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Finding Our Way to Online: Where Do We Go After Building The Courses?

The EvoLLLution | Finding Our Way to Online: Where Do We Go After Building The Courses?
Quality content is not enough to truly stand out in the online education marketplace; leaders need to seriously consider the offering modality and student demand before taking a new course or program to market.

The explosion of online courses, the OCW movement, and the introduction of MOOCs over the past few years have created a fury of excitement as well as uncertainty in higher education. Universities rushed to make content available to the masses in an effort to not be left behind. Our program is no different. However, this fervor has left us with a batch of online courses sitting on our servers without a clear audience with whom to share them. The purpose if this article is to outline the path that I have been on for the past five years to create online content and hope that my experiences are of some interest to readers. The path has been an interesting one and one that is still not entirely certain.

In 2010, our dean, a major proponent of the OCW movement, expressed his firm commitment to providing free educational content to “anyone, anywhere, at any time.” I fully supported his vision then and continue to support that vision even more now as the online arena has developed. Due to my background in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL), I have an especially strong desire to provide content to internationals wishing to improve their English for educational, professional and personal reasons.

On the surface, this seemed like a fairly straightforward task. For more than 30 years, our program has been a leader in offering ESL and business English courses to internationals who come to our campus for an immersive educational and cultural experience. Our courses are extremely successful and our program enrollments have more than doubled over the past five years. Because we have wonderful content and amazing instructors, we thought it would be simply a matter of converting our on-ground offerings to an online format. However, we quickly came to realize that this was not as easy as it sounded.

Initially, in 2011, we developed a complete series of three online courses molded from our on-ground, intensive ESL, high-intermediate level classes. The courses we developed were very polished and professional and contained synchronous as well as asynchronous components. However, as we began to offer the courses to clients, we quickly realized that they were much too intensive for the typical online audience. This intensive format works ideally for full-time students studying on our campus, but proved much too intensive for the average person overseas who may be working and/or studying at the same time.

Determining that business English might be more enticing to prospective clients, in 2012 we developed two 4-week online courses, once again based on our intensive on-ground business English courses. We had a partner institution overseas with very receptive students to offer the courses to. However, these courses, which were each comprised of 36 hours of content delivered in 4 weeks, also proved to be too intensive for students who were working professionals and also taking part-time classes at their home institution.

In an effort to repurpose the business English courses we had developed and to further expand our offerings, in 2013-14 we converted these courses into less intensive 10-week (30-hour) offerings and developed four additional courses. For six quarters, we marketed and offered these courses. Although we did have a few enrollments from time to time, we never got the enrollments we were expecting. In fact, these courses often had to be cancelled due to low enrollments.

All of the courses mentioned above were being offered for a fee. The cost of the courses ranged from a couple hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars, depending on the number of units. Beginning in 2012, at the same time we were undertaking the above, we were also dabbling in offering various versions of the above courses in a free OCW format. Offering classes in this format produced moderate traffic and proved to be somewhat useful as a means to provide insight into our course offerings. Although these courses haven’t exploded with views, through this process it became clear that we were on the right track. The idea of offering these courses for free in smaller, more concentrated chunks not only appealed to the general public, but also opened up the ability for our own internal students to utilize this content for additional supplementary materials to enhance their on-ground courses. Finally, these courses were being put to good practical use and were providing students with the quality content for which they were designed.

The latest iteration of this process has taken us to Coursera. We are currently re-envisioning some of the courses mentioned above into courses that will be offered on the Coursera network. I am excited about this development and the opportunity that our content finally has to receive potentially tens of thousands of views and the ability to reach and help many people around the world improve their English. Although we are still in the development stage of this new direction, I am finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel with regards to offering these courses that have been sitting on our servers for the past several years.

My takeaway in this exercise of reviewing the history of our online course development is that having quality content and functioning courses is not enough. Much thought and experimentation needs to be put into how the courses will be offered and how that message will be delivered, which isn’t always an easy task. However, I believe that as technologies continue to emerge and develop, the path to offering quality online content to eager learners is becoming clearer.

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