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Big time online learning gets all the press.  

Read the Digital Learning Compass report on online education enrollment and you will see lots of big numbers. In 2015 over 6 million students took at least one online course -  5 million undergrad, a million grad - with bout half of these distance learners are taking courses exclusively online.  

The real online learning story, however, is not about size. It's about change. 

The big online learning story of 2017 is not about the few schools that offer distance education to ten of thousands of students. Rather, it is about the impact that online education can have on teaching and learning at every institution. And this impact may be greatest at our most traditional residential colleges and universities. 

Let’s say that you buy the argument that when it comes to online learning, that small is beautiful. 

You get that spinning up new low-residency or fully-online degree programs will offer your institution an opportunity to re-think some long-held assumptions about teaching and learning. You are excited that a small online learning program will enable your school to offer degrees to a global audience of students - while at the same time focusing resources and investments on your school’s core areas of strength.

You like the idea that the capabilities gained in your online learning programs can be translated to residential programs. You are excited about leveraging the competencies and experiences that you gain through small online programs to bring blended learning to all of your programs and courses - and in the process evolving your instructional methods while also achieving better utilization of your classrooms and residence halls.

How do you go about growing the online learning footprint at your traditional residential institution?

If I knew the answer to this question then I’d be better at my job. I do have some theories - and I’d appreciate your insights.

Embody the Culture:

My sense is that efforts to develop new online learning programs will go nowhere if online learning understood as something foreign - or opposed to - the local institutional culture. Rather, any new online learning program needs to embody a college's values and mission. 

This means that the typical sellers of online education may not be applicable. At a college that stresses the importance academic rigor and the development of a deep relationship between the student and the professor, appeals to the convenience of online learning may not be appropriate. At a liberal arts institution where the focus is on learning how to learn - and on developing skills in collaboration, communication, and critical thinking - a focus on the relationship between online learning direct preparation for a specific occupation would also not be a good fit.  

For a new online learning program to gain institutional support, it must be shown that the people behind the program understand the core values of the larger institution.  Everything about that new online learning program must be built around those core values. This cannot involve marketing speak or hand waiving.  The leadership of the online program needs to commit to understanding, and then operationalizing, those core values in every aspect of the design, delivery, and communications about the new online program.

Strategic Alignment:

Strategic alignment is the second area that will determine the success of a new online education program at a traditional residential institution. What this means is that any new online program must play to both the strengths of the institution, and be developed in the area where the institution is making investments for the future.

The challenge is that institutional alignment is not always the same as market alignment. A college or university may be working to differentiate itself in an area that is different from where the demand for online education is growing. That should be fine. If the goal of the new online program is to serve as a mechanism for institutional advancement, then it is not necessary for the new online program to chase the perceived market demand.  

It is important for any new online program to be economically sustainable (see below), but revenue generation should not be the number one priority.  Rather, a better objective is to develop new online and low-residency degree programs where the school has particular differentiating strengths.  Build your new online program around your best schools, departments, and faculty.  Find the areas where your institution provides a better residential learning experience than anyone else - and then leverage the affordances of online learning to extend that education to those who can’t move to your campus.  Use an online program to put a stake in the ground that your institution is where educators and learners should come if they are interested in the thing that you do best.

A Sustainable Business Model:

Starting and growing distance learning at traditional residential institutions has everything to do with economic sustainability. The program needs to to have a business model that will enable it to stand on its own.  Any new online degree needs to be able to pay for itself - and to do so relatively quickly. If your new online program can’t be revenue positive within 3 years, and have paid off the internal investment to start the program in 5, then it probably should not launch.

The important point is to move the conversation to sustainability - as opposed to profits.  Online learning is not the silver bullet to the postsecondary cost disease, or the fix to the challenging demographics faced by many of our tuition dependent institutions. The only path forward for our small, non-profit colleges and universities is a relentless focus on quality and value.  Each school needs to figure out what it can offer that is better than its competition, and then make the hard choices necessary to concentrate on investing in that area.  Online learning can be a part of that focus, but new online learning programs will not correct for any fundamental institutional shortcomings.

The good news is that you don’t need that many students to make a new online program economically sustainable.  A program with 50 students can cover its costs just fine.  A program with 100 students can bring resources to a few needed areas on campus.  

How can we have more of a cross-institutional conversation about new models for online learning at traditional residential schools?

Are you part of an small online learning program?


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