Published on 2013/02/11
Choosing an Online Programming Development Model
When developing online programming, an institution does not have to be pigeon-holed into selecting a single development model. The success of one model can lead an institution to adopt a new model.

In a previous article, I wrote about three options for higher education institutions that wish to go online. The three options were:

  1. Outsource the entire project to a third party
  2. Hire a large group of instructional designers, technologists, etc. and create courses for faculty
  3. Purchase a learning management system (LMS), hire designers to act as consultants and train faculty on how to create their own courses

I also stated that “…institutions can cherry pick from each of the models listed and create their own combination from the three models.” The description of those three models prompted a number of readers to ask three questions:

  1. Which model should they choose for online development?
  2. Which model did my (Kevin’s) institution choose?
  3. Why was that model the one selected?

These seem like easy questions, but the answers are neither easy nor simplistic.

The answer to the first question greatly depends on what your institution is trying to achieve. Are you entering the online business because you feel pressure from peers/administration/trustees and just want to say you’re doing it? Do you need to generate revenue for your institution? Are you fascinated by the research potential? Or, is your goal to provide sports/sick/study-abroad/working students access when they aren’t able to attend class on campus? There are many questions to be asked and answers to be given before this decision can be made.

My institution now implements elements of all three online development options. But this has been a 15-year evolution. Though the online initiative started within the continuing education (CE) unit, it now involves all of the colleges and schools within our university. However, CE started with Option C, which has allowed us to now expand our offerings and fund our other online activities.

The CE unit was like many others within higher education: it offered lower tuition rates than the main university, lots of course takers vs. degree candidates, students that stopped-out, primarily adjunct faculty and it was non-discipline specific in its degree offerings. CE also had limited funds (due in part to the lower tuition) and wanted to put many degrees online at the same time. Some of the degrees had enough students to make them viable for a single offering, but limited market scalability, so they would not be attractive to a third-party vendor. As a result, we decided on an educational experience not unlike the campus-based one where students take classes that are created and taught by individual faculty. This required an investment on the CE unit’s part, but one that could be tiered as we grew.

To initiate this online model, we hired a small staff (two instructional designers, one LMS administrator and one administrative support staff) and purchased our own iteration of the university’s LMS (so there would be no concern about central IT’s maintenance/updates issues during the traditional university students’ breaks, or at night, when our students tended to be working online). Then we created a certification program for faculty to learn how to design courses for an online audience. The certification was (and still is) conducted 100 percent online and facilitated by one of our instructional designers. The faculty member’s class project is the first two modules of the course that s/he is scheduled to teach. This not only makes the course directly relevant to the faculty member but also allows him/her to experience what it’s like to be an online learner. We also implemented a “quality counts” program to monitor the faculty member’s activities and online course content both before launch and throughout the course.

This initiative has resulted in the following: more than 1,400 online certified faculty; more than 65 degree and certificate programs online (undergraduate and graduate); more than 7,000 online CE students; and approximately 1,800 annual degree graduates whose education included an online component. We are not only very proud of creating successful online students, but equally proud of creating successful online faculty — faculty who can create and teach using the latest technology that they feel will assist them in getting their subject matter across.

During this time, the exception to this model was our MBA degree. Since the MBA was a premier degree that commanded a commensurate tuition, we knew that a concierge-level service would be required for these students. Since our online unit was just starting to build and could not offer these services, the decision was made to go to a third party (Option A) for assistance.

The success of Option C has enabled us to now move into a new phase (Option B) that will allow us to take the degree programs that have market demand and scale them for broader distribution. It will also allow the faculty to focus all of their time on instruction and student outcomes instead of going through the laborious task of creating and updating an online course. We will still require faculty certification, but the certification content will focus entirely on delivery and leave the course development to the instructional design team. Faculty will focus on what content to teach while instructional designers (in collaboration with faculty) will create the platform for the material. This new model will allow the colleges within the university to examine graduate degree outcomes and map courses so they scaffold one on the other to assist students in achieving desired outcomes.

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Readers Comments

Rhonda White 2013/02/11 at 6:54 am

I’m interested to know how you got faculty buy-in, as the number of online certified faculty seems quite high. I’m also interested in how the training was designed. You say that part of the reason the certification is offered online is to give faculty the experience of being online learners – I’m assuming they were using the same technology, interface, etc. that their students would be given?

If so, were faculty given the opportunity to provide feedback on how to improve the learning experience, since they had the benefit of seeing both the front- and back-end?

Linda McAdams 2013/02/11 at 2:36 pm

The author only offers anecdotes to describe how the various models were chosen for different situations. It would be helpful to know which factors to take into account when deciding between doing something in-house (Options B and C) or externally (Option A). For example, in his experience, do class sizes matter? Does the model change based on whether the target audience is traditional-aged or non-traditional students? etc.

    Peter Laramie 2013/02/11 at 7:12 pm

    I think the reason the author doesn’t give more detail than he does is that the path of online program development is specific to each university. For example, IT capacity, engaged administrators and faculty and dedicated resources at one university would give it an advantage over another without the three conditions. In other words, there’s no template for this.

    I’m just wondering, Mr. Currie – which model have you found the most economically viable? That was missing in the discussion.

Kevin 2013/02/12 at 3:24 pm

Rhonda –
We initiated the online program program in the continuing education unit. Since most faculty were adjuncts, they could only teach when their classes populated. Once we started offering online programs as well as courses the students “voted with their feet” and migrated towards those sections that were offered online. The faculty knew that if they wanted to teach (that their sections would not be cancelled due to no/low enrollments) they would have to learn how to do it in an online format. Since the faculty were/are the ones creating the courses, their feedback was in how they created heir courses – and the student feedback was in how they evaluated the courses.

Peter –
You are correct in your answer to Linda’s question. The specific online model used will depend on many variable within an institution.

In general terms, the most cost effective model for many non scalable continuing education programs is 3.

Model 2 may work if you have a select degree (i.e. MBA), a reputation in the market place for the subject matter, the financial resources to hire an instructional design staff to build the courses, and more funds to market the program.

Model 1 works if you have everything but the funds to hire and market the program. You will still an in-demand premier degree and a reputation in the field to be attractive to third party funding.

Thanks,
Kevin

    Peter Laramie 2013/02/12 at 4:29 pm

    Thanks for clearing that up, Kevin! Great info!

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