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Six Elements of a Successful Online Graduate Degree Partnership

Six Elements of a Successful Online Graduate Degree Partnership
When it comes to developing a new online graduate degree program, many institutions turn to vendors for support, but the schools themselves need to put in legwork to make sure the program is a success.
For the past four years I have served as Purdue’s liaison with Deltak, a leading educational services provider, with the primary mission of launching new online master’s degrees. I have admired Deltak’s creativity, flexibility and professionalism. They’ve been great partners. But even with their expertise and resources, launching online degrees at our university has proven challenging.

Why has this been the case? First, the financial model for both parties requires that the online degrees operate at a scale larger than most academic departments are used to. (We try to size master’s degrees for a steady enrollment of about 200 students.) Second, you have to create a university infrastructure and culture of sharing information with an external organization, which presents challenges for security-minded administrators and the occasional turf guardian. Finally, designing programs that are both educationally sound and appealing at the experiential level and then marketing them in a very competitive global market requires a high level of rigor.

In this challenging environment, we have successfully launched two programs with Deltak and will launch a third in the fall. But we’ve had many more false starts than launches. This history has led us to identify six elements that seem to correlate with success.

1. Buy-In at the Top

You need the enthusiastic support of the dean of the school or college. The extent to which you need active support at the president/provost/chancellor level will depend on institutional culture. Deans will be attracted to the prestige of a successful, large-scale program and to its robust revenue stream, but they also have other priorities and internal politics to reckon with.

2. A Faculty Champion

Having strong leadership at the faculty level is critical. We have had several programs fail to develop for lack of such leadership, and our successful programs all have a faculty champion. The leader must coordinate the development and administrative processes, recruit the faculty and manage the program on an ongoing basis. The leader needs to be in place and devoting substantial energy to the program a year to six months before the anticipated launch.

3. A Critical Mass of Faculty

Lack of an adequate cadre of faculty has been our most common cause of false starts. We began our first degree program with a faculty cohort of six who had been working together and teaching online. In the second year, two new clinical faculty were hired from revenues generated by the program. The next year, a cohort of limited-term lecturers was developed to tap as needs arose, such as when faculty took sabbatical leave or became ill. Prospective online faculty need to see that the growth in enrollments does not mean their load will increase commensurately; pedagogical and staffing techniques your service provider can suggest will allow them to teach more students more effectively.

4. Buy-In from Support Units

Registrar, bursar, IT, graduate education administrators, financial aid — even libraries and placement — all of them can be impacted by large online programs. Their needs and concerns must be respected. They don’t need to be wildly enthusiastic, just willing to cooperate. One of the most helpful administrators on our campus staked out this position: “If this is the direction the university wants to go in, I won’t let my department stand in the way.” That opened the door enough. Don’t be surprised if campus IT is more uncomfortable with a “sharing” environment than you anticipated.

5. A Compensation Model

Very early in discussions with faculty, the question will arise as to how they will be compensated for their efforts in the online program, which they’re likely to view as an addition to what they’re already doing. Will faculty receive overload payments? Will they have other teaching loads reduced? Will they have summer employment? Programs will flounder if faculty don’t understand how they will be compensated or feel their compensation is unfair. Also, you need to determine upfront how program revenues will be distributed to the university, the college, the department, the instructional faculty, etc. Ideally, a compensation model would be institution-wide, but at large institutions, missions and cultures vary from college to college, resulting in different revenue-sharing models.

6. Sufficient Time before Launch

If you’re going online with a new degree program, bear in mind how long it typically takes to move through an approval process at your institution. Your institution, state regulators and your accrediting body may require approvals to offer an existing degree program in an online environment. Your service provider will want about six months to establish the program’s presence in the market and can’t begin to market the program until all approvals have been obtained. Course development can be done in the term prior to offering, so you can launch with just a few courses fully developed. As a rule of thumb, we would not promise a launch in less than a year from an agreement with an external provider.

Those are the six elements we’ve figured out — so far. I expect we’re not done yet.

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