Dr. Justin M. Bathon, the program chair and a professor at UK, agreed to provide some details about the program, the students, and the business model that supports a niche online program.
If you are also involved an MTOP (or is NOP for “Niche Online Program” better? – remember we are trying to compete with MOOCs for brain space…) please let me know.
I’d love to publish a similar Q&A about your little (economically sustainable, departmentally focused, small scale) online program.
Q1. Give us the elevator pitch on your School Technology Leadership program. Who are your students? Why do they take the program? How is the program designed and delivered? How many students do you have? How much does it cost?
Our students are educational leaders (preschool through university) who realize technology innovations are deeply driving change in their systems and want to become more proactive in their response.
To meet that need we built a Graduate Certificate in School Technology Leadership (5 courses) that can be seamlessly combined into our Masters, Education Specialist, and Doctoral programs (all offered online).
Our online program is a mix of synchronous and asynchronous work with course meetings every second Saturday. In our first year we enrolled 20 students and applications for year two suggest an increase to 30 students enrolling.
We’re able to offer in-state tuition rates no matter where in the world the student resides. In-state tuition rate (now around $550 per credit hour), is a prescient policy of the University of Kentucky. Even at the in-state rate the program is financially sustainable but it still provides us a competitive advantage in the marketplace, especially for our students in North America considering their home-state universities.
Q2. Why did you decide to run a niche online program in School Technology Leadership? What was the process in getting the program going?
About a decade ago, as our team conducted research and development on the global movement to integrate technology into education, we realized that few resources were being directed toward developing the role of school leaders in that movement. Superintendents, principals, IT directors, even university provosts, who are typically older than their newly hired teachers and professors, were struggling under the weight of changes taking place technologically, pedagogically, and demographically.
Leaders that grasped available opportunities, though, were able to transform their learning organizations. One of those new opportunities was blogging, and through our own blogs we were able to connect with these leaders. Scott McLeod, the founding director of our center, sensed there was something important happening through the actions of leaders who understood school technology.
In 2011 the leadership at the University of Kentucky at the time, President Lee Todd, Provost Kumble Subbaswamy, and Education Dean Mary John O'Hair, were looking to make a big splash in the field of education and provided startup funding for the program as well as supported hiring multiple faculty with this expertise. Initial approvals were a little tricky as this was a new concept for the university, but we still managed to launch about two years after initial conversations.
Starting the program was easier because we built off of previous work funded by a FIPSE grant that tried to integrate technology leadership into standard educational leadership programs. The lessons learned from that effort, though, told us that shifting the market was difficult at a traditional program and that the easier pathway would be to simply custom build an online academic program that we could both hold up as the example as well as directly offer to these passionate educational leaders around the world.
Q3. What e-learning platforms do you use for your online program? Did you have to bring in new technologies? How did you handle the need to design your online courses? What about supporting your online learners?
This is an interesting question as the learning management system has been one of the largest challenges. Our university-wide LMS is Blackboard but we found it did not meet our needs for this online program. We looked around and decided to run all our school technology courses with the Canvas LMS, which we find to be much more suitable to this type of program. Sustaining the distinct LMS, though, will continue to be a challenge. In terms of other technologies, we use a wide variety of free online tools such as Google Docs, Hangouts, Facebook, Dropbox, and whatever the latest technology happens to be. We adapt technologies rapidly.
We were very intentional both in choosing the faculty to run the program as well as the initial students in the program such that they were already comfortable rapidly adapting to new technologies. Thus, design and support have been easier because the faculty and students are largely capable of supporting themselves. With the program launched, though, we are actively trying to build additional technology supports for both other program faculty and new students.
Q4. Can you tell us the big things that you have learned from your MTOP on School Technology Leadership? What do you know now that you wish you knew then? What advice would you give to other school's looking to start an MTOP?
Some big things we have learned are, first, that this model can work economically. Too many university administrators are currently being distracted by MOOC's and other mass distribution efforts that have yet to find long-term financial sustainability.
Second, details matter and there are a lot to work through. In a global online synchronous program time zones must be managed, for instance. Global scheduling is a minor thing, perhaps, but it is indicative of the hundred plus minor issues we had to work through before and after launch, including much university policy.
Third, online teaching (if done well) is probably more difficult than traditional classroom instruction, but can be just as effective. The human relationships in the program are just as strong as if we were in person (and stronger than in many of our traditional academic programs).
Fourth, regular people (potential customers) need to know who you are. This is traditionally very hard for universities.
Our faculty and center spent years on social media to build the connections necessary to enroll students from across the planet in the program (most of which does not show up on our vita or evaluations). Your team may be awesome at their niche, but if only other professors know that, it is not globally marketable. Social media worked well for us, but there must be a very intentional and intelligent marketing program in place because few people in Vietnam, for instance, would ever stop to think about the University of Kentucky as an option for them.
The biggest thing, though, is people. Without the right team, this does not work. At UK, we spent a few years just building the team that could make this possible. It is highly unusual for a university, at least a College of Education, to hire multiple people with similar expertise in rapid succession. But, over a couple years we hired essentially half or more of the entire field of school technology leadership in one department.
It is that concentration of talent that made it possible and then we trusted the talent to bring it to market. That was the essential step. It was still difficult beyond that point, but once the concentration of talent emerges MTOP programs like this become not just possible but almost predictable.
What would you like to ask Justin about UK's School Technology Leadership Program?
Do you have your own MTOP story to share?
Is the term "MTOP" even useful as a descriptor, in that are most online programs (at least at non-profits) relatively small in scale?