FLEx: Navigating the Reality of Declining Enrollments with Flexible Programming (Part 2)

FLEx: Navigating the Reality of Declining Enrollments with Flexible Programming (Part 2)
There are a number of challenges to navigate when implementing a highly-flexible online program, but when done right, such programming can meet enrollment targets.
This is the conclusion of a two-part series by Kevin Shanley on recovering from the decline in traditional-age students by creating more flexible programming to meet the needs of non-traditional learners. In his last article, Shanley discussed the approach his institution took in creating their flexible online program and the strategies they put in place to make it truly flexible. In this article, Shanley elaborates on the challenges Utah State University (USU)’s leaders needed to overcome to make the program a success.

The Challenges

Of course, delivering FLEx courses is not without its challenges. Current campus systems, faculty involvement and student perceptions are all areas that have to be considered when offering new delivery options.

1. Campus Systems

For instance, USU’s student information system that handles the student registration process is term based; this means each course is defined as having a fixed start and end date. This also translates to challenges with the learning management systems that deliver online content to FLEx students. Allowing students to enroll at any time, with no fixed start date, has to be managed manually by registration staff. Student enrolling in open-entry courses can’t use the built-in web registration interface because it does not have an option for students to declare their start date. Each student interested in these courses must call campus registration staff to process their registration. This is manageable as we roll out the program with low enrollment numbers, but as the FLEx program grows, it will become more difficult to manage.

2. Reporting

Current reports on enrollments, finances and several other performance measures are based on enrollments at 20 percent of the term, essentially, when registration closes for the semester. Enrolments are not counted if students register after this time. This report discrepancy gives the impression the university is losing full-time equivalencies (FTE) and tuition. We hope this will eventually be resolved as we work with our data reporting teams to count enrollments in the FLEx courses differently.

3. Faculty Involvement

Once students are enrolled in a course, faculty must pay close attention to each student’s progress. With students beginning the course at different dates, each student is engaging with different content in the course. This can create a great deal of confusion for faculty members who are trying to stay on top of student learning; it becomes especially difficult to foster engagement between students when each learner is at a different stage of the curriculum. Faculty have also shared some concerns about when they can take a break. With open-entry courses, the course is always going, which makes it difficult for faculty to take vacations if they need to be there to support each student who enrolls.

Some of these concerns have been addressed by additional online course design elements. For example, we have introduced a system that allow instructors to set assignment due dates that adjust to a student’s start date. Systems have also been put in place to help foster better interaction between learners and faculty.

4. Student Perception

Student perceptions may be the biggest barrier to FLEx course adoption. Most students think of taking their college courses in terms (e.g. semesters or quarters). The idea of signing up for a course that can be completed at their own pace is somewhat new. To address this, USU Regional Campuses and Distance Education (RCDE) has launched an aggressive marketing campaign to attract students. The FLEx campaign included Facebook ads, Pandora radio ads, the USU alumni magazine, as well as bus ads and stadium promotions during USU football games.

The Results

Has the approach worked? With a current fall semester enrollment of 454 students, FLEx courses have quickly reached 70 percent capacity. Additional enrollments from open-entry courses have the potential for the FLEx program to reach near 100-percent capacity enrollment in its initial launch.

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Readers Comments

C Demichelis 2013/11/27 at 11:06 am

In response to the first challenge identified, I would say it’s perhaps more valuable to base performance on indicators other than enrollment numbers. You may disagree, but I believe flexible programs aren’t for every student. They may be great for students with busy schedules outside of postsecondary education, but they may not be as good for students who aren’t prepared for self-directed learning, for example. Thus, enrollment will always be tied to a certain type or types of students. Looking at enrollment in the same way it’s counted in other programs may not be an accurate measure of the success of a flexible program. Perhaps it’s time to develop other indicators, like attrition rates, program persistence, etc.

Francis Beyer 2013/11/29 at 2:10 pm

Interesting article on the flexible program at Utah State. It’s encouraging to see an institution willing to innovate in the face of declining student enrollments. I have several follow-up questions for USU. Did you look to other institutions exploring a similar flexible option when designing your program? If so, which ones? What lessons or best practices did you pick up?

Kevin Shanley 2013/12/04 at 10:40 am

Thanks for your feedback. We definitely plan to look at performance indicators as students complete the courses. The anecdotal evidence thus far suggests that students are doing well in the courses and the instructors are pleased with the student progress. We’ll have more hard data on performance by the end of the month.

The idea for modifying our delivery options came from a news release about the University of Wisconsin’s flex program. They have a slightly different strategy and approached it on a larger scale than we could. They also have competency based options that we hope to implement soon.

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