This column will provide Inside Higher Ed readers with advice on a range of strategy and financial issues facing colleges. Eduventures, a leading consulting services firm, has agreed to answer questions from readers. Questions for future columns may be submitted via e-mail. We hope this column provides an opening for all to seek consulting advice and to understand the way consultants approach issues.
Question: How can colleges best mix on-campus and online delivery of instruction?
Too many college and university leaders think, “We have an online program and we have a campus program, so we can probably just combine the two to create a hybrid program.” This usually doesn’t work well because online and on-campus programs often appeal to different people for different reasons, and the delivery challenges for each are also quite different.
We’ve seen some great successes, and a few spectacular failures, in the hybrid market model (in which 20-80 percent of content is delivered online). From these examples, we’ve learned that planning up front and being clear about objectives are preconditions for success. Institutions considering hybrid models for a program, or even several courses, must first create a “business plan” and clearly state what they want to achieve, which students they plan to serve, and how they plan to compete. When building this plan for your institution, you should keep the following in mind:
The Goal. Why are you considering a hybrid model? What is the business rationale? Are you trying to reach different, or more, students, or trying to solve space constraints? Are you doing it because you see an unmet need in your marketplace or because your competitors are going hybrid and you feel the need to keep up? Are you looking for a local, regional, or national audience? The national market is becoming quite competitive, and programs in this space are becoming more commodity like, so a program focusing on the regional or local market may position your program for success.
Philosophy. A program with 20 percent of delivery online and 80 percent on-campus is quite different from a program with 80 percent online and 20 percent on-campus, yet they both qualify as hybrid. Will you use the online component only for communication purposes or for content delivery as well? How will you use adjunct faculty members -- to create the content, deliver it, or both? The philosophy you choose should provide a blueprint or roadmap for how you will achieve your goals. Too often in our work, we have seen institutions miss this step -- they did not identify their philosophy before jumping into the hybrid model, and later found that it significantly impeded success. Without a philosophy, it is difficult to communicate the value proposition internally or externally, and it becomes challenging to make some of the difficult trade-offs inherent in any new venture.
Target Consumer. What type of consumer is your hybrid offering designed to attract? Adult learners tend to be more open to an online experience because it allows them to balance their professional and personal lives with their educational pursuits. Traditional students -- those aged 18 to 24 – tend to want face-to-face, classroom-based learning. Corporations may prefer a little of both, to allow employees to work and study at the same time. Segmenting the market by consumer types and needs -- adult, traditional, current, new, credit, non-credit -- and designing programs that fit these segments and needs are important early steps.
Integration. Integrating between bricks and clicks is probably the single biggest point of failure for institutions pursuing a hybrid model. Where does campus-based learning begin and end relative to the online component? How do student services coordinate with these components? What do you need to change about your student information system? The challenges range from technology and training, to content design and delivery, to student services. Be sure to prepare by thinking through the entire system and how it will affect the students, the faculty, and the staff.
Programs. Some courses and programs have done very well online and would be logical candidates for a hybrid model (e.g., business, IT, education), but not every course or program is well-suited to a hybrid approach. It’s best to begin with an audit of existing programs, dissecting the curriculum to determine how a hybrid model might be applied. At the same time, you should do an external evaluation of market demand and supply to determine where the best opportunities are for introducing new programs. Again, if you consider local versus national distribution, you may find that, on a local level, a particular hybrid program may provide a competitive advantage in attracting students.
Core Competencies. What is your institution known for? What do you do better than most of your peer schools? Focus your efforts on maximizing the benefit of these core competencies and consider outsourcing those areas that are not strengths, such as marketing, lead management, student services, or technology.
Faculty Buy-In. Faculty members have a large stake in content delivery because most of the time they supply the curriculum. Whether you plan to offer incentives for faculty to adapt content to a hybrid model or to outsource this function, faculty should be involved in the discussions.
Hybrid courses and programs represent more of an evolution than a revolution in educational content delivery. Hybrid delivery represents a natural progression for many campus-based institutions to investigate and perhaps pursue, and often can serve as a competitive advantage in reaching a wider student population. Rigorously thinking through process design and delivery components and planning carefully for implementation will make the difference between those programs that succeed in the hybrid arena and those that invest a lot of resources with little to show for it.
Kristin L. Greene is a senior member of Eduventures' consulting practice. Her most recent engagements involve analyzing growth opportunities and devising market entry strategies for a leading for-profit institution, evaluating geographic expansion for a private two-year college, and assessing opportunities in the K-12 sector.