institutions of higher education at 3.9%.
But enrollment numbers alone don’t provide a three-dimensional picture of the innovative strides that online course providers have made in the realms of accessibility, affordability, and flexibility—those fundamental ingredients for making a great online education, a learning experience that can appeal to the broadest possible audience while potentially altering the landscape of the industry. That’s why we’ve assembled this shortlist: to spotlight some of the greatest and most innovative distance and online learning institutions to open their digital doors. Some of the categories that we used to find and classify schools on our list include massive open online course providers, implementers of alternative learning philosophies, and givers of generous transfer policies, to name only a few. Some schools made it by being the only institution that can be said to offer a certain type of online learning opportunity at the present moment. But however the following schools made our list, we can guarantee they will be the ones to watch going forward.
Established in 1885, Arizona State University is a public non-profit university with stations at five campuses across the Arizona state capital of Phoenix. Maintaining an additional four regional learning centers throughout its home state, ASU is the largest public university in the U.S. by enrollment, housing greater than 67,000 undergraduates and nearly 16,000 postgraduates, of which 13,750 (i.e., 16%) are online students. In 2016, U.S. News and World Report ranked ASU No. 1 among the the Most Innovative Schools in America for the second year running, largely due to its being an R1 research institution that operates on the model of serving and including as many communities as possible in its educational mission, especially by expanding its online programs.
As Arizona State University’s entirely online campus, ASU Online offers greater than 100 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, all of which hold the same level of accreditation as degrees granted at the university’s brick-and-mortar locations. Headquartered in Scottsdale, ASU Online has placed among the Top 10 Best Online Bachelor’s Programs, according to U.S. News and World Report. All of its online courses are taught by the same professors who teach their face-to-face counterparts, and these courses encourage as much interaction and collaboration between students, teachers, and peers as is technologically possible. This is because ASU Online pushes the envelope of online education by gamifying (i.e., customizing gameful designs for) each student’s learning experience according to personal learning styles. ASU Online has also innovated by taking strides to partner with the coffee company Starbucks and help fund tuition for full- and part-time Starbucks employees so as to help them further their education.
But the innovation for which Arizona State University is best known is in its offering of massive open online courses (MOOCs) for college credit. With this offering, ASU changed the landscape of open online education by opening the doors of its Global Freshman Academy to incoming freshmen around the world, specifically high school students who want to take massive open online courses for college credit. As the go-to MOOC resource Class Central has pointed out, this has been a monumental development in the MOOC-osphere, which until ASU Online dared to disrupt it, had not offered college credit for individual courses, despite the fact that esteemed university professors from esteemed universities would teach MOOCs in much the same way (and sometimes the exact same way) as they would traditional face-to-face courses. Since Global Freshmen Academy has entered the scene, however, at least seven MOOCs now offer transferable college credit, and more are being developed as we speak.
- Total Number of Online Programs: 100+
Western Governors University is a private, non-profit, and fully online American university that was founded in Salt Lake City, Utah and maintains affiliations with 6 other states: Indiana, Texas, Washington, Tennessee, Missouri, and Nevada. All of WGU’s greater than 72,000 students work fully online, and its unique curriculum is competency-based rather than grade-based, meaning that students take assessments to demonstrate that they have acquired a set of skills, foundations, and abilities rather than try to prove their intelligence relative to others’. Although Western Governors University’s online programs are currently unranked among other online programs, Arne Duncan, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education (2009-2016), has stated that “While such programs [like WGU’s] are now the exception, I want them to be the norm,” meaning that its star is on the rise.
WGU’s online programs range from the bachelor’s level to the graduate and post-baccalaureate level, including a number of teacher endorsement preparation programs, for which it has been recognized for excellence. In fact, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) ranked WGU’s secondary teaching program the No. 1 Best Value in Teacher Education, as it has become the top producer of licensed graduates who become science and math teachers, while the United States Distance Learning Association has awarded Western Governors University its 21st Century Award for Best Practices in Distance Learning for multiple years. And having hosted the first online teacher-preparation program to have received NCATE accreditation, it’s safe to say that WGU’s online programs have been (and continue to be) innovators in the realms of online learning and distance education, with the added bonus that they have graduated over 60,000 students since 1997.
Western Governor University’s online learning philosophy differs from mainstream colleges and universities in that it is based on measuring competence rather than GPA. As part of implementing this learning philosophy, WGU measures how courses are completed in competence units instead of credit hours. This system works twofold: first to make the university more affordable to students with non-traditional experience or expertise on a topic, and second to allow students to complete individual units at their own unique pace. Since becoming the first accredited school to use the competency-based approach with measured success, WGU has been at the forefront of a national U.S. movement toward the adoption of competency-based educational methods at the college level. Such a methodology lends itself well to WGU’s predominantly online educational model, for which all course modules, aside from practical demonstrations of teaching and nursing proficiency, can be completed online and on a pass / fail basis by using objective assessment programs in conjunction with webcams to guarantee academic integrity. Such measures, although initially unique to WGU, have caught on among several other online course providers, which increasingly employ similar academic integrity strategies due to their success at WGU.
- Total Number of Online Programs: 52
Bellevue University is a private non-profit university located eight miles south of Omaha in Bellevue, Nebraska. Since it’s founding in 1966, Bellevue has emphasized the importance of continued, adult education, distance education, and education outreach, and it currently enrolls around 10,000 students with 2 undergraduates for every postgraduate. Students at the Bellevue location will enjoy being within driving distance of the state’s largest city, while online students will enjoy access to all of the university’s degree programs, including those that are accelerated and cohort-based. Bellevue’s online program has performed consistently well according to multiple online program rankings, appearing in U.S. News’ top hundred online bachelor’s programs for several years running.
Bellevue’s online learning and online degree programs range from the bachelor’s all the way to the doctoral, of which the former degree type was ranked among the top 10 Online Bachelor’s Degrees in the U.S., according to U.S. News and World Report. This ranking index also placed the entirety of Bellevue’s online offerings at 7th overall in its Guide to Online Schools for 2013. Some of its most popular degree programs include Adult Education and Psychology, while its online PhD in Human Capital Management is one-of-a-kind in the nation, and its accelerated Business degree makes quick work out of entering the workforce. Bellevue University is the only university considered for the category of Most Generous Transfer Policy that could say “yes” to its ability to offer all six innovative online support services to its students.
As a member of the Alternative Credit Project, or ACE, Bellevue University intrinsically offers a generous transfer policy. That’s because being an ACE member means that students who have some college education but lack a degree or credential can transfer up to two years of earned credit to colleges and universities who participate in the ACE project. Since Bellevue is one of those, and since it allows additional credit transfer from community colleges of up to 60 hours or the equivalent of an associate’s degree, it is possible to articulate at least two years’ worth of college credit toward a degree at Bellevue University, and in some cases more. In fact, according to Bellevue University’s Annual Conferral Report for 2013-2014, 88% of Bellevue graduates were successfully able to transfer college credit to help complete their bachelor’s degree, making Bellevue not only one of the most generous universities to offer 100% online courses and degrees, but also one of the most innovative in its appreciation of the diverse number of ways in which students can complete their degrees.
- Number of Programs: 75+
South Texas College is a public community college located in the city of McAllen, which resides in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, South Texas College supports six campuses, enrolls over 30,000 students, and offers a bachelor’s degree in Applied Technology, as well as associate’s degrees in Applied Science, Arts, and Sciences. These degree programs comprise over 100 degree and certificate program options, which includes an additional 30 online degree and certificate programs. STC also offers a variety of dual enrollment programs, including early high schools and dropout recovery programs that allow eligible students to take college courses while attending high school. It is the largest such program in the United States, supporting a community for which 60% of the population are the first in the family to attend college, more than 95% of the students are Hispanic, and class size averages around 26 students per faculty member, the latter of which is a student-faculty ratio that many colleges and universities, both public and private, strive to mirror.
STC’s South Texas College Online was desinged as a flexible, military-friendly alternative to traditional face-to-face education, geared especially toward meeting the needs of working men and women who require a career change to support themselves and their families. In addition to meeting the traditional needs of students who want to transfer credit toward a bachelor’s degree or earn a bachelor’s degree onsite, STC is also supportive of students who have non-traditional needs, such as earning education points toward a promotion. Among the support services it provides are Online Career Services, Online Counseling Services, and Access to 1-on-1 Mentoring with Teachers, all of which is in addition to articulation agreements with greater than 60 colleges and universities, a list which includes Bellevue University and Western Governors University.
With low-cost tuition of only $264.00 per class for in-district students, $310.20 per class for out-of-district, and $639.00 per class for non-residents, STC’s online programs are some of the most affordable in the country. Although these rates can differ (often favorably so) for certain programs, all Texas residents can complete an associate’s degree for tuition under $4,000 and a bachelor’s degree for tuition under $8,000, making an entire degree from South Texas College more affordable than one year of tuition at a traditional in-state college. STC also allows eligible students to pay tuition in monthly installments for both traditional and continuing education programs, as well as to take out emergency short-term loans to pay for textbooks and/or tuition and fees. This level of patience and understanding for both the students and community it serves is unparalleled at community colleges and traditional four-year universities around the nation, showing STC’s dedication to innovating by making online education accessible to the greatest number of students.
- Number of Programs: 30+
Founded in 1880, University of Southern California is the oldest non-profit research university in California. Located in Los Angeles, USC is one of the largest contributors to both the California and West Coast economies, spending approximately $5 billion per year in the LA metro area alone, and raising more money via donations than all American universities but Harvard and Stanford. As the state’s most prestigious institution of higher learning, and one that consistently ranks among the Top 25 in the nation, USC enrolls greater than 42,000 students, the vast majority of which are graduate and professional students. USC supports a strong tradition of innovation, having graduated entrepreneurs that started companies like Tinder, Myspace, and Lucasfilm, in addition to housing the world’s most powerful quantum computer. With this emphasis in entrepreneurship and information science, the university has produced the fourth largest number of billionaire alumni in the world. In fact, among this alumni body, it can count Neil Armstrong, Judd Apatow, and George Lucas, to name only a few of its most esteemed innovators.
USC Online was designed to expand accessibility to a quality education while maintaining the academic rigor of a top tier school. Through this medium, USC provides the same world-renowned degree programs online as it can provide in person, offering not only the same research opportunities but also the same instructors and many of the same support services. Of the six categories of online support services we sampled, USC Online provides the following four, which are arguably the most important for developing a quality online education: access to an Online Library, Online Career Services, Online Counseling Services, and 1-on-1 Mentoring with teachers. Even when compared with online offerings at comparable Ivy League schools, USC Online offers over 10 fully online degrees where most Ivy League schools only offer fully online degrees in the single digits. And all such programs at USC are developed to meet highly specific educational standards in the discipline under which the degree falls, while many integrate live discussions to encourage community engagement, intellectual exchange, and practice interacting via the medium that most of today’s most innovative businesses are able to harness for maximal financial benefit, and which one of its alumni had a big hand in developing: the Internet.
Online programs at the University of Southern California are particularly prestigious due to the historical staying power of the university’s continuing education program as a whole, a distance learning program which has been around since 1972. Because it was one of the first, biggest, and most well-known universities to render its degree programs accessible to the broadest possible audience, and because its graduates consistently go on to become innovators in both public and private sectors, it is no surprise that USC is the most innovative and prestigious university in the United States. What is surprising is the level of consistency at which it is able to continue churning out leaders in the industrial spheres that seem to matter most to the general American populace: technology, entertainment, business, finance, and politics. What is also surprising is that it achieves this level of innovation with a student body that has a majority of graduate students—which conventional wisdom tells us rarely leave the “Ivory Tower” to do much “in the real world”—and that they are able to do so for such a wide range of people, from thinkers who want to advance their careers in international and global studies, to caregivers who want to reinvent their lives with a new career serving their own communities, to men and women who want tolead in the realm of military service to their home and country. The courses offered online for finance for example could tell you the difference between bankruptcy vs debt settlement, and help you achieve it for your potential clients. This range of online offerings, in addition to its longstanding prestige, make USC an easy choice for Most Prestigious Innovator.
- Number of Programs: 88
University of Massachusetts Amherst is a public flagship and top tier research university located in eponymous Amherst, Massachusetts. As the largest public university in New England, UMass Amherst hosts over 29,000 students and 1,300 faculty, offers over 200 degree programs from the bachelors to the doctoral, and places among the 30 Best Public Universities in the Nation. In addition, UMass Amherst hosts two distance education programs, which are called Continuing and Professional Education and University Without Walls. The first of these two programs is designed for working professionals who have little-to-no college education but want to build a skill base or earn a qualification for an existing job. The second of these two programs is an entire department at the university that was established in 1971 to provides degree completion coursework, primarily for non-traditional students who have some college education but no degree. It has since grown into one of the university’s most successful departments for graduating students, having graduated 5% of all UMass Amherst graduates in 2013 alone.
UMass Amherst’sUniversity Without Walls is one of a handful of the earliest distance education and degree completion programs to be founded in the United States. Having grown steadily since the 1970s, the UWW program has awarded approximately 3,000 degrees and currently graduates an average of 250 students per year. Because UWW functions as its own department and admits many students who do not have a traditional academic focus, students do not undertake an academic major. Rather, they choose one of nine interdisciplinary areas of study, each of which consists of courses from several academic fields, and which builds upon students’ pre-existing credits to create a unique program of study for each and every student. The program enrolls the largest number of veterans of any academic department at UMass Amherst, and offers a popular residency in social justice, which is a one-credit, three-day intensive course that teaches the theories and practices of social justice to learners who want to spend their careers fighting inequality.
The customizability of UMass Amherst’s University Without Walls comes from its interdisciplinary approach to helping students complete their degrees. Throwing conventional majors out the window, each student who enrolls in the UWW programs has their pick of nine different areas of study, including Design Your Own, Advocacy and Social Justice, Arts Management, Business Studies, Criminal Justice Studies, Early Care & Education, Human Service, Journalism Studies, and Writing. All students are guided through the process of designing and developing their own curriculum in these areas of study by an experienced faculty adviser. These faculty advisers help students choose courses from a catalogue of several hundred courses offered by 40 of UMass Amherst’s esteemed academic departments, a challenging task with plenty of variables to account for, and which UWW’s 1-On-1 mentoring support service is not only guaranteed but quality-assured. Such quality customizability is hard to come by in an online learning age where education can take a formulaic shape, and so for the free form that UMass Amherst’s University Without Walls allows, we recognize it with flying colors.
- Number of Departments Offering Online Courses: 59
Founded in 1885, Stanford University is a private research university located near the California coast and at the southern tip of the San Francisco Bay. Having supported entrepreneurship by faculty and graduate students since after World War II, Stanford became a large cog in the wheel that economical wheel that transformed the region into Silicon Valley, which helped the university become one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Much of this prestige can be attributed directly to innovations by faculty and alumni, especially technological entrepreneurs who have founded companies that together produce more than $2.7 trillion in annual revenue. This list of companies includes the computer science professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, co-founders of the most popular MOOC provider, Coursera.
Stanford Online is the arm of Stanford’s continuing and professional education program, which offers a wide variety of both theoretical learning opportunities and skills-based training. In conjunction with faculty and staff at several of Stanford’s colleges and departments, it is able to share free online courses with the world. Indeed, with a policy of “Sharing as we innovate,” Stanford’s distance education initiative encourages the level of intellectual rigor and entrepreneurial innovation exuded by the esteemed and award-winning faculty that teach its classes. A longtime advocate of increasing accessibility to a quality education with online delivery, the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (VPTL) involves itself in assuring that only the best, most cutting-edge open course technology is available to reach the maximum number of people interested in classes taught at Stanford Online.
Stanford’s MOOC offerings extend from the arm of Stanford Online to the ever-growing base of MOOCs at Coursera. Through both these venues, Stanford can be said to offer several hundred massive open online course, and through an additional partnership with OpenEdX, it is also able to offer a number of courses for continuing medical education credit (CME). Once created, most of these courses are made accessible to any learner who happens upon them via Stanford, Coursera, or edX, so they can be taken asynchronously, or without the need to log on at the same time as fellow classmates, as well as at a self-paced rate. The best part, of course, is that all of these courses (and the wealth of information they provide) are offered free of charge, all as part of the open online initiative to make quality education more affordable, accessible, and applicable to the broadest possible audience. With all this considered, it’s little wonder that Stanford is the best MOOC provider in the movement for online courses.
- Number of Programs Offering MOOCs: All programs.
Regis University is a private Roman Catholic, Jesuit university located in Denver, Colorado. One of only 28 member institutions of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, Regis University enrolls approximately 9,200 students, the vast majority of which are undergraduates. Students who attend the Denver location will enjoy close proximity to the Colorado capital, while online students will enjoy full access to a growing number of the university’s programs. Regis University is recognized for hosting the first online, bilingual, and joint MBA degree program, as well as for placing consistently among the best universities in the west, for which is was ranked 28th by U.S. News in 2016.
Online degrees have expanded in recent years. Such expansion is due in large part to the university’s global partnerships with National University of Ireland Galway, as well as the Jesuit University of Guadalajara Mexico, where courses for the joint MBA program are offered. Regis’s College for Professional Studies offers a Jesuit-centered education to over 9,000 adult education and distance learners, a growing proportion of which are based online. CPS has been named among the most Military Friendly Schools in the U.S. And finally, Regis’s College of Computer and Information Sciences (CC&IS) is its most recent addition, which was designed to provide specialized education and training for preparation to enter the computer science industry. It is the only program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) to offer classes 100% online.
Nearly half of all Regis University’s programs can be taken in an accelerated format. Among those 33 than can, courses are offered in either 5- or 8-week segments on which no limit is placed as to how many classes a student can enroll in over the course of five weeks. A generous transfer policy also allows the potential for students to complete degree programs at an even faster rate, as programs such as the MBA in marketing can be completed in as little as 1.5 years with appropriate transfer credits from similarly accredited institutions, aptitude testing that allows for clepping out, as well as the aforementioned self-paced options. Other accelerated programs include the BS in Nursing, the BA in Education, and the MEd in Educational Leadership. Regis is also able to offer various certificates and licensures, although many require an in-classroom component. Because of the level of flexibility and acceleration that comes from the permission to combine various programs that provide a traditional education for nontraditional students, Regis University is the most accelerated innovator in online courses to watch in 2017.
- Number of Programs: 78
- Number of Programs: 78
Categories of Innovation: We decided on eight categories of innovation based on indicators that we commonly use to rank schools at Online Course Report. These indicators included schools for which (1) MOOCs are offered for credit, (2) alternative learning philosophies are employed, (3) generous transfer policies are allowed, (4) affordability is a high priority, (5) prestige is a big factor, (6) majors are customizable, (7) the university functions as a MOOC provider, and of course, (8) accelerated options are not only available, but considered paramount to the online learning experience.
How Schools Were Chosen for Each Category: If there was only one school that could be said to fall under a given category of innovation, and that is often the case for institutions who are pushing the envelope of online education, then that school ranked first among institutions that fall under that category. If there were two or more schools that could be said to fall under a given category of innovation, then preference was given to the top school based on its ability to tick the boxes for the following two criteria*:
- Number of Programs – the total number of distinct degree programs of academic study (e.g., Business, Nursing, Social Sciences, etc.), in addition to individual degree specializations within distinct programs of academic study (e.g., Digital Marketing, Geriatric, Data Science, etc.).
- Number of Innovative Online Support Services – the total number of support services that an online school offers out of the following six: (1) Online Libraries, (2) Online Career Services, (3) Synchronous and Asynchronous Offerings, (4) Online Counseling Services, (5) Access to 1-on-1 Time with Online Instructors, (6) Any Other Unique Online Support Service, such as membership organizations, certificate testing, or career training.
*Note: Due to the proliferation of lawsuits surrounding for-profit higher education, its recruitment practices, and general controversy, all for-profit colleges and universities were excluded from consideration on this shortlist.