Is Online Learning an Institutional Fit?Vickie Cook | Director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service, University of Illinois Springfield
Many leaders at institutions across the United States, and their respective boards of trustees, are looking at ways to launch online learning initiatives on their campuses to place their institutions in a more competitive arena. One institution that considered online options earlier in the year is the University of Arkansas System, which launched the University of Arkansas Online earlier in 2014.
Many institutions and their leaders make assumptions about online learning that are often false or simply incomplete as they plan to enter this marketplace. These assumptions include how an online program initiative should be approached, who the stakeholders are, institutional infrastructure support required for online learning, governance and organizational structure for online learning and the sustainability of the online learning courses and program offered.
While not comprehensive or customized to a specific organization, the following list may be helpful to the institution considering adding or energizing an online learning program.
Categories for consideration:
1. The leadership, faculty and staff believe online learning fits both mission and vision of the institution.
2. The institution understands the financial risk involved with both the initial and on-going expenses to support online learning and is able to fully fund and to sustain the project.
3. The Information Technology infrastructure on campus includes the necessary hardware and software to fully support online learning, including:
- Learning Management Systems
- Student Information Systems
- Registration and Records Systems
- Bandwidth, network and physical storage
- Firewalls and security components
- Helpdesk for students and faculty
4. The academic strategic plan and budget includes support for online learning initiatives.
5. The Return on Investment for proposed programs has been calculated and approved through internal governance structures.
6. Library acquisitions, budgets, and support personnel are identified and sustainable.
7. Appropriate marketing planning, budget and materials have been developed to support the online initiative.
8. Policy development is implemented as related to:
- Transcript requests
- Fees and tuition
- Cancellations and refunds
- Financial aid services
- Career services
9. Compliance issues, such as state authorization, have been assigned to a specific office for oversight and compliance.
Teaching and Learning
1. There is a demonstrated interest by faculty to increase online learning models of teaching and a willingness to identify student learning effectiveness through online learning.
2. The faculty is willing to commit to a learning-centered teaching model.
3. Faculty and staff qualifications are identified, and online learning units are appropriately staffed to meet projected enrollments.
4. Faculty chosen to teach online have been provided professional development in online pedagogy and supported with appropriate technology.
5. A Community of Practice for all stakeholders is available to faculty and staff to identify and support online processes through continuous improvement and learning.
6. Adequate technical and pedagogical support is available to faculty and students.
7. Strong onboarding processes are in place for faculty who will be teaching online.
8. Internal governance structures are in place to approve and guide decision making related to online learning.
Student Support Services Available Online
1. Strong levels of student support systems have been identified for online learners and are fully available online, including:
- Financial aid
- Initial contact information
- Career services
- Orientation functions
2. Student Services job functions are assigned to individual staff.
In speaking with administrators, faculty and board members from other institutions, I found that there are many components of moving into the online markets that have not yet been considered or vetted on the respective campuses. These are often overlooked and not accounted for in preliminary planning and budgeting, nor considered as part of long range strategic planning and sustainability.
Green and Waggoner suggested that boards of trustees should ask a number of questions central to an institution’s move online, including:
- Why should the institution be online?
- What are the costs associated with startup and sustainability?
- How will faculty and students be supported?
- How is the organization structured to be inclusive of an online learning community?
- How might quality be assessed?
- Who owns the materials produced?
By responding to these questions, and by considering the items noted above, an institution should be able to determine if online learning is an institutional fit.
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Green, Kenneth C., and Ellen Waggoner. “Online Education: Where Is It Going? What Should Boards Know? | Association of Governing Boards.” Trusteeship 19, no. 1 (2011).
Hogan, Lee. “Online Education on the Table for Ua Board of Trustees.” Arkansas Business (2014).
Author Perspective: Administrator