Navigating Approvals: How to Get High-Quality Programs to Market More QuicklyCheryl Oliver | Assistant Dean of Online and Graduate Programs at the Carson College of Business, Washington State University
Students, employers and government officials all want higher education to be more responsive to market changes and transformations. While faculty are creating programs that are responsive and relevant to market conditions, a roadblock that can stand in the way of these programs coming to market is the approvals process. While the approvals process supports institutional competitiveness, the numerous layers of approvals mean some programs wait for over a year before making it to market. In this interview, Cheryl Oliver discusses the challenges and benefits of the approvals process, and shares her thoughts on what can be done to improve time-to-market for new courses and programs.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the most challenging aspects of the approval process for new, credit-bearing online courses and programs?
Cheryl Oliver (CO): Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most challenging aspects of seeking approval for new online courses and programs is that institutions of higher education are still defending or promoting online education as equitable or superior to in-person classes and programs. While research exists to support the efficacy of online learning, there are those that think that online learning is a new and fleeting trend. Best practices in education, that are emphasized in online environments, challenge old and inaccurate but widely-held notions that the all-knowing professor is responsible for filling empty buckets—relaying information to students for whom the faculty are the only knowledge source. We are fortunate at Washington State University that online learning is central to our land grant mission of providing access to education.
The traditional brick and mortar classroom setting and academic schedule (quarters/semesters, etc.) enables a faculty member to prepare and deliver materials over a period of time up to 16 weeks and to continue to add information to the same syllabus that they may have been using much of their career. Information is curated over the years based on various factors and may or may not contribute to expected learning outcomes.
By contrast, many online courses at the university level are prepared for students who may be on campus with very little experience and for students who are working while enrolled. The schedule is often shorter (5-12 weeks). When we attempt to request that an existing on-campus course be created for online, it becomes difficult for faculty to cull their content and determine what in all of their years of collecting is relevant to an online environment given the long held belief that “contact hours” must include quantity over quality of interactions. It is particularly important in developing online content to ensure that learning goals map to exercises that enable the students to engage in an interactive teaching and learning dialogue with their faculty and fellow students to cement the intended learning outcomes.
Approval processes often get bottlenecked when the evaluating faculty are looking for volume of content rather than meaningful interactions that emphasize learning outcomes.
Evo: Typically, how many levels must a course or program travel before it can be offered publicly?
CO: This is dependent on the academic policies of the institution, which are typically influenced by size and governance policy. At Washington State University, curriculum is owned and governed by the faculty.
Within the Carson College of Business, there is a committee of faculty members who are specialists in a discipline and will work to create the content of the course. This is usually at the request of a curriculum committee either in that area or by program. For example, the finance department could decide to offer a finance elective and ask a committee or individual to create an international finance class, inviting the faculty with expertise in international finance to design a course. Or, a curriculum committee for undergraduate or graduate programs may request a course. For example, a masters programs committee could request a new core course for an MBA program, contact faculty in multiple departments, and request that they design a course or courses. From either genesis, a course must be approved by the department (i.e. department of finance), the academic policy committee within the unit (I.e. master’s program policy committee) and approved by the Dean. The course is then passed on to a university process that in our case includes a catalog committee, graduate or undergraduate studies committee and then the overall faculty senate. Throughout the process, other university offices can weigh in on how it will impact their work. The libraries will need to show that they can support it, technology teams may need to show what resources it would take them to support it (i.e. a management information systems course) and our Global Campus will need to be supportive of the course going online. Once it is approved, a course number must be assigned and a number of activities are completed in the university information system to create a catalog item and list the course so that students can choose it, enroll in it, pay tuition, complete the course, and earn a grade on their transcript.
A course could require as many as six or seven approval levels in order to be accepted for teaching. It can take as long as a year for a course to be approved, particularly if any of the approving groups send the course proposal back for revision. Even after approval, the listing of the course, marketing of a course and design of a course (inputting all of the materials including multimedia, interactive components, etc. in the online environment) can take time.
Evo: How can these processes impede a business school’s ability to be responsive and fast-moving?
CO: Anytime there are bureaucratic processes in place merely for the sake of process, innovation is stifled. On the one hand, the process can be very frustrating. On the other, the process ensures that universities aren’t offering courses based on the special interests of one or two faculty members without being meaningful to the mission of the institution and to the market.
When the dotcom bubble burst, the Sarbanes Oxley legislation was passed, and we experienced the recession, faculty in the Carson College were working to be responsive by addressing these occurrences as current events. While it is nearly impossible to quickly create specific courses to address particular issues, faculty have the academic freedom to be responsive and address market trends as appropriate. While our faculty are responsive, the approval process prevents us from being able to offer specific, in-depth courses that address industries or market trends.
My belief is that these processes discourage an environment of collaboration and innovation. The process is so cumbersome that, for example, health management and business faculty don’t have the opportunity to come together to work on courses that could be very valuable to students. By the time the course passes through the health policy department process for approval and the business college departmental processes for approval, there could be as many as 14 steps before a course could go live. There is no incentive to cooperate and innovate for the benefit of the students or our economy.
Evo: Conversely, what are the benefits of having a robust approvals process in place? Can a thorough approval process help make a business school more competitive?
CO: Regional and discipline-specific accreditation assist schools in being competitive. A rigorous curriculum review process enables business schools to demonstrate to accrediting bodies that they have completed a needs assessment, benchmarked the curriculum, sought the input of employers, reviewed best practices in the literature and designed a course to assist students in meeting usable, meaningful learning objectives. The Carson College of Business at Washington State University is accredited regionally and by the AACSB. The rigorous review of our curriculum ensures businesses that our students are receiving a well vetted education. It ensures our students that the courses that we are delivering to them will be useful now and provide a foundation for them as they grow and develop as professionals.
In addition to the process, we must evaluate how well students meet the learning objectives outlined therein and report on those specific measures. We are constantly evaluating courses and the course content and where in the curriculum, if at all, a course belongs per program. While the process can be daunting, it enables us to require specific inputs. For example, if we plan to offer a rigorous statistics or operations course, we can agree, through the process, what tacit knowledge a student must come equipped with in order to perform well and meet the learning objectives. We can then determine prerequisites based on the previous knowledge requirement. Anyone not having the prerequisite knowledge would be required to fulfill that requirement before attending. It enables a business school to remain competitive by asserting that only students with specific knowledge and skills can enroll in that course or program.
There are a variety of programs that are then able to assist students in receiving the prerequisite knowledge (including at our own institution) in preparation. When we can assure incoming students that their colleagues all meet a minimum, common entry standard, students know that our faculty can teach to that standard, be challenged by those students for whom the contents may be easier, and support the students for whom it may be more difficult. If we don’t assure our students of this, and, if we do not go through the rigorous process, we could be forced to teach to the lowest level of understanding in the course, and not providing students with the tools they will need to succeed in a business environment. Additionally, employers will be frustrated at the lack of skills, talent and expertise as students graduate and seek opportunities for employment or growth within existing roles.
Evo: Reflecting on your own experience, what can be done to expedite the approvals process for a new online course or program?
CO: It is important that stakeholders all understand the process in order to assist in moving curriculum through the process.
The first step in expediting approvals is ensuring that employers, board members, faculty, committee members and administrators are aware of the process and what can cause a bottleneck in the process.
The second step is to ensure that the faculty writing the course proposal write it in a way that is meaningful to business but also can be easily understood and rationalized by faculty in other disciplines. All of the university-level committees are diverse, comprised of faculty from disciplines across the institution who may not understand business jargon and terms. While they may be present in the proposal modifiers and clarifying comments are included, we are very careful to thoroughly review materials in the Carson College before sending them on to the overall faculty committee because we don’t want it to be held up due to misunderstandings.
A third critical piece is for business faculty at any institution—not just in the Carson College of Business—to network with faculty outside of our area. Our colleagues in the sciences, arts, engineering, social sciences, etc., can be tremendous resources for us when we are vetting materials. They also pose questions that can inform our practice. It is helpful to engage in these conversations before we are in a rigorous process so that they are trusting, understanding, and supportive of our academic efforts. It also opens the door for collaboration and improved process.
Evo: What advice can you share with other business school leaders looking to navigate the approvals process for new online offerings?
CO: When considering offering business courses online, it is important not to try to box up the on-campus experience, throw it at the computer, and expect it to come out as a great online course. Online courses require careful planning and meaningful learning experiences that can be tied to learning outcomes with real world, measurable applications. Online students are typically balancing a number of professional, personal and civic engagements. Requiring additional articles merely because they have always been part of an on-campus class can cause online students to shut down and disengage.
I would advise that business school leaders always be mindful of the fact that online learners are vested in their education, want actionable, meaningful results, are willing to work hard, and will bring their experiences with them to contribute in the online environment. While accreditation, rigorous curriculum and satisfying your stakeholders (faculty, employers, government, etc.) is important, the student is at the center of the teaching and learning environment and should always be considered in the process.
You will want classes that work. If they don’t, you could be forced to go back through a rigorous process and the other faculty and administrators reviewing your curriculum can grow weary of reviewing. Be sure to get it right the first time.
This interview has been edited for length.