There seems to be a widespread belief that every college or university is already deeply enmeshed in online learning. The reality is that many schools are still trying to figure out their online learning strategy.
If you are thinking about investing in a new online learning program then you will have no shortage of advice. Lots of consultants and online program management (OPM) providers will be willing to share their recommendations. (For a great picture of the OPM market landscape, check out Phil Hill’s e-Literate post from September of this year).
I’m here to tell you that much of the advice that you get from the “experts” in online learning will be wrong. And particularly wrong for liberal arts colleges and smaller mission-focused schools.
When it comes to online learning, I’m convinced that the conventional wisdom is not only wrong - but dangerous.
Here are my 6 anti-conventional wisdom recommendations for new online programs:
1 - Don’t Rely On Online Learning Programs To Make Lots of Money:
Postsecondary education is an industry defined by persistent and growing resource constraints. Every college and every university suffers from the Cost Disease. Everyone in higher ed is being asked to do more with less.
Online learning - save for a very few institutions - will not be the solution to our sectors persistent economic challenges. Online learning is not a strategy. Rather, online learning is a means to achieving some other strategy. That strategy might be to improve access, lower costs, improve quality, or specialize in a particular area where a school can add real value.
Online learning can be part of a portfolio of strategies to achieve economic viability - it probably should be. But avoid the temptation to view online education as the answer to the structural cost challenges that bedevil higher education.
Following a revenue-first online learning strategy will cause institutions to make bad decisions about the choice of programs to offer and the quality of the education that is delivered. Quality online education is expensive to produce and sustain. Going to market with poor quality online education is the fastest way to damage your brand and erode trust within your community and the learners’ that your school serves.
2 - Don’t Follow the Market:
The strongest temptation in online learning is to offer programs and courses that have a demonstrated market demand. This is a mistake.
The conversation usually goes like this: "There are X number of open positions in this health profession or that technology field. The rate of growth of demand for degrees (usually master’s degrees) in this field is increasing at this rate. Of course your school should match your new online degree programs in places where the job market is demanding new graduates. What are you waiting for?"
The problems with this reasoning are three-fold. First, there is likely to be existing competition in the hot areas of online programs from well-established incumbents. Second, the hot jobs in the labor market (and hence master’s degrees) might not be the hot jobs in the future - it is very hard to predict. And third, it may be that your school has no particular expertise in these “high demand” specializations or fields of study.
It is far better to start an online learning program by playing to your institutional strengths. A quality program, based on the area where your college or university truly differentiates itself on quality, is the strongest possible foundation to build an online learning program.
3 - Don’t Try to Go to Scale:
When it comes to online learning, small is beautiful.
Small programs and small courses are one’s that students will pay for. MOOCs have commoditized learning at scale.
The differentiator in online learning is personal attention and quality. Any graduate of an online program from a quality institution should be entering into a lifelong relationship. This is a relationship where the institution cares about the future success of each and every one of their graduates. Where faculty bring students into their professional and research networks. Where there is a strong sense of loyalty and allegiance to the school - and where graduates feel connected to each other within an alumni network.
The goal of a new online program should be relationship and network building. The guidance principles should be around the experience that is offered within the program. The only way to prioritize relationships and experience in the context of a quality degree program is to keep the program small and intimate.
4 - Don’t Separate Online Learning From Residential Learning:
One piece of advice that I often hear is that the online learning team must be separate from the residential learning folks. That only a separate team will be fast and agile enough to avoid the organizational and cultural pitfalls of the larger institution.
This is bad advice.
Yes - form a dedicated online learning team. It is important that the online learning team has the time and the space to figure out their online courses and programs. But make sure that that dedicated online learning team is tightly connected to the larger work of the college or university.
Create a structure where the entire organization is aligned with, and benefits from, the success of the online learning initiative. This involves following a common set of guiding principles, as well as aligning with a shared institutional mission.
The executive sponsorship of the online program should be shared with key residential learning programs. The sharing of knowledge, information, and learning across the online and residential programs should be prioritized from day one.
5 - Do Treat Online Learning as A Disciplined Experiment:
The best reason to start a new online learning program is to learn about learning. An online learning program should create value for everyone involved - the students, the faculty, and the institution. Understanding how to create value for everyone is challenging. When it comes to higher education, there are no shortcuts or silver bullets. Every lesson is hard won.
Thinking of a new online learning program as a disciplined experiment will open everyone up to a growth and learning mindset. Failures (and there will be many) will be opportunities to learn and to improve. Making decisions grounded in data rather than intuition, and a commitment to continuous improvement, will lead to better courses and to better student outcomes.
6 - Do Prioritize Economic Sustainability - Not Growth:
Small, intimate, and personalized online learning programs - programs based on institutional strengths - are a good bet to achieve economic sustainability. They may not kick off large amounts of cash - but they should be able to cover their costs.
The reasons that small online programs have a good chance of achieving economic sustainability have to do with the cost structure of online learning. College and universities can add more (tuition paying) students without large fixed cost investments. No need to build new classrooms or dorms. Almost all the costs will be variable costs - and therefore can rise with enrollment.
The goal, at least at first, should be economic sustainability - not growth.
What would be your advice to a school considering a new online program?
Where is your college or university with online learning?