Higher ed is poised to enter a post-pandemic online learning boom. Having discovered that education can still happen when professors and students are not physically in the same room, colleges and universities are starting to plan to create and grow new online programs. The phones of online program management (OPM) providers and higher ed consultants are ringing off the hook. (Or whatever the post-phone equivalent to communications has become).
As a veteran of over 20 years of online learning work, you’d think I’d be happy about all this COVID catalyzed interest in online education. And mostly, I am.
Online education has been the universe’s most effective faculty development program ever devised. We all now talk about learner-centered courses, active learning, and backward course design because of online education. We have online education to thank for introducing the most important profession to enter the postsecondary ecosystem in the last 30 years – that of the instructional designer. Large enrollment introductory (gateway) courses are better because of online learning. Online education has brought the science of learning into the conversation on teaching. And on top of all these benefits to students and faculty, online education has enabled millions of full-time working adults to complete their degrees and pursue graduate training.
So I love online learning.
The post-COVID online education concern that I have is that college and universities will rush into this space, and in their haste to develop new online programs, they will miss some of the hard-earned lessons of those who came before. While I fully encourage college and university leaders to prioritize the investigation of new online programs, I’d also recommend that this work proceeds along an ADQ framework.
What is ADQ? It is something that I made up. ADQ stands for Alignment, Differentiation, and Questioning.
The fundamental building block of a robust and resilient online learning strategy aligns with institutional values and mission. If your strategy is misaligned, your online learning efforts will be fragmented, marginalized, and short-lived. If there is no online learning strategy beyond the opportunistic creation of programs or courses based on idiosyncratic circumstances, then any online initiatives will be half-baked and ultimately ineffective.
What does the necessity for alignment mean in practice? Very few schools place the development of new revenues at the core of their mission statements. Dollars are a tool. We need money to accomplish our overall goals, but the goal should never be money. Online learning initiatives should be developed and tailored specifically to advance core institutional missions. These programs may do so directly by focusing on the areas in which a school prides itself. (Such as advancing the liberal arts, increasing access by lowering costs and expanding enrollments, training workforce-ready graduates, etc.). Alternatively, new online programs can be launched in an adjacent space, with revenues and resources allocated explicitly to invest in core mission-related activities.
Not every school should do every online program, and not every online program is appropriate for every school. We must pick and choose carefully.
As Yoda once said about online education, “Demand among learners, the pull is strong.” What Yoda was getting at is that colleges and universities are almost always tempted to chase the market when deciding which online programs to launch. Everyone is looking at the same Google searches for skill-based credentials, and everyone is rushing to meet that demand with new online programs.
No college or university wants to launch a new online program that no students want to enroll. There is nothing wrong with trying to figure out learner demand. Market data, however, should not be the sole driver of where schools invest. Demand data needs to be interpreted through the lens of institutional strengths.
Any new online program must differentiate itself from an ever-growing list of competitors. Degree programs now compete with non-degree offerings. Residential masters programs are converting to fully online offerings. It is no longer possible to compete on “flexibility,” as all online programs offer flexible learning. In an age of the scaled online degree (Coursera and edX), competing on price is no longer a good option.
What’s left is differentiation. There needs to be something specific, special, and unique about a school’s new online program. Maybe your institution has built up deep expertise within a particular discipline or subject area. That is the place to build your online program. Or perhaps your school has a long history of an incredibly innovative and well-known residential program. Create an online program that parallels what you already do well. Differentiation in the online world often means starting small. That is okay. Much better to be successful with something small and that your community knows well and cares about then to fail with yet another skills-based online program.
The “Q” in ADQ is Questioning. When planning an institutional online strategy, it is important to question all of your assumptions. Online programs are new things. They need to be done in new ways. The fact that your school has always run residential programs in a certain way does not mean that this method should continue online. In higher ed, we tend to do many things because that is how we’ve always done them. Courses have this many credits. There are that many courses in a degree. Students cover this material and develop those competencies. New online programs allow us to start with a clean slate. If we could do things over again, how would we do them differently? What can we do that best meets the learners’ needs, as opposed to those of the school and the staff? (Note that I put the needs of the faculty – the key people in any quality online program – on par with the students).
Creating successful online programs is as much a process of institutional unlearning as it is of learning. We need to unlearn many of our ideas, our scarcity, value, and brand. We need to unlearn much of what we believe around student performance, assessment, and motivations.
The organizational structures and institutional norms that worked well for residential education may not work well for online learning. As mission-driven organizations, we should feel confident to search for our blind spots and expose our shortcomings. The danger of online education initiatives is trying to do what we’ve always done, except now online.
Question everything. And then act.