Six Myths about Online Degrees
It has become commonplace for institutions to work with Online Program Management (OPM) firms to grow their presence on the online degree market. Administrators tasked with coordinating this growth will face a variety of challenges. One of the first is dealing with preconceptions that faculty and academic administrators bring to the endeavor. These may arise from discomfort with online learning and distrust of third-party involvement in academic processes. Typically these ideas derive from what faculty have read or heard, not from first–hand experience with online programs or OPMs. To call them “myths” is to recognize that they contain some element of truth. To progress though them toward new online programs, administrators need to recognize what is true in the myths while adding perspective based on experience brought to the table by the OPM and administrators.
Below are six myths I have encountered in almost five years of working with our OPM and our faculty to launch online master’s degrees. The responses to them have evolved not so much to debunk the myths as to offer an expanded perspective on them.
1. “Our online program must mirror our campus-based program exactly.”
It is true that your online degree is the online version of your campus-based degree, and as such, needs to reflect your established on-campus program, but does it need to mirror it in every regard? Your online program will likely serve a different audience (working adults) focused tightly on career advancement. Online degrees aren’t preparing people for careers in academic research and teaching. So, it might be reasonable to consider, for example, whether you want to maintain the exact same academic entry requirements that are appropriate for your campus-based degrees. Does a mid-level manager who has progressed through her organization over ten years of experience really need to provide a GRE score to demonstrate that she can succeed in the program?
2. “Our online program will be so different from our campus-based one that it needs to be a separate new degree.”
This is the reverse of the above: to say that an online degree does not replicate the campus degree and therefore needs to be a separate degree entirely. It may be the case that this is so, but do you want to delay the launch of your online program for perhaps 18 months to two years to clear all the administrative hurdles to establish a new degree? Would a concentration of an existing program offer adequate differentiation, with a possible switch to a new degree at a later time if participation warrants it?
3. “An online degree will cannibalize our campus-based degree.”
Your online degree should be designed to attract new students who couldn’t or wouldn’t enroll in your on-campus program. Typically these are working professionals who can’t afford to put their careers on hold to pursue a residential campus degree. If your online program is depleting your campus program, something’s wrong with its design or marketing. This is a problem your OPM should help you avoid.
4. “Online programs aren’t selective; they admit everybody.”
The traditional measure of selectivity is the percentage of applicants who are accepted, and the lower the better! However, this approach doesn’t mesh with the recruitment philosophy of an OPM, which will be based on the idea that it is most cost-effective to recruit qualified students who are most likely to complete the program. Your OPM will respond to thousands of inquiries, and through an extensive series of contacts (typically over 60) will cultivate a cohort who will be likely to complete the program. Consequently, the applicants’ acceptance rate by faculty tends to be high (our OPM-managed programs have an acceptance rate of about 65 percent), which does not appear highly selective but in fact is. And the proof is in their success: at our institution our OPM’s exacting recruitment process yields 91 percent term-over-term retention and an average 70 percent graduation rate—not bad for folks whose primary occupation is not being a college student!
5. “Our faculty can’t possibly teach any more sections or students than they currently teach.”
Everyone’s faculty is stretched thin, and introducing dozens of new students in need of instruction can surely be panic-inducing. It is a prospect that can bring discussions of online programs to an abrupt halt. And you certainly don’t want to embark on an online degree without an adequate faculty core. However, faculty members or department heads tend to view the anticipated instructional load as they would if they were teaching in a traditional classroom. The panoply of online instructional strategies that your OPM’s instructional design team will offer will include pedagogical tools and staffing tactics that allow more students to be taught efficiently with fewer faculty resources. For example, large-scale courses can be built around a primary faculty instructor with an instructional support team of graduate students. In the online environment instructional personnel don’t have to reside in the vicinity of your campus. And in some cases program revenues can go toward hiring dedicated faculty.
6. “We could do everything our OPM does ourselves and keep all the money!”
Of course that is theoretically possible, but if your president dropped, say, $4 million in your lap and charged you to replicate your OPM’s capabilities on your campus, could you, in fact, do that? Could you attract the level and the range of talent that a large, successful firm can attract? Could you recreate the collective knowledge an OPM has generated from taking dozens of programs to market for a wide range of clients? How long would it take to create an effective, seamless organization, what with your inevitable share of bad hires and false starts? What opportunities would you leave on the table while you got up to speed? If it were easy, the Online Program Management business wouldn’t be thriving!
These myths cannot, of course, be dismissed out of hand, because they may be passionately held and because they contain elements of truth, as most myths do. They need to be addressed early, delicately, and probably frequently as you move toward successful online degrees.