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Designing a Great Online Student Experience Critical for Sustained Success

The EvoLLLution | Designing a Great Online Student Experience Critical for Sustained Success
The market for online programming is competitive, but institutions that do it right will expand their footprint while delivering a high-end student experience.

Higher education institutions nationwide are looking for ways to expand their reach and serve students not just in their localities but also across their regions and across the country. However, when serving this more distributed audience, it’s critical to design programs that do not demand regular travel or require students to uproot themselves. Online programs allow institutions to do this, but success is not a simple matter. The space is competitive and creating an engaging experience for online students can be in a challenge. In this interview, Alex Sevilla reflects on some of the ways the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business Administration has designed its online programs to address these issues.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did UF decide to launch one- and two-year online MBA programs?

Alex Sevilla (AS): We started these programs in 1999. It was early in the evolution of online distance-based programs. Our Dean, Dr. John Kraft, deserves a tremendous amount of credit for being bold enough to consider a very different model at that stage in the marketplace.  At the time there were many schools that were unsure whether it made sense to invest in an online MBA format, and it was a common concern that there might be an adverse reaction in the market or with faculty.

Our goal from the beginning was to find a way to take our successful professional programs that had a nice track record of meeting the needs of our students and use technology to build a program that would be more accessible to a larger population of people. We felt like we had the technology and the faculty support to do it. The goal was to increase enrollment by creating a quality product and that expanded the reach of the program beyond the South East region.

Evo: What were some of the major differentiating factors between these programs and other MBA programs being offered by UF?

AS: The degree is identical. All of our MBA programs are housed in one shop. We have nine different MBA programs within our portfolio. Two of those are our online MBA offerings, but they’re all in the same ecosystem. We have the same administrative group that oversees the MBA experience. We have the same faculty that teach in these programs, the same infrastructure, the same marketing and branding efforts. All of that is identical.

The obvious differences are the delivery of the content. The student population is also different, although the requirement for admission is the same in terms of GMAT scores, GPA and work experience, but the geographic reach is quite different. The student experience is unique because they are experiencing the content in a different way. They’re not here every week or once a month, but once per semester.

Evo: Why did you decide that the residency program was an important element to include in an online program?

AS: That was a decision that we made early on. We’ve always seen significant value in the cohort model. We don’t have an open enrollment format for any of our programs.  We didn’t feel that we would be able to create the same type of connection to the program and have our students be connected to one another and the faculty if they were doing everything remotely. That can be more convenient at times, but for us, we wanted to build a community. As we’ve created more flexibility in the program and as we’ve created more ways for people to pursue the program, the idea of having folks come to campus once a semester still has great value for us, and we believe that it is one of the reasons why we have done well with the student experience piece.

Evo: What were the most significant challenges you and your team faced in designing and launching these programs?

AS: In many universities, there’s resistance to this type of learning model. Fortunately we never really had that here. We have an innovative spirit that allowed us to be pioneers in this space. Over time, what we learned was that staying at pace with technology and continuing to invest in the program was mission critical. Every year, we assess what our technology looks like, what the student experience is like, and how well we are able to translate the content from a live session to an online session. We have instructional designers working directly with our faculty members to help build the courses, we have IT specialists build the infrastructure for the program and we’re very mindful of working with the students and making sure that we stay connected to them.

Big picture, a major challenge is finding ways to capitalize on the technology without falling behind, or without the technology interfering with the relationships, the content or the knowledge that you want gained.

Evo: What are some of the things you and your team have put in place to make sure that the institution engages with its online students?

AS: Creating a strong student experience is one of the reasons the residency is important. Take that away and students feel disconnected, perhaps feeling less important than the students who are here on a more regular basis. We do some specific things at orientation involving team building, culture building, and simply having them get to know each other and us. We’re investing time and energy into showing them just how important they are to what we’re trying to do.

Our job is to stay connected to you as an online MBA student, regardless of your location. We also want to make sure that we making your life easy from an administrative standpoint so that you can focus on your studies. Finally, our goal is to create networking opportunities for you that enhance your overall experience. There are lots of little things we do to let our students know they are always a priority for us.

We invest in these students in the same way we do all of our other students in terms of career development and professional development. They have 100 percent access to our career team, they can interview on campus, they can do all of the things that our other daytime MBA students do. We also have many executives that will come to our campus during the year, and for those that can’t attend these sessions, we’ve utilized technology to be able to record them or have students watch them in real time and tweet in their questions.

At the end of the day we want our online students to say, “I feel connected to this place, I feel valued and I know anytime I need resources, I know exactly where to find them. I have confidence I’m going to be treated with respect and with just as much appreciation as a student that is here every single day.”

Evo: What advice would you share with other institutional administrators looking to launch accelerated online programs of their own?

AS: Make an assessment as to what your structural and intellectual capital looks like. From a technology standpoint, when we started, there were minimal external resources. We had to build everything home grown. That’s not the case anymore. You can sign with a multitude of vendors to create learning platforms, marketing support and technology support. Whatever you need, you can find someone that is going to help you. Look at your talent pool from a staff perspective and ask whether you have a team that is capable of executing a highly sophisticated online experience. If the answer is yes, that’s great. If the answer is no, do you want to build it or do you want to buy it?

The second thing I would look at is how much commitment there is. Our dean did a phenomenal job of getting people excited about this early. I’ve been fortunate to have faculty who have been right there with us from the very beginning. If that isn’t in place, that’s a tough thing to maneuver. You don’t want to outsource the faculty. That’s not a recipe for success.

The other thing is understanding where you fit in the market. Every time a new school comes in, it increases the competition and it also makes you really think what your value proposition is. That person that you’re trying to convince to come into your region from outside, they now have more options than they would have had five or six years ago. You need to consider your price point, how your school pedigree relates to that and what else is out there. It is an expensive plane to get off the ground and it can be a financial challenge if you don’t feel like you have a strong market that you can leverage and start to generate student applications very quickly.

Lastly, you can’t create a separate entity for an online program that has lower quality students and faculty. At some point, that will impact your brand. If you’re giving them the same degree, the market isn’t sophisticated enough once students graduate to know whether they’re an online student or a full-time or executive student. If there’s a huge difference in the quality of the student, the faculty, the learning and the experience, at some point that will adversely impact the school’s brand and reputation in the market.

This interview has been edited for length.

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