3 Essential Attributes of a Centralized Online Learning Unit

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The history of online education will inescapably pivot around the pandemic. There will be online education before March 2020. And online education after March 2020. Across that dividing point will be a vast difference in how colleges and universities structure, resource, and strategize online learning.

Before the pandemic, online education was something that some of higher ed did, but not all. At some schools, online learning was a strategic priority, key to ensuring financial resiliency and enabling the viability of residential educational programs. At other schools, online education was a tactic that some schools or programs followed to achieve a local goal but were not part of its overall strategy. At still other institutions, online education was a marginal to non-existent element of the broader educational portfolio.

After the pandemic, online learning will be a strategic priority for every college and university. Even those schools that only serve traditional-age 18-22-year-old full-time students in residential-only programs (a tiny minority of all schools) will need to prioritize a set of core online learning competencies to ensure institutional resilience. Across every type of postsecondary institution, from elite residential private universities to commuter community colleges and everything in between, online education is now a strategic priority.

What does this new centrality of online learning mean for the organizational structures of colleges and universities?

Online education has failed to align with institutional strategic goals and priorities at many schools because online learning expertise and resources have been diffused. Instead of having a central online learning unit, with support from academic leadership and access to institution-wide investment capital, many schools or programs have stood up their own online learning resources. The result has been that on many campuses, online learning expertise and resources are siloed within individual schools or programs. There is little sharing of knowledge or resources across online programs, and it is difficult for new degrees or other online offerings to be created.

Many colleges and universities will move to centralize their online educational resources in the post-pandemic higher ed world. Instead of having many online learning teams spread across schools or programs, colleges and universities will have centrally located online learning units charged with supporting the entire institution. What should these central online learning units look like? They will vary in size, composition, and organizational home from school to school, but in general, they should exhibit the following three attributes:

Attribute #1 – Alignment with Institutional Strategy:

Online learning initiatives will always be marginal unless they are aligned with institutional strategy and have the support of key institutional leaders. Developing new online programs – both degree and non-degree – involve making long-term bets under conditions of imperfect information. Online learning is capital and time-intensive, and online programs operate in an increasingly competitive market.

Schools must be clear about their goals in creating online programs. At some institutions, these goals will primarily be financial. Revenues from online degree and non-degree programs are essential for filling the gaps caused by losses in state funding, decreases in demand due to changing demographics, and ever greater tuition-discounting levels to meet yield targets. At other institutions, revenues are only one part of the motivation to offer online programs. Other goals may include a desire to increase student access. Other institutions may prioritize impact workforce development. At some colleges and universities, online learning may contribute to the mission of educating leaders and positively impacting the world. Most schools have a combination of overlapping reasons for wanting to offer online programs and degrees.

What is essential is a shared institutional understanding that online educational initiatives are fully aligned with the university’s goals, mission, and values. Campus leaders will need to make the case that online education initiatives are designed to support long-term strategic goals. For a centralized online learning unit to be successful, their work will need to match and support the institution’s broader strategy. This alignment requires that the online learning unit’s leadership be at the table when an institutional strategy is developed and implemented.

Attribute #2 – Expertise in Instructional Design, Project Management, and (sometimes) Marketing:

Online learning is a team sport. Team members include the subject matter experts and instructors and facilitators, coaches, instructional designers, project managers, marketing experts, admissions professionals, technology architecture, learner support, financial management, and a zillion other essential tasks and roles. At many schools, the subject matter experts (SME) and the instructor and the facilitator are the same people. At other schools, or sometimes within programs within schools, those roles are disaggregated.

The case is always that every centralized online learning needs expertise in instructional design and project management. Usually, the instructional designer and the project manager are the same people. The instructional designer collaborates with technology and media professionals to partner with the faculty to develop and run online courses and support online students. High-quality online programs and courses devote significant resources to instructional design. Course development and faculty training are intensive, time-consuming, and take place over weeks (or months) before the online program launches. The intensity of resource investment and collaboration between professors and instructional designers defines and separates traditional online programs from emergency COVID-19 pivots to remote learning.

In many cases, the instructional design and project management and student support and technical expertise of a centralized online learning team will be complemented by capabilities in marketing. (And sometimes admissions). When it comes to online education, building quality online courses is the easy part. We know how to do this. We have years of experience and knowledge in integrating research-based learning design principles (active learning, backward design, student-centered-learning, low-stakes formative assessment, etc.) with core learning technologies and platforms. What is becoming increasingly tricky is driving demand for individual online programs, as the total supply of online programs continues to proliferate. It may be that expertise in marketing (especially online marketing) is now a core competency for a centralized campus online learning unit.

Attribute #3 – Access to Institutional Capital, including Financial, Political, and Social:

The final essential attribute of a centralized online learning unit is capital. That capital includes financial (money, and the people that money can activate on the online learning team). However, the necessary capital goes beyond financial, and consists of generating and spending institutional political and social capital.

Let’s start with the easiest of the three capitals, financial. Online programs are resource-intensive to create and run. Almost always, online programs will not become revenue positive until a couple of years into their existence (or longer). The high up-front capital requirements of online programs (building online courses and finding qualified students to enroll) are among the main reasons schools work with online program management (OPM) companies. OPM capital, however, is expensive capital. There may be good reasons to work with a partner to develop an online program, but access to upfront financial resources should not be one of them. Centralized online learning should be in a position to “loan” the dollars necessary to schools/programs/departments to spin-up a new online program and then recoup those dollars back in revenues. The internal revenue share will be much lower than that of a traditional OPM relationship, leaving more dollars for the school/program/department that offers the online program.

Institutional political and social capital are squishier concepts. They have to do with the ability to enable academic leaders (deans, chairs, etc.) and faculty to take the leap to create and run a new online program. Centralized online learning units need to be trusted partners to academic leadership and faculty in developing new online programs. Ideally, these teams will absorb much of the risk that schools/departments and faculty would typically be exposed to in creating and launching online programs.

Centralized online units need to work with institutional leaders to create the right incentives for schools, departments, and faculty to invest in online education. When faculty and administrators choose to participate in online courses or programs, their contributions and hard work need to be recognized and celebrated. Online programs will fail unless they make sense to both academic leadership and to faculty. It is the role of centralized online learning units to advocate for the interests of both faculty and learners and ensure that the programs align with institutional goals and are financially sustainable. All of this work requires that these centralized online learning units build institutional political and social capital and spend that resource supporting its mission.



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