Published on 2018/08/24
The EvoLLLution | Ensuring Success in Online Programs By Centralizing Support
As more institutions look at building and expanding their online education footprint, it’s critical to take a closer look at how online education is being supported and to consider the value of centralizing the infrastructure that online is built on, rather than keeping it siloed.
Running effective and valuable online programs for students is challenging for any university, college, or other institution today. Not unlike face-to-face (F2F) delivery, there are many dimensions to consider and issues to address in the online world. The key difference, naturally, is the technology and how its use impacts student success, facilitator effectiveness, and course design and delivery. Now, when we say technology, we are not talking about the learning management system (LMS) alone; there are literally hundreds of what have become known as ancillary technologies that online professors can utilize in their courses. Some are integrated with the LMS and others are stand-alone apps.

Most academic units (colleges, schools, departments, centers, programs, etc.) do not have the resources to handle the myriad pedagogical aspects of online learning–let alone the technical ones. For many of them, centralized IT (information technology), course design, support, training, and other services are their lifeline to preparing and running online courses and programs. Without those centrally funded experts and other resources, few online programs could be made available, let alone remain viable and competitive. The same thing can be said for the centrally funded site licenses for the LMS and many of those ancillary technologies.

The real pinch point today comes when institutions are pressed harder and harder to increase enrollment while the number of traditional high school graduates is diminishing. This means that online offerings are the go-to area where enrollment can grow because of the increasing popularity of online programs generally, and with more non-traditional learners returning for degree completion and knowledge enhancement specifically.

More than a few institutions in financially troubled waters have found online programs to be true lifesavers. Simply put, if an institution only offers face-to-face courses these days, it will not only become an anachronism but an entity running on life support. Luckily this is not the norm–nearly every institution in the higher ed space has at least a smattering of online programs running today.

If this is the case, and we believe it is, we must next turn to the challenge of differentiation: If everyone is offering online courses, how are prospective students going to notice one institution over another? One obvious answer is quality. Quality in online courses and programs is tenuous at best if, as is all too often the case in face-to-face classes, the instructors are doing their own thing in each of their online offerings. Online students have enough challenges without facing different levels of quality in their courses and/or getting dizzy as they progress through a string of courses that all look very, very different.

Perhaps the main benefit that comes from centralized IT is the availability of instructional designers (IDs). These are trained and credentialled individuals who have both broad and deep knowledge about how to put together a high-quality online course that meets the pedagogical goals and expectations of the instructors, program directors, deans, and others. Sound instructional design brings organization and consistency into—and between—individual courses.

The good news is that instructors oftentimes appreciate the expertise, professionalism, and passion that IDs bring to the course design effort. This is particularly true when one condition of facilitating online courses in a given program is that its courses will have a consistent look and feel. IDs can ensure that courses will have similar segments, components, tools and navigation, to name just a few of the characteristics of online courses that will enable student progress and success.

Most centralized IT operations supporting online programs will offer their services to students as well. This removes a tremendous burden from the shoulders of the faculty, because it obviates the need for the facilitators to provide technical assistance to their online students. They can concentrate on the academics while leaving the IT training, support, and help desk functions to others. It is common for an online syllabus to include a section with detailed contact information for students to access these services as the need arises. Finally, this support is often offered on a 24/7/365 basis via in-house resources, or, as is increasingly the case, a third-party vendor.

The training aspect of this is something that we cannot overlook. Central IT professionals are well positioned to offer in-house, recorded and virtual training for the LMS and most of the ancillary applications mentioned earlier. Once designed, training sessions are usually offered on a rolling schedule, staged on streaming servers for asynchronous viewing (and re-viewing), or even offered on an ad hoc basis.

When it comes to training, course development, and ongoing support as the courses are run, it is virtually impossible for this to be done any more effectively and efficiently than when orchestrated by the central IT arm of the institution. Individual units simply do not have the expertise, funding, and resources to do a laudable job in all of these areas. That said, some of the larger units (a university’s flagship college, for example) may opt to attempt this with their own personnel. Their faculty are likely more comfortable working with their internal folks, or perhaps the dean does not want to be beholden to central IT. With higher ed budgets the way that they are these days, duplicating in a unit what central IT likely already offers (at least in large part) is clearly less efficient and less effective. One would think that those existing funds would be better used elsewhere.

When centralized IT is a well-positioned and vibrant entity partnered closely with multiple academic and administrative units across a higher ed institution, great things can happen. Such arrangements can result in cost savings–for example, by using site-licensed software. They can result in efficiencies and shared resources. They can result in high-quality online offerings, with IT and ID professionals providing the expertise to ensure they’re well designed and executed.

And, at the end of the day, the students are the real benefactors from all of this, because their academic progress and success is more readily assured.

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