Attract and Retain Learners with Digital Badges
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When designing a new program, some institutions turn to Online Program Management (OPM) companies for help. These companies launch programs from scratch and manage many of the administrative aspects required to make the offering a success. But using an OPM can come with a significant price tag. For some colleges and universities, it’s still worth finding ways to launch unique online programs on their own. With the right research and expertise, online programs can be created without the help of an OPM. In this interview, Leslie Oster discusses how Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law launched a new online offering without an OPM and reflects on how the school plans to expand its online presence.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How did you know moving the Master of Studies in Law (MSL) degree program online was the right move for the Law School?
Leslie Oster (LO): When we were initially creating the MSL degree, we considered including an online version. But because the entire idea was new, we wanted to define the degree first and then tackle the addition of an online version. Once we got some traction with the residential version of the degree, we started hearing from folks all over the country who were very interested in the MSL, but could not move to Chicago to enroll. And it wasn’t as if these folks had other programs to choose from. The MSL was and still is the only law degree for non-lawyers that focuses specifically on training scientists and engineers. At that point, which was a couple of years into our process, we felt the degree had taken shape and we had the expertise and bandwidth to take on creation of the online version. We knew it would be good for the trajectory of the program to have it available both in and outside of Chicago. Extending the reach and impact of this degree was important to us and to our early graduates.
Evo: Why did Northwestern elect to build and scale the program internally, rather than partnering with an OPM?
LO: At the outset, we weren’t sure how to proceed and were daunted by the prospect of creating an online program. But it wasn’t like we were starting from scratch. The residential program was going strong, and it had developed a distinct academic culture that we knew we wanted to carry over to the online program. But we still had a lot to figure out. We researched like crazy to learn as much as we could and assess the available options. We spoke with lots of people who had created online programs. We gathered information about the experiences others were having with OPMs versus developing programs in-house.
As we were going through the research, we realized that our own internal understanding of the unique MSL program put us in the best position to create the online version. We weren’t sure that OPMs would be as motivated as we were to remain true to the identity of our unique MSL degree. Understandably, the OPMs we spoke with were very focused on bottom-line numbers, while our internal focus was on the continued positive development of a high-quality and interactive online program that contained all the essential characteristics of our residential program. In addition, the large percentage of profits that most OPMs take was a negative factor for us. So much of the program’s success was uniquely due to our internal efforts and investments. We wanted to be in a position to capture the financial benefits if the program turned out to be profitable.
In terms of individual aspects of the degree, we decided to take the lead on the academic side—the development of the curriculum and the individual classes. That was where we felt we had the most expertise and where we were the most motivated to create symmetry with the residential program. But there were other areas where we felt we didn’t have the internal expertise or bandwidth, and so we sought outside vendors to partner with us. For example, we partnered with InsideTrack, which provides enrollment coaching and management specific to online programs. We wanted to be very hands-on with these partnerships, to ensure that we were on the same wavelength with our partners.
In short, we decided to manage this project internally. There were certain aspects of the project we felt we could do better in-house. For other aspects, we sought outside expertise.
Evo: Was the best-of-breed approach intentional from the start, or did it evolve as you started looking at different sources and solutions for support?
LO: It evolved. At the start, we weren’t even sure what questions to ask, but over time, as we learned more about the available options, our approach took shape. Knowing that we were going to manage the process in-house, we looked at each individual function and tried to figure out the best option.
Law isn’t a subject commonly taught in an online format, but pretty early on, we came to believe it was possible to create a high-quality online law program that included the essential aspects of the residential program. We realized that we could capture our culture, our values and our substance using a variety of online tools. That was a revelation. The process became more intentional from there.
Evo: What are the major benefits of developing an online program internally?
LO: Internal consistency is the biggest benefit of developing this program in-house. We can ensure the quality of the degree, no matter the format. The control we have over the admissions process, the academic experience, student services, career support and the feel of the program is something we wouldn’t want to give up—in either the residential or the online format. We were most interested in ensuring that a consistent academic culture runs through both the online and residential versions of the MSL.
The sense of community that has developed—within the online student body, and also between the online and residential students—was a major benefit of developing the online program internally. All MSL students are earning the same degree, and they tend to have a lot in common with each other, no matter their format. We look for opportunities to make connections and to create community for all students earning the MSL degree. For example, we conduct an online orientation event for both residential and online students and we also livestream many of our on-campus events so that online students can participate. In addition, online students can take some residential classes, and residential students can take some online classes.
Evo: What challenges have you faced as a result of taking this approach to launching and managing an online offering?
LO: Managing administrative bandwidth is a major challenge. Another challenge is gaining expertise, since we’re brand new to this. Suddenly you’re putting the curriculum together, advertising the program, talking to applicants, planning orientation, etc. At each step, we have to make sure we have the right expertise in place. InsideTrack has been really helpful. They’ve provided us with expertise we didn’t have in-house and helped us to develop our internal capabilities.
Another challenge is staying ahead of the game and anticipating issues. We’re learning as we go and don’t have a lot of history to fall back on. We have to make the most of our growing experience and the expertise of others.
Evo: What are the future plans for scaling and growing this offering?
LO: The plan is to approach scaling very carefully. We want to grow the program, and we believe we have the capacity to do so. We also want to maintain the quality of the online program, keep it very interactive, cultivate a strong community, and continue to have personal contact with our online students. We believe both sets of goals are possible, as long as we are deliberate in our growth process.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Author Perspective: Administrator