Online Programs, Looking Forward

Over the next few years we can expect colleges and universities to consolidate their online offerings into more formal degree and certificate programs.  Whereas the online courses at traditional schools often began as separate divisions or were under the aegis of the Continuing Education division, institutions are now recognizing that they need to fully incorporate their online and blended courses into their regular offerings.  Indeed, such a recognition is central to evaluations of online programs like the Sloan Consortium Scorecard.  And while some of the regional accrediting agencies have yet to incorporate such requirements in their standards, it is very likely that they will be moving in this direction.

Thus there is a relatively short window–we estimate five years, more or less–during which Higher Education Institutions will be re-evaluating their course offerings and grouping them into coherent programs.  In fact, many schools have already taken this step.  But this is a point in an institution’s development where wise and shrewd consultation can be particularly helpful.  There are many elements that go into successful strategic planning for this transition, including a thorough analysis of an institution’s strengths, assets, and market niche, as well as its needs, in terms of leadership, administrative support, technology resources, web-based student support, and faculty readiness and buy-in.

The early days of online teaching saw attempts to convert face-to-face courses directly to online, with very limited success.  As we gained more experience with this new medium, we came to understand what can be taken from the traditional model, and what needs to be rethought.  The same period saw increasing adoption of Teaching and Learning Centers, and the best of these offer excellent guidance for the process of rethinking and reconstructing individual courses.  The Professional and Organizational Development group has some good materials on pedagogically sound ways of structuring courses to take advantage of this new medium, and rubrics created by Quality Matters, CSU Chico, and U of Central Florida offer good self- or peer-to-peer evaluations, after the fact.  Designed by and for faculty, they make for good continuous-improvement pedagogical tools.

Still, course evaluation and improvement is not the same thing as institution-wide analysis of new online, hybrid, or distance programs.  Further, an awareness of where regional and professional accreditation is headed can enable the strategic reorganization to be proactive rather than reactive, so that the institution anticipates new requirements likely to come out of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

In sum, the moment at which a college or university looks to develop its online courses into fully realized degree and certificate programs is one of the best opportunities for consultation with a firm which understands the full dimensions of the changes involved.  A consultation at the outset of a new program can ensure that the online/ distance degree or certification programs supplement and enhance an institutions face-to-face and hybrid offerings, and that the institution which emerges from the process is stronger than before, better prepared to serve its students now and in the future, and where faculty, administrators, and staff continue to find the satisfaction which drew them to higher education in the first place.

 I am indebted to Jane Courcy of Berry Dunn for discussions which led to this analysis.

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