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Get Smart About Going Online: Choosing the Right Model to Deliver Digital Programming

The EvoLLLution | Get Smart About Going Online: Choosing the Right Model to Deliver Digital Programming
A veteran online educator looks at the benefits and pitfalls for each of the three main ways to launch an online program.

Online learning is making headlines again with big players such as University of Massachusetts and California Community College Online launching high profile online initiatives recently. Some would argue that if you haven’t made it in online education already, you’ve missed your opportunity.

However, my sense is it’s never too late. You just have to be smart about it. It all boils down to asking yourself the basic problem-solving questions of Why, What and How to determine if online education is right for your institution. To illustrate my point, I will briefly discuss major considerations you should make when exploring an online strategy and I will examine the pros and cons of the three most common models of delivering online programs in higher education today.

Key Considerations to Entering the Online Market

The first question you need to answer is: Why do you want to go online? Are you considering online programming to increase enrollments? Are you interested in offering more course sections to existing students to avoid additional classroom costs? Do you want to offer faster degree completion? Or are you hoping to offer more affordable options than your traditional on-campus degrees? Your answers to these questions should serve as a guidepost through the process of considering an online offering.

Next, consider the what—as in, what do you want to offer and what can you afford to develop? There are significant start-up costs to online education. Online requires the same support for instructional design, technology platforms, marketing and enrollment, administrative staff, and learner services that campus-based programs require, if not more. A single online program can cost up to a million dollars to launch, so typically you need a significant amount of cash on hand to do this. It also means you must conclusively establish potential student demand for your program before you make such a financial commitment. Therefore, make yourself well aware of the enrollment trends for emergent in-demand programs to safeguard return on your investment dollars. In the beginning online learning is typically no less expensive to launch than on-the-ground courses, so if your interest is to offer a more affordable option to the consumer, there may not be much room to pass any savings on to consumers. Once you achieve scale and efficiency in online delivery, the savings you earn may begin to compound and create margin, but it could be some time before you see those savings, if ever.

This brings us to the question of, how much should you charge for your online offering? You should define your pricing model based on why you are offering online in the first place. If you are looking to increase enrollment or encourage faster degree completion, consider your institutional brand and how much that is worth. A common argument is that a credential from your institution should have the same value whether it is obtained online or in classrooms, therefore, tuition costs should be similar. However, if your primary purpose is to provide greater access to your institution at a more affordable price, you may be willing to consider differentiated pricing for your online programs. Be aware that differentiated pricing may indicate to prospective students that one format is more valuable or better than another. My personal opinion is that a degree earned online should be considered the same degree as one earned on-ground. It is the same program, same faculty, same admissions requirements, same relevance and rigor, so why not the same cost? According to current data, tuition for online courses is between $300 and $1,000 per credit, depending on the degree. However, because many online learners tend to make decisions about where to attend based on cost as well as the perceived value of your program, you should return to the question of why you are offering online in the first place to determine your optimal price point.

Picking the right programs to offer online is equally critical to the success of your opportunity. Recent reporting indicates that most online learners are interested in starting new careers or advancing their careers, so it’s best to focus on in-demand, career-focused programs like technology, health sciences, data science, business and education to attract the most learners to online programs. The formats of your online programs will also determine how accessible they are to learners. If your aim is increasing enrollments, faster degree completion, greater access and flexibility, then full-blown degree programs, completed entirely online, is the way to go. My sense is whether your programs are degrees, certificates or micro-credentials for quick upskilling in professional or technical domains, you must allow learners to complete them entirely online to take full advantage of the power and opportunity of the virtual modality. Otherwise, you limit your institution to its existing on-campus population or local students who can get to campus to complete the on-ground portion.

Finally, perhaps the most significant question you need to consider is the question of How, as in: How will you develop and deliver your online programs? How an institution chooses to create and deliver its online courses directly impacts how much it will cost and what sort of revenue the institution can expect when tuition dollars begin to roll into your school. Therefore, you must be familiar with the three most common and successful approaches to online development and delivery:

  • Online Program Manager (OPM)
  • Instructional Designer-Developed Model
  • Faculty-Powered Model

Assessing the Models for Online Program Development and Delivery

At Northeastern University, I’ve had the opportunity to engage in successful variations of all of these approaches and experience first-hand the challenges and opportunities each one presents. Now, let me provide some details on each model.

The Online Program Manager Model

The Online Program Manager (OPM) option is alive and well in U.S. higher education with some experts reporting that as much as a third of all institutions offering online use OPMs in some capacity. It will be an $8 Billion market by 2020. Think of 2U, Orbis, Pearson and many others as examples of this evolving space.

The upside of this approach is that an OPM provides turnkey operations for online programs with little or no money down. The downside is the OPM typically requires a long-term commitment from your institution, collecting the lion’s share of the profits from OPM-enabled courses—sometimes as much as 80 percent—for a period of up to 10 years. Further, the OPM may retain some rights to the course materials and often dictates the terms for updates and improvements to the courseware since they are handling all the instructional design, support and deployment and delivery, marketing and branding, and enrollment recruiting. What’s more, OPMs are usually only interested in supporting marquee, big-revenue online programs like nursing or MBA degrees, and often only at selective institutions. As a consequence, this choice may not be available to all programs or all institutions.

The Instructional Designer-Developed Model

The Instructional Designer-powered approach is based on several models in the for-profit and non-profit sectors. It’s been successful at building large-scale online programs at institutions such as University of Phoenix and Southern New Hampshire University. This is the master course model in which teams of instructional designers work with subject matter experts to design and develop online content. The master course is replicated in multiple course sections, depending on the number of students enrolled in a particular course. The approach ensures a high degree of consistency in the course format and content and assessment strategies for individual courses. Here the institution typically owns all rights to content of the master course even if faculty helped in the development of the course. The instructor teaching the course takes on the role of facilitator and delivers the materials according to the master syllabus.

This model provides scalability, adherence to standards and control of content and revenue. But it also requires significant investment in staffing, course design and development, faculty hiring, training and support, along with complex delivery schedules, up to 18 months long. While this model may offer the most sophisticated and immediately profitable avenue for online programs, it is also expensive and has the highest threshold in terms of upfront costs and effort on your part.

The Faculty-Powered Model

The Faculty-Powered model, as its name suggests, emphasizes the use of your existing faculty to design and develop their own online courses. Typically, there is small but agile instructional design support and a template-based approach behind these efforts to ensure a common vision for all online courses. Each instructor builds and delivers his or her own master online courses that can then be offered across sections and taught by anyone in the program. For this to work, the academic program must enforce adherence to a framework for the reuse of courseware to improve scale and efficiency as well as standardization. There should also be mandatory online instructor training to ensure adequate preparation, consistent facilitation, and uniform development and delivery approaches. Given the challenges many institutions have with budgeting for large scale course development and delivery efforts, it’s no surprise that the faculty-powered design and development of online courses is an attractive and common approach in higher education.

This model requires low upfront costs and the amount of ramp-up time and effort invested depends upon the amount of preparation, oversight and support an institution is willing to provide. Development schedules can be less than 90 days. And nowadays institutions parcel out other portions of online support for marketing and enrollment management and technical services to lower the burden of support while maintaining the ownership and direction of their programs and control of their revenue. The downside of this model occurs when an institution has insufficient oversight, training and support for faculty. In that case, faculty will provide less scalable, non-standard courseware and course development and facilitation not aligned with the institution’s best practices and expectations for online teaching and learning, and thereby fail to meet learner expectations.

Assess Your Why, What and How Before Diving In

In summary, each of these models has its place and potential, depending on an institution’s needs, available resources and goals. Which model is best for you depends on how you answer the Why, What, and How questions for online education at your own institution.

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