The best part of my job is the opportunity to work with folks at the beginning of planning an online learning program. Whether these colleagues are from my own institution, or from a peer institution, I always say the same 10 things.
10 Ways to Fail When Creating A New Online Program:
#1. If You Don’t Play To Your Strengths, You Will Fail:
By strengths, I mean those schools/programs/departments/majors/faculty where your school is better than anyone else.
What is it that your institution does better at than the rest of the world? The beauty of an online learning program is its ability to aggregate global demand. If you have faculty who are leading the world in knowledge creation around a certain subject then there are people who will want learn from these faculty.
These are your future students - but without your program they might never become students at all. They probably don’t live close enough to your campus to come to a residential class. It is a good bet that they are working while also juggling family obligations. But they will become your students if you create an online learning program in what your school does better than anybody else.
The key here is that the strengths need to come before the online program. If your school has not invested in its area of excellence then an online program makes little sense.
#2. If Your Online Program Does Not Align With Your Values, You Will Fail:
Any online program needs to be fully aligned with the values of your institution. Any effort to follow the market by creating an online program that is misaligned to the core values of your school will end in failure.
Your online program needs to deliver the same learning and community experience to your online students as it does to your residential students. The same sort of personal attention. The same academic standards. And the same connection between the curriculum in the courses and the values of the institution.
#3. If Only Main Goal In Starting An Online Program Is Make Money, You Will Fail:
There is nothing wrong if your online program creates additional resources that can be invested in other campus priorities. That would be a great result. But time and again, I have witnessed online learning programs fail when making money was the primary goal of starting the program.
This is not to say that online learning programs do not need to be economically self-sustaining. They do, and they can be. What is also true is that high quality online programs take patient investment and long runways. If the primary goal is to create fast resources than corners will be cut - bad decisions will be made.
The decision to start an online program should be about playing to your school’s strengths and about serving the needs of your learners. The economics of online programs can be favorable, but only after a quality program has been running for some time, and only if the program aligns with mission.
#4. If You Don’t Put Faculty Autonomy and Support At the Center of Your Online Program, You Will Fail:
The single most important predictor of the success of an online program is the degree to which faculty are given autonomy and are supported in their work. This is because an online course lives and dies by the relationship that the educator is able to form with the learner. By the community that is created within the course.
Online courses built on content delivery and high stakes assessment are no longer tenable. This type of education has been commoditized, and its price point brought down to zero. The combination of MOOCs and adaptive learning platforms have increased the value of a skilled and well-supported educator able to work closely with a motivated learner.
Classes that are small enough that the instructor can get to know the student as an individual learner are essential. Faculty that do not have the autonomy and discretion to craft the course around the needs of their students will be working at a disadvantage. Instructors who do not enjoy a reasonable level of job security and compensation will be unable to be fully present for their students.
#5. If You Try To Carbon Copy Your Residential Program and Courses On to Online Program, You Will Fail:
Online programs should cover the same curriculum, and be as rigorous, as corresponding residential programs. What is different about online programs is the method that they are taught. Great care and attention needs to be spent on creating an immersive learning experience with online courses. The presence of the instructor, and the quality of the learning community, are absolutely key in ensuring both student success and learning.
Achieving active learning in online courses is difficult. The core tenets of effective learning design run across residential, blended, and online learning. It is always important to start with learning objectives, and to design backwards from how these learning objectives will be assessed. The method to achieve the learning goals will differ, however, by the medium that the course is taught.
When translating an in-person course to an online course it is a bad idea to start with methods being used in the face-to-face class. Instead, start with the learning goals - and be open to new ways of thing operationalizing these goals in the online setting.
#6. If You Try to Source Core Competencies, You Will Fail:
There is always a strong temptation to source the development of your online program to an outside educational enabler. There are often good reasons to do so, as working with an online learning company will allow your school to bring programs to market rapidly. Further, the new program can be de-risked - as the partner will often provide much of the startup capital (in addition to the platform and expertise), in exchange for a share of the program revenue.
I am not opposed to working with a partner (even a for-profit partner) to get your online program off the ground. What I do think is a bad idea is if you source your core teaching and learning competencies. Today, these competencies include instructional design, media education, and analytics. Your school will need these competencies in all its educational programs - be they residential, blended, or fully online. Developing these competencies - even if they are put in place to work with an outside partner - should be a core part of any online program.
#7. If You Don’t Put Student Learning At the Heart of Your Online Program, You Will Fail:
The need to put student learning at the heart of any online program should seem so obvious as to not need mentioning. You would be surprised, however, how often other priorities crowd out student learning. It is shockingly easy to revert to discussions of which content should be covered. Discussions about technology can crowd out conversations about learning outcomes.
#8. If You Don't Invest Adequately in Marketing and Communications, You Will Fail:
In #7 above, I said that the most important area to focus on is student learning. In #8, I’m going to say that the most important aspect to focus on is marketing and communications.
Can both be correct? The reality is that you can create the world’s greatest online program - with the most amazing learning experiences - but if you fail to invest adequately in marketing and communications your program will fail.
Building a great learning experience, and adhering to core learning design principles, is not rocket science. We know how to do this work. What is much harder is coming up with cost effective marketing and outreach plans. The online learning market is incredibly competitive. Everyone is saying the same things about quality and convenience. Crafting a message that aligns your program with how your institution differentiates itself in the marketplace is the hard art of marketing.
#9. If You Don’t View the Creation Of Your Online Program As A Disciplined Experiment, You Will Fail:
Your online program will never be perfect. It will not be perfect at launch, and it will not be perfect in the years to come. If you wait to create the perfect online program then you will never launch your online program.
The best way to think about your online courses is as a set of disciplined experiments. Be prepared to create a viable product, and then to constantly iterate. Collect as much data and feedback as possible. Work hard to discover what is not working well - and be aggressive about making constant small changes.
#10. If You Don’t Transfer the Lessons and Capabilities Generated In Your Online Program to Your Residential Program, You May Not Fail - But You Will Have Squandered An Important Opportunity:
Some institutions wall off their online and residential programs. They do so under the theory that getting residential practices to change for the online world will doom the whole enterprise. This theory is understandable - but I think ultimately self-defeating. If you are not using your online program to build capacity to improve your residential teaching then you are missing a great opportunity.
What is important with an online program is to create a dedicated team. This culture and operations of this team should not try to mimic that of the larger institution. Creating space for the team to try new things, fail fast, and shift direction is key. At the same time, it should be clear that the ability of the dedicated team to create the new online program is owed to the hard work of the core residential institution. Having leadership that spans both domains, as well as building in connections between the online and residential programs, will go a long way towards making your online program worthwhile for the entire institution.
Please tell us where these 10 points are off the mark.
What have you observed that has caused online programs to fail?
Is your school thinking about starting an online learning program?
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