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Institutions Must Invest in the Tools and Skills that Deliver the Online Experience Students Expect

The EvoLLLution | Institutions Must Invest in the Tools and Skills that Deliver the Online Experience Students Expect
The online student population is distinct, and higher education administrators and faculty need to ensure they’re crafting an experience that meets the expectations and needs of this non-traditional demographic.

More and more colleges and universities are expanding their footprints by offering online programs. However, success in the online space is not as simple as putting a course on the Internet and hoping for the best. The students pursuing online courses are often very different from the traditional population many institutions are practiced in serving, and bring with them a distinct set of needs and expectations. Delivering a high-quality, highly engaging experience is critical to serving these students well, and doing so requires institutions to invest in new skills and new tools. In this interview, Elizabeth Salisbury discusses the factors post-secondary leaders must take into consideration when launching or expanding their online footprint, and shares her thoughts on the functions that are critical to success in the online marketplace.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few factors that administrators must take into consideration when planning a new online program?

Elizabeth Salisbury (ES): As highlighted in a recent University of Delaware UDaily article, there are a number of factors that administrators must consider before and during the launch of new online programs.

“This was a carefully thought-out process made in collaboration with a 12-person task force, the Provost and the Board of Trustees,” explained Vice Provost for Graduate and Professional Education, Jim Richards. “We covered a lot of bases to ensure we could offer the same quality of education in our virtual classrooms as we do here on campus.” 

A few salient factors are marketing research, preparation of marketing materials, recruitment and lead generation, student support, admissions coordination, instructional design, accreditation, faculty training and support.

I also recommend strategic analysis of regional and national market trends to ensure realistic student enrollment estimations. Various resources and groups, such as the Education Advisory Board, are available to provide pointed market research for this purpose. Specific examination of labor market research in details, using resources like Burning Glass and Labor Insights, will contribute to a vision of whether there is a job market for a particular online program. Further, administrators should consider how the program lends itself to an online mode of delivery. Is there a practicum component to the program that would require students to have face-to-face, on-the-ground training?

Another element to take into consideration is how online students will be tracked within the record and data reporting systems of the institution Systems are often designed without consideration of how to handle varying admission sessions or how to track individual students based on mode of delivery. These systems are needed for daily operations but also for internal and external stakeholder reporting for accreditation, nation wide rankings, as well as, federal and state compliance. To overcome this obstacle, I recommend a strategic analysis of the present database or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and how it can meet the needs of new online programs.

Evo: What are some of the biggest differences between managing online and face-to-face programs? 

ES: Some of the biggest differences between managing online and face-to-face programs are the faculty pedagogy, the learning styles of students and the attention span of students in face-to-face verses online classes. Face-to-face classes are synchronous while online classes are often asynchronous to offer flexibility. Online courses allot for students who are logging into a course at various times because they are students who are often working full time, have family responsibilities and other priorities competing for their time, or are taking courses from international locations and exploring class materials while domestic classmates are asleep.

So, how do administrators ensure faculty members offering online programs for the first time are aware of these different student needs and faculty/student dynamics? Faculty offering online programs need to do more pre-planning then is common in face-to-face courses. They need to storyboard a full semester, capture lectures or ideally consider restructuring the content of the materials into shorter videos with specific learning assessments as they progress through the course. Administrators need to train faculty on how to teach online through workshops and technical training. Faculty need to be aware that email, chat and online video calls are all resources to ensure students and faculty are connected and establish a class community. Further there needs to be effective online instructions and resources for faculty to share information with students.  Albert Powell in, “Instructional Technology: Navigating Higher Ed’s Next Iceberg” highlights some of these areas in more detail.

Administrators also need to ensure effective online resources and instructions for students through video tutorials; screen captures and screen shots to address FAQ. Administrators need to consider how and if international students will be accessing information and that increasingly students are looking for information online, not making a phone call.

Evo: How do the expectations and needs of online students differ from those of face-to-face students?

ES: Expectations and needs of online students differ from those in face-to-face classes in a number of ways. There are vast online resources through the University Professional & Continuing Education Association, the Online Learning Consortium (formerly The Sloan Consortium) and Quality Matters that emphasize common expectations of online students and even provide short online assessments that a student can take to assess their online readiness. Here are a few: Online Learning Aptitude Test (created by Trent University) and Assess Your Online Learning Aptitude (by Knowledge Elements).

Key qualities online students can emulate to be successful are:

    • Being open to using more and different kinds of technology and having a secure, reliable computer and internet connection. Basic comfort with computers and computer skills is essential so that precious time can be spent learning the content of the course and not trying to access the content or figure out how to capture and post a video of oneself.


    • Being excellent time managers and keeping organized with due dates and exam dates. Online courses require a student to be self-motivated. Some administrators or faculty will send reminders but, ultimately, to be successful a student must take ownership of their learning and pursue their learning independently by managing their time and getting into the course consistently.


    • Having strong writing and critical thinking skills since class discussions and group work will often require extensive written interactions.


    • Connecting with instructors early and ask questions right away to avoid confusion.


  • Creating a consistent, quiet workspace to dedicate time to the online course.

Evo: What are a few of the critical functions an online provider must have in place to successfully manage online programs?

ES: The first critical function for the successful management of an online program is for an institution to have systems and resources in place that provide students what they need, when they need it. These resources may be outside of the usual 8am-5pm hours of university operations and may not be through a phone call or email. Online students are carefully balancing time due to working full-time and managing family commitments. The flexibility they have in online learning is often the reason they selected this mode of delivery. To this end, the online provider must have in place multiple ways to share information with students when they have questions, and when they have questions online students want answers in a timely manner.

The second critical function to manage successful online programs is to encourage students to explore and use technology for support services, as well as connecting with faculty and peers. Students in online programs are a higher-touch population. They want to feel connected with the university and since they don’t “see” faculty, peers or support services face-to-face this is an important element to create online. To build the connection and a place for students to network, administrators and faculty need to use all the technology at their disposal through virtual office hours, using social media and networking through chat/Skype and they need to be available more often then in a face-to-face program.

This interview has been edited for length.

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