Moving Courses Online Post COVID-19: Consider These Factors Before Taking the PlungeAlison Witherspoon | Vice President of Continuous Improvement, American College of Education
As universities suddenly pivot to online teaching in response to COVID-19, administrators and faculty may wonder if this is the catalyst they needed to stimulate the development of truly online programs. To clarify, what many colleges are scrambling to do this fall–moving courses into unfamiliar LMS platforms while scraping together basic training for faculty is not developing online programs. These actions reflect temporary shifts that may have long-term implications. As market demands change and the threat of COVID-19 wanes, universities have already been considering various learning methods to appeal to new types of students (McGee, 2015). Administrators and faculty may suddenly believe they have the experience to master online programming and appeal to new types of students in our “new world.” Developing and offering high-quality online programs with appropriate online student support is a complex endeavor. Is it the right approach for your university, college, department or program?
Research exploring the efficacy of online education has failed to produce conclusive and consistent results (Means, Toyama, Murphy, & Baki, 2013; Alpert, Couch, & Harmon, 2016; Arias, J., Swinton, & Anderson, 2018; Paulsen & McCormick, 2020; Broadbent & Poon, 2015). What is clear across the literature is that pedagogical approach, instructional materials and learning strategies play critical roles in student success regardless of delivery modality (Witherspoon, 2020). Education is not one-size-fits-all, and conversations about utilizing emerging best practices to support all students are encouraging. As faculty debate how online programs fit within their fields, there are several critical components they need to consider. Fourteen years of experience in higher education including developing and leading new program approvals and consulting with faculty at numerous universities about the potential for online programs has taught me that consideration of these factors can make or break a new program. In the post-COVID quest to draw on the recently gained online experience, pause to consider these factors before charging towards fully online degrees.
Identify your purpose
What is the primary reason you are considering developing an online degree program? If your first response is “because my dean told me to,” you’re going to need to dig a little deeper. Is it because you have now taught online and see online programming as more feasible? Is the goal to increase revenue? Increase enrollment? Appeal to a changing student body? Attract new student populations? Increase accessibility? The purpose of adding an online program likely includes several goals, and it will be helpful to hone in on the primary reasons. The primary purpose that motivates you may differ from what motivates your dean or faculty. Those most involved in developing the program–the faculty–must share a sense of purpose that motivates them (Heath & Heath, 2010). How does your purpose align with the university’s mission, core values and strategic plan? Outlining these components will help faculty focus their energy, clarify their vision and support requests for resources.
Determine your target population
Who are your current students? What are their demographics, goals and employment statuses? Consider whether a program offered using a new delivery format would appeal to this current student population. If so, would the new program pull students away from existing on-campus programs? Beware of cannibalization. If the new program targets a new type of student, review the literature to understand this new student group’s unique needs. Traditional aged undergraduate students who are possibly working but primarily focusing on school full time have different needs and expectations than older students working full-time and supporting a family while attending school (McGee, 2015). Once your target student population is identified, outline what changes your department or university needs to make to provide effective support. If the target population’s needs and goals differ significantly from those of your current students, the new program may bring additional costs, like appropriate support services.
Evaluate the fit of the delivery model for the target population
Now that you’ve identified the target student population for the new program, consider which type of delivery model best aligns with its needs. Do the intended students require a fully online program, or would a blended program work? The purpose and target population must align with the delivery model. If your purpose is to increase student diversity and attract a wide range of students from across the country, a blended program likely is not the right fit. It would be burdensome to expect students from outside your region to travel frequently for class. A recent report published by NC-SARA reported by Inside Higher Ed suggests that students enrolling in online programs prefer to attend programs close to home (2020). These data suggest that offering a blended program may be promising if your intended student population resembles the current student body, and your purpose doesn’t require expanding beyond your geographical region. If your purpose and target students do not align with your planned delivery model, re-examine your approach.
Articulate the value added
Higher education institutions have a common purpose–to educate students. Some universities may have additional factors driving their mission and daily operations, but basically, universities and faculty would not exist without students seeking to gain knowledge, skills and experience. Any new program must add value for students to contribute to the university’s mission. What value does the new program add? Why would your intended students pick this program over another? Online learning may add value for students by increasing convenience. It may also add value by building technology literacy, which graduates will be expected to apply in their careers (e.g., telehealth, global economy). Once you have identified the program’s value added for students, consider what value this new program could add for faculty, staff and community partners. If the value added by the new program cannot be identified, it would be wise to reconsider the program and/or delivery model.
Consider the culture fit
Does your university or department culture currently support the addition of an online or blended program? If not, it is important to understand why. Conversations with supporters and detractors can expose valuable insights about the pros and cons of making a change. Make time for these discussions, set ground rules to support respectful dialogue, and include diverse perspectives. Consider points of view from other departments or universities, if you need them to facilitate a balanced debate. If a lack of support for the new program is expressed, draw on your purpose, alignment to mission and value added to speak to the hearts and minds of detractors (Heath & Heath, 2010).
Understand regulatory requirements
Connect with the appropriate expert on campus to clarify external requirements for new programs following different delivery models. State higher education authorities and accreditation agencies have specific guidance for new programs and delivery models. When exploring state and regional accreditor guidelines, don’t forget about specialized program accreditors if they are appropriate for your program. Understanding their role early on enables you to develop a program aligned with external standards and sets appropriate expectations to obtain the required approvals.
Identify the resources you need
Developing, launching and sustaining an effective online program requires constant support. While a well-designed online program may increase revenue at some point, there is no guarantee when or whether the program will be self-sustaining. Strong online program development comes from faculty driven by a shared purpose, but faculty cannot do this alone. They need ongoing support from instructional designers and eLearning experts. They need training to adapt pedagogical styles to online environments. Enrollment trends may vary from existing programs and support may be required to attract students. Changes in student services are inevitable. Even if the target student population mirrors the current student body, all support opportunities need to be accessible online. Policies may need to be revised to address changes in student type, support services, attendance and more.
It may feel daunting to consider the extensive resources needed to bring a new program online, but the good news is, you’ve already laid a strong foundation to support your request for resources. COVID-19 served as a crash course in exploring online learning for everyone, and it may have opened new people’s minds to online learning possibilities. By following the steps above, you have already built a foundation of faculty with a shared purpose. That purpose is aligned with the university mission, core values and strategic plan. You’ve done the research to prepare a new program grounded in best practices and can identify what you need to be successful. While budget owners may be hard to convince, you have the information and tools you need to present your case. The investment upfront should be returned through successful student outcomes in the years to come.
The image of a college student many of us once held in our minds has changed. Students truly reflect an endless array of ages, schedules and circumstances. It’s time all universities consider what value their programs add in this new environment. Adapting to the new normal by offering multiple delivery models may drive your school’s progress in pursuing its strategic goals and continue its mission fulfillment, but these decisions should not be made lightly.