Looking at the Future of Online Education Through a Strategic Institutional Lens

The need for campus campus conversations around centralizing, or not, of existing online programs.

February 19, 2018

The Babson Survey Research Groups latest report Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States reveals an interesting paradox. Online education is both highly concentrated in the U.S., and also highly dispersed.

In other words, a small number of institutions provide online learning for a large proportion of all distance learners - but a large number of schools are involved in some way in teaching online courses.  In fact, of the 4,717 degree granting institutions in the U.S., fully 71 percent reported that they participated in online education.

Taken together, there is often lots going on with online (and low-residency) learning at a wide variety of colleges and universities.  Initiatives may include small online degree programs (usually masters degrees), continuing studies programs, non-degree online programs and certificates, individual courses (often in the summer), or open online courses.

The challenge is that online programs often develop to serve the particular need of a school, unit or department. Oftentimes, the the growth of low-residency and online learning was not the result of an institutional strategic plan - but rather a local response to particular opportunities.

A diversity of uncoordinated online and low-residency programs at a traditional institution is not necessarily a bad thing. Small online programs that have been developed by the schools or units running them are most times highly responsive to the needs of the learners in which they serve.

The challenge of uncoordinated online programs is that opportunities for sharing resources and knowledge are often missed. There is a fine line between useful specialization and silos.

If your institution lacks a central office of online learning, or if some online programs exist outside of that office, it may be a good time to think about online learning through a strategic institutional lens. This effort involves first understanding all the online learning efforts that are already occurring at the college or university.  The number of online and low-residency programs may be a surprise to many.

Next, university leadership should make a decision if online learning efforts should remain under the authority of each individual school or unit that is running these programs, or if there should be an effort to coordinate and centralize institutional efforts.

What is important is to make an active decision.  To not let the history of how online learning developed determine the future of online education.

There are good reasons to keep online learning efforts separate, local, and specialized.  There are equally good reasons to bring all of a schools online learning efforts into a single organization.  It is critical that however that decision is made, it is done in a way that is transparent, inclusive, and thoughtful.  Ideally, all of the people currently involved in existing online learning efforts should have a seat at the table in determining the future at a college or university level.  If it does make sense to coordinate and/or centralize online programs, then adequate long-term resources and leadership support for these efforts are essential.

Does your school have a number of online programs scattered throughout the various schools and units?

Can you actually enumerate all the online and low-residency programs - degree and non-degree - that are going on at your school at any given time?

Is online learning at your institution discussed in terms of its impact on residential teaching and learning, classroom design, and program development?

Do you teach for, or work in, an online program that is outside of a central office of online education?

If you are at an institution where online education is not run out of a central office, how are new online programs developed and supported?

Who champions online learning at your school?


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