Published on 2015/01/23
The EvoLLLution | Five Issues to Consider when Starting an Online Program
Starting an online education program can be a challenge, but focusing on these five crucial elements can set an institution on the pathway to success.

In 2012, over 7.1 million students enrolled in higher education institutions were taking at least one online course, and this number is expected to continue to grow. Much of this growth can be attributed to students whose personal and professional lives prevent them from completing all of their course work on campus. It is a phenomenon also driven by technology innovation. Students increasingly can choose—based on their time, professional and personal commitments, and their own preferences—how, when and where to take their coursework.

As a result, many institutions are looking, even at this late date, to get into the online business or expand the number of programs they offer. Often, this is a defensive tactic. Some the MOOC movement among elite institutions was driven by the need to get into the online game in some manner without compromising their traditional, on-campus degree programs. For most institutions, online, for-credit offerings are designed to increase enrollments and revenues, expand brand recognition, and help an institution compete more effectively against other schools for students.

As anyone who has worked in the online unit at a college or university will tell you, building a successful online initiative is a very difficult business. Competition is stiff and marketing costs are high. But success is about many things—alignment with the institutional mission, financial and administrative support, students and faculty support, and staying the course.

Though there are many factors critical to institutional success online, there are some particular things that, if done correctly, can ensure that you at least have a fighting chance to build an online program that can compete in the marketplace., These five can give you a great start:

1. Does your institution have the right executive sponsorship? Will the program’s goals align with the institution’s mission?

The online initiative needs the support of the president and provost, and it should be specifically named as a goal in the strategic plan and serve the direct mission of your institution. Without precise sponsorship and continuous support from the leadership, even successful online programs can be relegated to low status and become afterthoughts when it comes to funding, program development and institutional priorities.

2. Does your institution have the time and financial investment necessary for the long haul?

Successful programs don’t usually start out that way. Is there the patience, time and continued internal academic and financial support for an online program that may not meet the necessary critical mass to break even until after the third year? How tolerant is your administration, board of trustees and faculty to stay the course with what seems interminably slow growth? Avoid over-promising enrollment and revenues and be realistic in budgeting for what is needed to meet even modest goals. Better to focus on slow and steady progress over a number of years than to aim for high enrollments out of the box.

3. Build faculty and administrative support for the initiative

There will always be champions among some faculty and administrators for online programs. It’s also important to communicate with and cultivate professional relationships with those who are dubious about the quality of online learning. All sides need to be heard, but support those who do develop and teach online, by offering the best faculty training, development services and technical support you can.

4. Marketing, enrollment management, persistence and retention services work together

The messaging about who your institution is, what it does and its philosophy of education should align with why a student should apply to your school and not a competitor. Every school says its programs and services are great. But are they? Potential students should have a smooth and efficient journey through the process of information gathering, applying, admissions, financial aid, registration, access, navigating the online environment, re-enrolling and graduation. Plot a typical student’s journey and see where the gaps are and how to resolve them. Enlist faculty in reaching out to students who fall behind or drop out—if only with an email to encourage them to return. This is so seldom done (and costs very little to do) but can really impress an at-a-distance student who seldom hears from a school asking how they can help them be successful.

5. Revise, review, and improve

Read the student evaluations and act on them. There is nothing more disturbing to a student who continuously reports the same issues throughout their online experience and nothing changes. Act on fixing what is wrong. If you change something based on student feedback—tell the students. They will be impressed that someone actually listened. For once.

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