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Online learning should be part of the strategic plan of every college and university.

Too often, university leaders make the mistake of thinking that online education is relevant only for institutions with large online programs. They see online education as marginal to the core missions of the institutions that they lead.

This blind spot can be particularly large among those leading traditional, face-to-face schools. The reality is that small residential colleges should be prioritizing online learning.

Here are 4 questions about online education that every president, provost, dean, and trustee should be asking in 2018:

Question 1 - How might online education change our admissions funnel?

We will look back on 2018 as the year that online education changed how students discover, apply, are admitted to, and ultimately decide to attend college. The future of the admissions funnel does not run through online marketing or paper brochures, but through online courses.

Here is how innovative institutions will begin to change the recruitment and admissions game.  They will offer high quality open online courses. They will provide an opportunity for those learners who excel in those courses to earn preferential admissions. Newly matriculated students who have completed work in the large-enrollment online courses will be able to cut down on the time (and expense) necessary to finish the campus-based degree.

This is a vision that may not resonate with every school, and in particular traditional residential liberal arts institutions. That is okay. What I’m arguing is that every college and university needs to realize that there are new options for potential students to discover a given school, and for those schools to discover the students with the highest potential to succeed. Ignoring the role of open online learning in the new admissions funnel would be as bad as ignoring the other channels for marketing and outreach.

Question 2 - Can we use online education to offer enhanced opportunities for our existing students?

This winter break my kids - a college freshman and a college sophomore - are home for most of January.  They go to two different schools, with the break between semesters lasting almost a month. As a parent, I’d love it if they could take one intensive online course during the winter break.  What I’d want is for the online course to be included as part of their tuition. That they would have this opportunity to polish off an online course as part of the cost of college.

How might traditional residential schools leverage online learning to offer more opportunities to their students? Rather than seeing online courses as a revenue opportunity, what if schools saw online learning as a way to differentiate on quality? The promise of being able to take a credit bearing course during the summer, or while studying abroad for a semester, may increase the appeal of attending.

The problem at many schools that I have seen is that online courses are offered as an extra.  The courses carry additional expenses. The innovation would be to offer online courses as an option. One that would allow students to move towards a degree more efficiently, or focus their attention on a single course.   

Question 3 - Are there opportunities to build small, specialized online graduate programs around our school’s areas of strength?

What are the best departments at your college? Who are your best faculty? What are your areas of institutional strength?

If you can answer these questions then you know where you should start a small, online (or low-residency) graduate program. Don’t worry so much about what degrees that you have been told the market is demanding. There are plenty of programs about big data or analytics or nursing or whatever. What you need is to find 50 students or so each year who are highly motivated to study with your best faculty in your best departments.  Online education means that you have the entire world as your potential market for these 50 students.

It is at around 50 students that a small, specialized online graduate program is economically viable. The number at many schools might even be less.   50 students might be a medium term goal.  You can start with much fewer.  The reason is that online programs don’t need large capital expenditures to start up.  You already have the learning management system (LMS). You don’t need new classrooms. The people needed to partner with faculty to develop the online courses (the instructional designers) can be hired as the program grows.

The only way to learn about online learning is to do online learning.  The greatest risk when it comes to online education is doing nothing at all. Start small, and start with strengths. But start.

Question 4 - How might we use online education to serve our alumni and other lifelong learners?

It is hard to find anyone nowadays who disagrees with the idea that education needs to be a lifelong commitment. The old system of discrete periods of education and work no longer matches the demands of the labor market. Continuous education throughout one’s career is the new normal. Yet, we continue to run a higher education system built for an economy that no longer exists.

If all goes as planned, my daughters will finish college in 2020 and 2021. Four years of tuition payments will have purchased 4 years of education.  At the end of those 4 years they will each get a diploma. What they will not get - at least as their schools are currently designed - is guaranteed access to any further educational opportunities.

Can we imagine a scenario where the opportunity to access quality online courses might keep graduates as close to their alma mater as reunions and football games?  Should we be thinking of online education as an outreach mechanism for graduates?  What will be the first college or university to promise a lifelong education with each diploma?

Are your presidents, provosts, deans and trustees asking these questions about online education on your campus?

What else about online learning should university leaders be asking in 2018?

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