3 Truths and 5 Recommendations for Online Programs

What advice would you give for a school thinking about online education?

December 15, 2015

Have you been involved in a project where you transitioned a program from on-ground to online?

Have you taken a program from a traditional face-to-face format to an online mode of delivery?

Anyone who has moved education or training online learns 3 fundamental truths.

Truth 1:  Online education is harder to do well than on-ground education.

Truth 2:  Online education takes more time on everyone’s part to create and run.

Truth 3:  Online education, when done poorly, is much worse than the same program run face-to-face.

None of these truths about online education should dissuade you from moving your programs online. Moving a program online is an opportunity to rethink the program. Any good transition to an online format will involve the work of a team. Pairing a content matter expert with an instructional designer will do wonders for the program. Simple steps, such as starting with the goals of the program and thinking about how those goals can be measured, will yield large gains in the quality of the program. Moving away from “covering content”, to an approach that maximizes learning, is the cornerstone of any well-thought out online module, course, or program.

The other advantage of finding opportunities to move campus face-to-face programs online is institutional capacity building. As education becomes increasingly mediated by digital platforms, the ability to effectively and appropriately leverage technology for teaching is being recognized as a core institutional competency. Learning how to effectively blend and flip residential courses, however, is not an institutional capability that can be developed overnight. Online programs are wonderful opportunities to campus R&D around learning innovation, but their development takes both the commitment of significant resources and an approach that is intentional and focused.

I recommend the following recommendations if your campus is thinking about moving into online education:

1 - Start Small, But Start: Not every school should be SNHU or ASU. For most of us, online education should be thought of as a tool to meet specific needs - and as an opportunity to build new skills and capabilities. The key with online education is to start. Don’t wait for the perfect risk-free project. It does not exist. Instead, find one area of online education / training that you can build a small dedicated team - and go.

2 - Start With Your Strengths:  Online education is a terrific way to amplify what you are already good at. If you are thinking about starting an online program, start with the program that your school does better than anybody else. Don’t worry so much about demand, as online education is great for aggregating global demand. A small niche program - as long as you can build a dedicated team - is great. For online training programs, start with your best instructors and your most well developed content. Take the program that is working best on-ground, and then build digital modules to surround that program. You can then transition the program online.

3 - Create A Great Experience for Faculty:  The best way to grow your online footprint is to have the faculty who develop and teach online programs have a good experience. This is a slower and more expensive path to diffusion, but it is also a path that is built to last.  Starting small and with your strengths - and creating dedicated teams to run your online initiatives - will also allow you to provide faculty with the resources and support that they need for their online course development and teaching. The best way to ensure a great learning experience for your students is to invest in a great teaching experience for your faculty.

4 -  Iterate:   Online programs are never done. The state of the art of online education is moving very rapidly.  New tools, methods, and approaches become available at a rapid pace. Any online education or training program will need to constantly evolve. The rise of free open online education has only raised the bar on quality. Any online program that you put together will need to be better than what can be had for free. The good news is that the changes you make in your online programs can be informed by data. Online education is visible education, in the sense that we can measure the degree of learner engagement. A commitment to a data-driven approach to continuous improvement is one cornerstone of a successful online program.

5 -  Communicate:  My last recommendation is about communication.  Unfortunately, communication about your online initiatives is often left out in the resource and budget planning. We assume that we will be able to communicate about what we are doing as a natural part of the work. We think we will have cycles to devote to communication. We also make the mistake of thinking that we are good at communicating, and that therefore we don’t need to bring a communications expert on to the dedicated team. My recommendation is to build budget, time, and expertise for communication into the beginning of the project.

What is your experience in going from residential to online programs?

What advice would you offer to any school thinking about making this transition?


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