When it comes to online learning, size seems to get the attention.
In this article, we learn that online program growth is slowing from past years, due to a maturing market and the entry of new competitors.
We also learn that some players, like Liberty University (94,000 students), Western Governors University (80,000 students), and SNHU (80,000 students) dominate the not-for-profit online postsecondary world.
Understanding the changing dynamics of the big players in online learning is important - but I fear that these numbers may dissuade some institutions from exploring distance education.
An alternative way to think about online learning is not about scale - or even really about revenue generation - but about specialization.
Online programs can be a vehicle to highlight differentiation.
What school, department, program, or area of research does your school do better than anybody else?
What degree programs are you most proud?
What areas of teaching and knowledge creation have you build a critical mass of faculty?
Building online programs around your strengths is a way not to compete with the Liberty’s, WGU’s, and SNHU’s of the world. My advice is that you don’t want to compete with these schools anyway. They have figured out the efficiencies around scale. Competing against the recruitment and student services and course development and instructional engines that they have built is a losing proposition.
So do something different. The economics of online education mean that it is possible to build a very small program that is financially sustainable. If the focus is institutional differentiation and program quality - economic sustainability should be enough.
Starting up a new small online program around your institutional area of strength is a way to invest in those strengths. An online program in a schools specific areas of expertise and accomplishment will bring new resources, and new ideas, into this area.
I have seen time and time again how the capacities built in small online programs filter into the core residential offerings.
Online teaching is the world’s greatest faculty development program.
The instructional designers that you will bring to campus to build a quality online program will end up working on residential courses.
The faculty teaching online in a small program are the same faculty teaching on-ground - and they bring all their new course design and active learning skills developed in their online teaching to the face-to-face classroom.
The story of institutions with big online learning enrollments is certainly interesting, but I don’t think the real online learning story. The real online learning story is the extent that distance education has been a catalyst to improve all the teaching and learning that happens on campus.
Significant upgrading of institutional capacity around teaching and learning can be accomplished with small programs designed to leverage existing institutional strengths.
When it comes to online learning, small is beautiful.
Can you tell us about your small online programs?
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