Omnichannel Education: The Learning Revolution

The rapid growth in e-commerce has triggered fundamental changes in the way consumers buy goods.

Omnichannel Education

Instead of making purchases at physical stores, consumers expect to be served through multiple buying channels. In response, retailers have developed omnichannel supply chain models that provide a variety of ways to buy and receive products via online and traditional brick-and-mortar outlets.

Now, a similar trend is transforming education where learners are demanding new ways to access the educational programs they need to enhance their professional knowledge and further their careers.

The age of omnichannel education has arrived, and it is equally as transformative as its equivalent in the retail space.

In this article, we explore the omnichannel revolution in education using our experience at the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics (MIT CTL) in one industry: supply chain management. However, the principles, ideas, and lessons described in the article pertain to any industry and any purveyor of education. We offer four lessons learned as examples.

Retail redefined across customer buying channels

The rise of e-commerce, as well as mobile commerce which opened the door to multichannel purchasing, spawned omnichannel retailing and changed the distribution paradigm in that industry.

Omnichannel aims to provide customers with a seamless buying experience, whether they are shopping online or via physical stores. For instance, a customer might complete a purchase online using a mobile device and collect the item in a store or from some other collection point such as a high street locker.

To accommodate this ground-breaking approach to retailing, traditional stores have redefined their roles and reconfigured their delivery models. An example is the creation of the distribution center store, where a brick-and-mortar outlet also caters to online buyers.

In this fast-evolving landscape, the lines between physical and virtual players have blurred. Established retailers such as Walmart and Target have moved into the online space to compete with virtual rivals such as Amazon. At the same time, e-commerce companies are colonizing brick-and-mortar territory with physical stores.

In other words, retailers are redrawing their industry map at the behest of customers who want a flexible, convenient, and cost-competitive buying experience.

Echoes of omnichannel in education

Similar forces are reshaping education, where a revolution that is analogous to the one that is redefining retailing is underway.

In education, brick-and-mortar outlets are represented by long-established providers such as colleges and specialist schools. There also are many online players, but up until fairly recently, their products were based on conventional curricula.

As has happened in retailing, the education industry’s entrenched structure has become outmoded. Its customers — learners — want more flexible delivery models that cater to variable learning schedules, different levels of learning and qualifications, and are relatively free of geographic limitations. Importantly, today’s learners also need to keep pace with technological innovation in the workplace, and fast-changing skills demand — requirements that call for programs that can flex quickly with market shifts.

Massive, open, online courses

Another similarity with retail’s change in direction is the dramatic impact of online delivery channels on education. Probably the most visible example is the emergence of MOOCs (massive, open, online courses) and online programs based on MOOCs. These innovative programs take advantage of advanced educational tools such as interactive video to make education accessible to vast audiences across multiple geographies. The MOOC model also provides instant feedback on the customer experience.

The number of MOOCs and MOOC-based programs has mushroomed over recent years, accelerating the changes that are redefining education.

The application of advanced analytical tools such as machine learning is also driving change in education — a trend that is well established in omnichannel retailing. Just as retailers deploy machine learning to understand customers’ buying behavior better, so educators can use similar techniques to gain a deeper understanding of students’ learning behavior and to develop models that best serve these needs.

Rich research in online and hybrid education

While these changes are profound, omnichannel, or multichannel education is still in its infancy, and the revolution spearheaded by MOOCs needs to go much further. Using the MOOC concept at a platform, new forms of education are needed, such as hybrid models that combine the best qualities of virtual and residential programs.

Moreover, educators need to become more adept at leveraging machine learning to mine and analyze the vast volumes of data generated by MOOC-based programs. The intelligence gained from these analyses can be used to improve professional educational programs.

MIT CTL’s experience in the supply chain industry offers insights that can help achieve these goals in any industry.

Since 1998 we’ve been experimenting with pure and hybrid education models for a variety of audiences in the supply chain management profession. During that time, we have created multiple MOOCs and online courses that have been accessed by hundreds of thousands of learners from many countries.

These offerings include a MOOC created in 2014 that attracted around 40,000 registrants and a pioneering online MicroMasters credential that comprises five MOOCs and has enrolled 320,000 unique learners.

In addition, we have introduced a blended program that blends masters-level online and residential models, mixed-format executive education courses, and a Supply Chain Bootcamp that encompasses online courses and a five-day, on-campus course.

Thanks to this variety of programs, we have reached a diverse range of learners in terms of age, gender, country, industry, and experience (including graduate students, mid-level professionals, senior executives, and anyone from anywhere through the MicroMasters program).

Moreover, the diverse nature of supply chain management requires us to teach a range of topics from analytical problem solving to managerial case studies and emerging technologies. Classes must also reflect the global nature of supply chains that requires management professionals to work in a multicultural environment across different time zones and continents.

Using various forms of data derived from these programs, including learner-generated clickstream data, we are applying research methodologies and machine learning techniques to improve the learning experience.

Again, this is analogous to the retail industry, where analyses of customer purchasing behavior are driving improvements in the buying experience.

MIT CTL Computational and Visual Education Lab in use by the course team as a live studio for an interactive classroom online event.

Omnichannel lessons learned for higher ed

The research has yielded many lessons and best practices, which we are working to implement. Here are four key examples that could help educators generally to improve current and future professional programs.

  1. Smaller or less well-known educational institutions may feel threatened by the growth of non-traditional programs. However, they can compete effectively in the emerging marketplace for education by learning from the retail industry. Just as retailers have redefined their roles, smaller players in education can redefine their offerings by using innovative models to create tailored programs. Also, these educators should leverage their local presence through collaborations with companies and their knowledge of the local supply chain landscape.
  2. Consider hybrid/blended formats that include a rigorous online credential plus a residential program. These formats have made a huge impact on education, providing a more accessible and flexible way to learn while allowing non-traditional learners to access high-quality education at leading schools.
  3. Use the online channel to deliver video content that can be explained or amplified in unidirectional, asynchronous lectures. Employ the residential channel to deliver content that is geared toward interacting with peers and instructors in the classroom. In-class content enriches educational outcomes and plays a key role in achieving a program’s learning objectives. Examples of effective interactive exercises include case study discussions, working in teams, solving challenges, and playing simulation games in teams. Our experience demonstrates that online education is very effective in delivering quantitative methods, even in an open and massive environment. However, the online channel is not as useful for discussing cases at scale that feature “it depends” solutions. Face-to-face interactions are much more useful for teaching these cases.
  4. Education platforms that are designed solely for learning are probably not able to provide an accurate assessment of students’ skills in the form of exams. Such an evaluation is essential in programs that also offer some type of credential or access to other degree programs. Also, features such as discussion forums, that provide a space for online students to learn from each other, can, perversely, enable academic dishonesty and cheating. Programs that offer both teaching and assessment features must differentiate the two environments and develop ways to maintain the integrity of assessment mechanisms.

Do or die to remain relevant to the learners?

Omnichannel education is not some theoretical teaching model, nor is it industry jargon with little practical significance. It is a real-world response to the changing needs of learners and industry that is redefining professional education.

We believe that education is moving towards omnichannel models that do not compromise on quality or rigor, satisfy the needs of learners, and combine the strengths of online and in-person education.

In keeping with this trend, MIT CTL is proposing to expand the concept of blended education to omnichannel education, where different learning channels can be combined before, during, and after the campus experience.

Again, we draw on the analogy with retail industry experience to highlight the value of the hybrid approach. Retail players have developed a portfolio of buying options using a mix of online and in-store capabilities rather than two isolated options — and the same formula works in education.

Of course, there are still many formidable challenges to overcome before such a vision is realized. And more research on the best ways to combine formats is urgently needed.

But perhaps the biggest challenge of all is overcoming resistance to change. In the retail industry, many traditional retailers that were unwilling or unable to adopt omnichannel models have perished, and many are struggling. Similarly, we believe that many traditional educational programs that fail to evolve with the changing needs of learners — and shun the use of powerful analytical tools to learn more about their customers — will become obsolete.

Dr. Eva Ponce leads the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics’ (MIT CTL) Omnichannel Distribution Strategies and Transforming Education in SCM Initiatives. For more information on those initiative’s research contact Eva at [email protected].

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At MIT CTL, we believe learning can be available to everyone, everywhere with minimum barriers to entry. To support this belief, we offer the MITx MicroMasters Credential in Supply Chain Management, an advanced, professional, graduate-level foundation in SCM. This credential opens doors professionally and academically and may serve as a learning pathway to all of our other education opportunities below.

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