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It’s Time to Revise Our Approach to Program Design

The EvoLLLution | It’s Time to Revise Our Approach to Program Design
While expectations and questions around the development of new programming has evolved rapidly, institutional approaches to launching new offerings have stayed mired in the past.
The rapidly shifting landscape of higher education is well documented; fewer traditional 18- to 24-year-olds but increasing numbers of non-traditional-age students, decreasing state allocation causing an increasing dependence on tuition, greater competition for a decreasing number of students (including international ones), and decreasing demand for face-to-face lectures in rows of desks while steadily increasing demand for online and blended classroom models. When it comes to trying to launch new program offerings, the considerations and challenges are much greater now than in the recent past.

It was not that long ago when new programs could be launched with relative ease. The primary obstacle was a vague defense of why the program was needed, how it would be staffed—making sure course offerings did not encroach on the turf of other departments, and spell checking the new syllabi to ensure they would make it through a campus-wide Academic Committee and Faculty Senate. New programs were often similar to ones developed at other institutions. Little originality or innovation were considered. The mentality seemed to be that if it was a successful program at another institution, it will certainly be one for us as well. There was little consideration to program saturation and competition among institutions with similar offerings. Further, new syllabi were generally parceled together from existing ones or modified from other institutions. Students were abundant, full-time staff were available to teach, and the funding support to add new programs was available to broaden the portfolio of program offerings. The thought was the larger the menu of program offerings, the greater the appeal to more students. Times have rapidly changed. There is a new reality of how programs should be conceived and developed. With these realities come new challenges that are not quickly overcome.

Primary to these challenges is how differently we must now begin to think about what a program actually means and how it is structured and delivered. New program offerings must be in tune with the changing landscape of higher education mentioned above with a defined focus on the target population.  All of this is taken into account while staying aligned to the institutional mission and complementing the current offerings and resources available. The large shifts currently occurring in higher education and with the demands of proven accomplishments and competencies by employers, institutions must make more substantial changes to programs and how they are delivered or risk falling further behind in the arms race to stay relevant. If you’re only making small changes to existing programs or developing new majors with the same basic boilerplate of traditional curriculum (e.g., lecture, seat time, credit hours to a degree), most likely the program will not achieve the level of success upon which it was presented to the dean or provost for approval. Monumental shifts in higher education demand bold changes in programs. The traditional questions asked when conceiving a new program must be replaced with ones that recognize a paradigm shift from business as usual:

  • Is a full degree program necessary or will a certificate or digital badge be more attractive and useful to both students and potential employers?
  • Could a series of certificates or badges be combined to equal a degree?
  • How will past employment and experience be valued with credit toward program completion?
  • Will the program be a traditional face-to-face model, blended, or entirely online?
  • With employers demanding proof of experience and skill, what type of experiential learning/internship could be embedded in the program?
  • Could the new program be offered in a competency-based format that requires students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills?
  • Are there “courses” in the traditional sense, and if so, must they span a defined time frame, such as a semester or quarter?
  • How could we partner with the community in the development and delivery of the program?

These are samples of the types of questions that demonstrate a shift in thinking when considering additions to a program portfolio.

The information above leads us to what, in my opinion, is the one true roadblock in conceiving, developing, and launching new programs for the students of today. That is, the vast majority of faculty and administration still have the higher education mindset of a generation ago. This is through no fault of their own. It is what they know and are comfortable with when it comes to higher education. Faculty are clearly the workhorses of the institution and most often the ones relied upon to conceptualize and develop new programs. As part of that process, it means constructing new syllabi, developing advising maps, recruiting support from faculty across campus, and developing promotional information to market the program. These are extremely time-consuming tasks. And, at a time when state support has been diminishing and enrollment is a challenge, faculty have been asked to do more with less.

At a critical moment in the history of higher education, when faculty need time to reflect and be creative to develop new and innovative programs to help boost enrollment and revenue, they are often denied reassigned time or extra compensation to develop these programs. Without the time or incentive to support their efforts, they naturally fall back to the traditional program templates they know. This could be a partial explanation of the why digital badging, competency-based programs, educational certificates, and experiential partnerships with businesses, to name a few, have been slow to develop and are keeping higher education out of sync with student and business demands.

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