Avoiding Missteps in Online Programs

Anthony Piña says there are six ways institutions stumble in terms of distance education and provides tips and advice for how to avoid them.

November 29, 2017

“Look, Tony,” the provost at a Midwestern state university told me, “I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Just have the faculty create a bunch of online courses -- it’s that simple.”

Of course, it was not that simple. Ten years later, this university has yet to develop a single fully online program.

I have seen high-profile examples of failures of major online initiatives at university systems in Illinois and California, and institutions with online programs, such as Ashford University and St. Mary of the Woods College, that have been denied accreditation or directed to return significant amounts of federal funding. More recently, George Washington University is being sued by students over its online programs. Less known -- though more common -- are those institutions whose online programs have stagnated or failed to thrive.

Throughout my three decades in the field of instructional technology and distance education, I have been fortunate to receive broad exposure to many different online education programs through consultation, service in professional associations, service on accreditation teams, editing books on distance education, interaction at conferences, and interviews with colleagues and students from across the country. Over the years, I have observed a number of common missteps by organizations with goals to establish or grow online programs. I share them here in hopes that readers will recognize them and avoid negative consequences at their own institutions.

Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss a number of these missteps with presidents, provosts, deans, faculty, staff and students at a highly ranked private university in the South and at a public university in the West. Both had invited me to their respective campuses to explore how best to achieve their goals for online education.


On-campus requirements. The first misstep that we discussed at one of the universities I visited was that the institution’s procedures and policies often required physical presence on campus, which conflicted with the goal of providing education and services to distant learners who would not be coming to campus. Just like the provost in the introduction, many executive leaders are not aware that the success and retention of online learners depends largely on what occurs outside their online courses.

Much of the literature showing higher attrition for online learners compared to on-campus learners only considers the variable of enrollment in online versus on-campus courses. Whether online and on-campus learners are receiving equal services and support in admissions, financial aid counseling, registration, program advising and tutoring and technology help is often not considered when coming to conclusions about whether online learning is “right” for some types of learners.

Rapid growth expectations. Another common misstep, with far-reaching implications, occurs when there is a singular emphasis for online education on rapid enrollment and revenue growth. It is certainly no secret that online enrollments have been the fastest growth area in U.S. higher education for the past several years. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that online courses and degrees would play a significant role in the strategic planning of many colleges and universities.

However, when leaders focus exclusively on marketing, recruitment and quick online course development, the result has often been a de-emphasis on building the infrastructure, staffing and systems to promote success and retention of online learners.

Need for distinct skills. The development and teaching of online courses can also be ripe for missteps. The skills needed to design and develop superior online learning content, experiences and assessments are separate and distinct from skills required for effective online teaching. Both online course development and online teaching also require different skills than those attained from teaching in a classroom.

Variation in quality. One of the missteps that I hear regularly from my peers is the wide variation in quality among online courses and degree programs within the same institution. One common cause is having individual academic schools or departments running their own independent online education programs, with no central coordination of resources, training or oversight. A related misstep is having faculty create online courses “in a vacuum,” with no connection to institutionwide standards or program-level objectives.

Working with OPMs. The use of an online program management provider might work well for some institutions and may be a misstep for others. The president of the public university with whom I met was being actively courted by several providers, each promising turnkey degree programs that could be offered immediately. After he invited me to perform an institutional readiness and capacity assessment, it was clear that the university, with minor adaptations, had the ability to develop and run its online courses and programs in house.

Lack of vision. Although other examples can be given, my concluding misstep is lack of a consistent and shared vision of online learning from the president’s office to administration, faculty, staff and students. Online learners interact with a variety of individuals at the institution. If those individuals are not on the same page with regard to online learning, services, support, policies, procedures and purposes, the result can be frustration at best and disenchantment with the institution at worst. At the private university I visited, the administration and faculty agreed upon a shared vision to devote time and resources to establish an infrastructure for online learner success before developing and marketing online degrees.

Avoiding Missteps

Institutions with healthy and vibrant online learning programs have adopted strategies to avoid missteps. Some of these may be more appropriate than others for different types of institutions:

  • Make online education part of the institution’s stated mission.
  • Communicate institutional leadership’s vision for online learning to administration, faculty, staff and students.
  • Provide updates on current issues and best practices to those who make decisions affecting online learning.
  • Create an online education advisory committee with broad representation.
  • Analyze institutional policies and procedures to make sure that they do not disadvantage online learners and faculty.
  • Provide the full range of student support services with professionals whose primary responsibility is the unique needs of online learners.
  • Establish consistent standards for course development and quality-assurance procedures for online courses.
  • Utilize master courses, course maps and templates for online course development.
  • Partner faculty with instructional designers for course development.
  • Provide separate and distinct faculty training for online course development and for online teaching.
  • Centralize online education operations, resources and standards wherever appropriate.


Anthony Piña is associate provost at Sullivan University and co-editor of the upcoming book Leading and Managing e-Learning: What the e-Learning Leader Needs to Know.


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