Strategy, Differentiation, and Online Learning

What does your college do better than anyone else?

December 1, 2016

"There may be some exceptions for schools that are able to spin-up robust online programs, but if your school isn’t already in this game, they’ve lost.”

John Warner, Here Comes the Discounting Death Spiral.  November 30, 2016

My goal is to convince you that John Warner is wrong about online education. Well - sort of wrong.

John is correct that online education is unlikely to be the magic bullet that will solve an institution’s revenue challenges.  

Online education will not - save in rare cases - compensate for eroding public support.  Nor is online education an antidote to our higher education cost disease.  

The fact that online education is not the solution for the economic sustainability challenge of many schools does not mean, however, that an online education strategy shouldn’t be pursued.  Rather, online education should be understood as part of a portfolio of approaches that a school can pursue to ensure economic resiliency.  

And what should an economic resiliency strategy be built around?  The answer is differentiation.  

What is the thing that your school does better than anyone else?  

What program, department, degree, or expertise does your institution have that is different from other places?  

Where are your best faculty?

The place to start an online program is around your school’s strengths.

It is doubtful that every student who wants to learn what your school does best can move to where your school is located. Online learning solves this challenge.

An online program does not need to be big to be sustainable.  The beauty of online learning is that it can aggregate worldwide demand, and then be run without building one more physical classroom.

2017 will be the best year ever to start an new online program - as all the platforms, tools and technologies that you will need to teach at a distance are already on campus.  You don’t need a new LMS (learning management system) for online courses because you already have one.  The technology of online become both commoditized and ubiquitous.  

If you can attract 50 students a year to your online program - and you will if you offer what you do better than anyone else - than your online program will be economically sustainable.

Building an online learning strategy around your existing institutional strengths will have many downstream benefits.  The first online program is really hard to get off the ground.  The second one is much easier.  Get enough of these small online programs together and you will start to bring in some real - and much needed - dollars.  

If you are smart in building your online programs you will see them as disciplined experiments.  The online unit will not be segregated or siloed.  Rather, the competencies and skills developed in your online programs will inform your residential courses.

This approach assumes that your school does something better than anyone else.  If that is not the case - or if at least there is not the commitment to identify and build on your strengths - then no online education strategy in the world will create the conditions for economic resiliency.

Would you be willing to talk about the best program / department / major / area of specialization at your institution?  

What are the disadvantages to investing in areas of strengths - and of building online programs around these areas?


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