Over the last few years, many colleges have jumped into massively open online courses (MOOCs) and online education programs for different reasons. But they didn't always take into account why students chose the online programs or courses that they did, much less tailor their programs to meet those students' needs.

Many of the online initiatives that have failed did so because universities didn't realize that adults they served had a different job for them to do, said Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University who has spent a number of years asking his students what job the university can do for them. Since he became president in 2003, the university has grown from 2,500 students to more than 80,000, in part thanks to applying the jobs-to-be-done theory from Clayton Christensen, who is a trustee emeritus of the university and well known for his disruptive innovation theory. 

According to the jobs-to-be-done theory, customers hire products or services to do a specific job for them, and those providers can adapt their offerings by understanding the job they've been hired to do. In higher education, universities would need to understand the reasons why different students choose their online education program or a competitor's program in order to serve them more effectively. 

"What we define as a job to be done in our book and the theory is actually the progress somebody's trying to make in particular circumstances," said Karen Dillon, former Harvard Business Review editor and co-author of several books with Christensen, including the most recent Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice. "It's not something functional, it's about getting them to something they want to achieve." 

LeBlanc gave two examples of universities that didn't correctly apply this theory in online education and struggled as a result. Take the University of Virginia, for instance. The university's governing board asked for President Teresa Sullivan's resignation in 2012 after its members determined she wasn't moving fast enough to equip the school for the future, including offering MOOCs to students. 

"No one was asking them to do the job of giving free education to the world, which was what MOOCs promised at the time," LeBlanc said.

Ultimately the board reinstated Sullivan, and the university went on to experiment with offering MOOCs on the Coursera platform. But it was a lesson in the importance of carefully considering what different students need.

The University of Florida went through similar growing pains as it started an online education program last year. It hired Pearson to help build an online program designed to bring in students straight out of high school, particularly from out of state. But the university found that more students in Florida enrolled compared to out of state, their average age was 28, and one in five students are younger than 20, Inside Higher Ed reported.

This university didn't understand the job that specific students hired it for. Many students straight out of high school want the coming-of-age experience that goes with attending a campus in person, and that's not the same job the online program was trying to do, LeBlanc said. Instead, it performed a role that some older students with jobs and families needed done: a more flexible way to earn a degree that may help them get a better job.

A year after canceling its Pearson contract and moving many operations in-house, the university is still trying to attract students straight out of high school by offering on-campus perks at an additional cost along with their online classes. It's also created the Pathway to Campus Enrollment program that lets students finish the first two years of their degree online before coming to campus. But it's also recognizing that other types of students want to attend the program too.

"If you don't get the broader strategy question down — what am I being asked to do — it doesn't matter how good you are at your operations; you're hitting the wrong target," LeBlanc said.

When LeBlanc came to Southern New Hampshire University in 2003, he wanted to make sure his university understood its job. After listening to students, he saw a need for older students to quickly enroll in an online program that would allow them to take care of their family, work and earn a degree at their own pace. The university created one of the first competency-based degree programs that wasn't tied to the credit hour or regional accreditor-approved classes, and revamped its enrollment and other processes to support these students. 

When the university mapped out all of its administrative processes, "it looked like the schematic of a nuclear assault," LeBlanc said. "There were so many things we made students do to simply get enrolled and finish."  

Southern New Hampshire University cleaned up those steps and cut the time they took as well. For example, students no longer have to call the registrar's office at their previous college during business hours to get their transcript. The university takes care of that for them, which speeds up the enrollment process. And they don't spend months or years talking with the university about how they can afford to attend; that conversation takes place with the financial aid office in a few days. 

"They totally integrated it throughout their system," Dillon said, "and it's not a simple thing to do."