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The report I’m drawing from and sharing around most enthusiastically this summer is the recently released CHLOE 7: Tracking Online Learning From Mainstream Acceptance to Universal Adoption.

In a previous post, I highlighted the reported data on present and future instructional design capacity.

In this post, I’d like to amplify the report’s findings on centralization vs. distribution of online student services (Figure 5) and offer some thoughts.

No. 1: Figure 5 gives a good list of the critical services a university must provide for online programs.

The pandemic accelerated the shift to online education as a strategic priority across the postsecondary ecosystem. One challenge for colleges and universities with distributed or small online learning footprints is getting a handle on all the pieces that must be brought together to develop and run a new online program.

This complexity is one of the reasons many schools have turned to online program management partners, as OPMs have expertise in the pieces that may not be the core competencies of many schools.

The list of services from Figure 5 includes faculty recruitment, course/program design and development, tutoring/coaching/mentoring, advising, program marketing, proctoring and student authentication, market research, student recruitment, accessibility and ADA compliance, student help desk and technical support, and financial aid for students.

The big things missing from this list are start-up capital, financial projections and modeling, accreditation, foreign student visa management, system integrations, data security, and maybe some other things. Not all of these are “student” services, but they are all vital elements of developing and running an online program.

No. 2: The question for universities and schools running online programs is not if these services must be offered but rather how they will be provided.

I like Figure 5 from the CHLOE 7 report because it does two things. It enumerates the student services for online programs and shows where those services can be provided. None of the services can be skipped. They need to come from somewhere.

When it comes to online learning, the challenge for most colleges and universities is one of scale. The larger the online learning footprint—the more programs offered and students enrolled—the lower the marginal cost for online services for each new student. Conversely, small programs still must invest in developing and providing a range of online student services.

Schools that have siloed online programs duplicate the people and resources required for each online service, therefore driving up costs. Building out centralized services for online programs may be more cost-efficient as online education grows across the institution. However, centralization is always challenging as individual schools have specialized needs and requirements for their online programs.

No. 3: I think (hypothesize) that we are seeing an ecosystemwide shift toward institutional centralization of online services.

When it comes to online learning, we tend to think about the big players in the game, such as SNHU, WGU and ASU. The other big story in online education is the scope and diversity of colleges and universities with small but growing online portfolios.

Everyone is getting into the online game, at least at the master’s level, as that is where the students are. There will always be a handful of master’s programs where it makes sense to quit your job, move to where a school is located and devote two years of your life to getting that degree. For most degrees and most students, the opportunity costs of leaving work to get a degree are too high.

As this realignment from residential to online is taking place across higher ed, I think we are seeing an ecosystemwide shift to the centralization of online services. Online education is moving from the periphery to the core, from entrepreneurial and opportunistic deans to central institutional strategies. As that change plays out, we will see more centralized online services.

No. 4: The story of nonprofit/for-profit partnerships and online program management companies is a story of the provision of online student services.

Looking at the list of online student services, it should not be surprising that many schools turn to OPMs and other types of partners (OPX—fee for service) to help out.

The extent that a college or university is dependent on for-profit partners in the online learning space is directly proportional to the degree to which an institution has developed internal capacities for building and supporting online programs.

There are some tasks that all but the largest of universities that offer online programs may never bring in-house. A school must have a massive online program footprint to contemplate bringing all digital marketing services to campus.

As colleges and universities build more internal capacity for online programs, we will see traditional OPMs unbundle and diversity their services to meet universities’ varying and changing needs.

No. 5: Building institutional capacities to deliver centralized online services is a long-term project, one that requires leadership buy-in and resilience to leadership turnover.

No college or university can instantly build the infrastructure needed to support online programs across the institution. It takes time to build capacity, expertise and experience.

Creating robust centralized online learning services requires leadership vision, alignment with the institutional strategic plan, faculty buy-in, the right online learning leadership and patience.

Building central university services for online programs is also not cheap. Likely, the revenues that will ultimately support these activities will only come when a school reaches a critical mass of programs and students.

The challenge is finding a way to articulate how online learning aligns with and supports the institutional mission. Online learning must be understood as a central institutional strategic priority that enhances and supports the broader university mission.

The time frames necessary to develop the centralized internal capacities for online learning, as described in Figure 5 of the CHLOE 7 report, may outlast the tenure of academic leadership.

Campus online learning leaders who fail to prioritize aligning their operations with the broader institutional mission will be unlikely to succeed in the long run.

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