How your online program and institution can improve quality, access, and affordability at scale

Concurrent Session 9 & 10 (combined)

Brief Abstract

Online programs can also contribute to the transformation of their institutions, helping improve their quality of learning, equitable access, and affordability – sustainably and at scale. We’ll show you how to assess the potential of your program and your institution for institutional scale improvements in quality, access, and affordability.

Extended Abstract

Online programs can contribute directly to the transformation of their institutions, and vice versa. Among other benefits, this synergy can foster visible gains in their quality of learning, equitable access, and affordability for students and other stakeholders.  Because one set of institutional features can yield three types of benefits, this is called the pursuit of 3fold gains. At a few institutions, such gains have already been made. Participants will learn about this research and then apply some of those findings to assess the capacity and potential of their own institutions and online programs.

Before describing the workshop, here’s a summary of the research, key findings, and recommendations.


I investigated three questions:

  1. Is it possible for a college or university to take one set of related actions that, together, improve facets of their quality of learning, equitable access, and affordability for students and other stakeholders? (Spoiler alert: I found and analyzed six such institutions)

  2. By what means can today’s institutions create such gains?

  3. How did the six case history institutions each develop their capacity over the years?

The case history institutions are Georgia State University, Governors State University, Guttman Community College, Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based College for America programs, the University of Central Florida, and the University of Central Oklahoma.

The details differ across these institutions. However there are strong family resemblances across institutions in their capabilities and how they were developed. (Two of the institutions – Guttman and College for America – were designed from day 1 to do exceptionally well in quality, access, and affordability. The OLC Innovate session will focus on the other four, each of which developed their pursuit of 3fold gains over many years.

These findings can be applied both to online programs (including hybrid and blended offerings) and to their institutions.

First, the institutions in the study are slowly shifting, bit by bit,

  • away from Barr and Tagg’s Instruction Paradigm (e.g, quality is a function of institutional resources, selectivity, and incoming students; to get smart graduates admit smart learners; define most courses and faculty in terms of content expertise) and
  • toward a Learning Paradigm (e.g., college does more than deliver content – it can and must help students develop their intellectual and practical capabilities. That's one reason to define the educational “quality” of an institution by its teaching and learning activities and by the attributes of students completing their courses of study.

Second, we already know that several emerging educational strategies can improve quality, access, and affordability. Perhaps the best known are the High-Impact Practices: HIPs such as undergraduate research, service learning, and ePortfolios. When students engage in one well-implemented HIP each year, learning improves for all of them. Students from underserved groups gain an even larger advantage, helping to erase achievement gaps. And, because changes like these can also increase graduation rates and speed to graduation, students (especially those from underserved groups) can save time and money while increasing the lifetime returns from that investment. These institutions have gathered evidence illustrating their 3fold gains.

Third, institutions will probably find it impossible to implement these strategies at scale and sustainably unless the institutions transform their organization (including culture) and how they relate with the world in which they operate. To put this another way, institutional gains can be made with a constellation of mutually-aligned institutional strengths and initiatives; there is no single magic bullet, digital or otherwise for pursuing 3fold gains. The good news: when institutions ask themselves what educational and organizational strengths are needed to achieve their top priorities for quality, access, and affordability, they are likely to realize that some of those changes have already been made. Participants in this workshop will try to do just that.

Fourth, the University of Central Florida (UCF) case history demonstrates how an institution can implement elements of this framework in its program of online and blended learning. A “side benefit” of this process was helping the university as a whole in making 3fold gains.  The converse is also true: changes in UCF, especially its new learning-centered president, provided an environment in which their fledgling online program could grow to represent the best, most equitable, and most affordable strengths of the University.


First, we'll summarize the research and findings, especially about the elements of successful institutional constellations. Then participants to use that framework to see if their institution has a head start in pursuing 3fold gains.  Which elements of the framework are already present, at scale, in their programs and institutions?

Within the broad realms of quality, access, and affordability, what are the greatest needs or opportunities? For example, which facets of educational quality are most needed, most beneficial?  Which populations of learners are most in need of equitable access? And what aspirations might their institution have for improving affordability (controlling or reducing demands on stakeholder time and money while increasing the return on those investments)? 

In the light of those aspirations for quality, access, and affordability, which educational strategies are most promising within the categories of:

  • HIPs,
  • Learning pathways,
  • Redesigned assignments, courses, and academic programs that open old bottlenecks that had unnecessarily been hampering the academic success of at least some students.
  • Universal design for learning.

The second domain of a successful contellation includes organizational foundations that support 3fold gains, including making it possible for institutions to scale and sustain those educational strategies, foundations such as

  • President and senior leaders championing necessary cross-silo collaboration and cross-stakeholder coalitions for making 3fold gains

  • Transparent, robust, and secure technology infrastructure

  • Infrastructure for supporting the design and redesign of assignments, courses, and programs,

  • Infrastructure for programmatic application of of ePortfolios for assessment, learning, and program evaluation.

  • A center for teaching and learning that is a primary support for institutional transformation

  • Culture focused primarily on learning and teaching,

  • Faculty rewards,

  • Appropriate learning spaces for active and collaborative learning, live and asynchronous

Finally, how do their current institutional and program interactions with the wider world provide at least partial support for pursuing 3fold gains? For example:

  • The criteria used to recruit new students and staff,
  • Using accreditation as an occasion improving institutional capacity to make and assess 3fold gains,
  • Participation in communities of transformation such as OLC and the OER community.

NOTE: these bullets represent options for constellations.  Any given institution is likely to have a few of these present already. In any given year, they might work on adding a few more. And some elements of their constellations won't be represented in these lists - this is a summary of major elements of constellations that I saw in at least one of the six institutions I studied.

The workshop will spend about a half hour describing the research and findings; during the remaining hour I'll help participants use this framework to describe their institution's and program's current assets for a constellation.



The most complete source is my book Pursuing Quality, Access, and Affordability: A Field Guide to Improving Higher Education. (Stylus Press, 2021) The book has been well-received. Carol Geary Schneider has written, "[This book]  provides a persuasive, practical, and long-view guide to implementing transformative educational change across an entire institution and ultimately, US higher education as a whole." Prof. Adrianna Kezar of USC has called it "one of the most important books in higher education in decades."  InsideHigherEd called it a "must-read."

A recent article in EDUCAUSE Review describes how digital technologies including online learning can magnify an institution's 3fold gains institutions. <>

Liberal Education article describing the 3fold gain framework, spotlighting the need for cross-sector coalitions to achieve 3fold gains:

Mary Taylor Huber review of the book in Change Magazine: