Published on 2015/09/25

Online Program Development in an Era of Rapid Institutional Change (Part 2)

The EvoLLLution | Online Program Development in an Era of Rapid Institutional Change (Part 2)
As the line between online campuses and traditional residential campuses continue to blur, the institutions that find ways to responsibly manage and share resources between the two modalities will be the ones who succeed.

This is the second installment of a two-part series by Vincent Del Casino discussing the key elements behind launching a new online strategy. In the first installment , Del Casino tackled a central question that informs all discussions of going online: Why online? In this conclusion, he discusses the pieces the institution must have in place to ensure the success of its online offerings.

Matching Values through Investments in High Quality Faculty and Staff

It is not enough to simply say the institution values high-quality education for fully online students. The institution must match this claim with real investments in the human and infrastructural capital necessary to deliver success. This means asking and answering an additional suite of questions, including: who will be teaching in fully online programs? What training will be available for faculty and staff that will be working with online learners, many of whom have not followed the traditional pathway to higher education? What is the relationship between content design and instructional design? How will the institution manage intellectual property issues?

What and how will consistency be delivered across courses as they are taught by new faculty and graduate students? There are, of course, many other questions. The overall point here is that if your institution cannot answer some of these questions it is very unlikely that it will meet with success.

Because the University of Arizona has committed to delivering the same degrees regardless of modality, we have begun by investing in the same faculty infrastructure for our online programs as we have for our main campus. For example, we have hired tenured and tenure-track faculty to develop the leadership capacity of the campus in online education. We built our own instructional design team, which includes videographers, designers, graphic artists and quality assurance managers so that faculty members are fully supported by UA personnel as they build their courses. When appropriate, the university is investing in graduate student teaching support to insure that student-faculty ratios in fully online classes build success. The university has also invested in a core of student academic success specialists and recruitment and enrollment experts, who are trained to work specifically with fully online students to support their education. These services are particularly targeted to newly developed undergraduate programs and are designed to build on a core institutional value—to deliver a unique University of Arizona experience to all our students regardless of modality.

Developing a Sound Financial Model for a Sustainable Future

Over the last several years, the University of Arizona has implemented a new budget model based on the principles of Responsibility-Centered Management (RCM). Our UA Online model parallels this development by creating a transparent flow of financial resources to the responsibility centers (RCU’s) charged with delivering the education to UA Online students. The philosophy of RCM, which puts some at ill ease, is a decentralized approach to fiscal management It puts the majority of the resources available from the tuition, state support, and research dollars in the hands of deans and colleges who are best placed to manage those resources and deliver a high-quality education. Building on this approach, UA Online, which has no state-funding base, has created a financial model that drives the majority of the tuition dollars captured back to the RCU’s—for undergraduate education that means 65 percent of the total revenue and for graduate education that means 70 percent. The remaining dollars are held centrally to deliver core resources—admissions, student support, marketing, etc.,—and maintain a pool of strategic investment dollars that can fund new program development.

In negotiating the cost-revenue divide, the central administration at the University of Arizona works directly with colleges on a basic set of principles for how strategic investments and revenues can support online education. First, UA has committed to first and foremost paying off all the direct instructional costs before any additional revenue is distributed to departments or schools. What this means in practice is that local units are guaranteed that the costs of instruction—agreed upon at the time investments are made—are always maintained. Without this commitment, UA Online could not succeed. Second, central strategic investment costs are recovered as part of the return to the administration. Put another way, colleges and units are not “billed” for any initial year zero investments to get a program up and running. Instead, that investment is collectivized and redistributed over time to new programs. This simplifies the distribution model for UA Online and makes clear that fully online programs are a part of the core mission of the University of Arizona. Third, UA Online is investing directly in core educational services, including general education, so that no one unit or college need be responsible for what is a university-level responsibility. In so doing, UA Online provides a base upon which colleges can build major undergraduate degree programs. Finally, UA Online is investing in a central marketing budget that leverages the assets of the institution toward the goal of expanding access to the unique fully online programs built for students who simply can’t get to Tucson to complete a degree.

Moving Forward in Online Education and the Challenges Ahead

The challenges of building a fully online campus remain significant, even as institutions make commitments to creating robust models for the delivery of high-quality distributed education.

The University of Arizona cannot and should not put every single degree they have on the books online. Some programs are simply not feasible right now in an online space. That means the resources generated by UA Online will not be evenly distributed across the institution. But, as technologies change and disciplines adapt to the notion that distributed learning through online programs provide another avenue for increasing access to students, the possibilities for what appears online will continue to grow.

There are, of course, other futures where the lines between a fully online campus and a main, residential campus blur even further. Students may find themselves moving back and forth more seamlessly more than any of us originally imagined. I would argue that the model we are building at the University of Arizona allows us to adapt quickly to this reality.

The future of online education may be and probably should be much different five years from now than it is today. The question that remains for an institution is: Are you ready for that new reality?


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Readers Comments

Tanya Mack 2015/09/25 at 9:33 am

It is becoming more and more apparent that the institutions willing to take risks on innovative financial management models are the ones that will get ahead in the long run. Change always put some people on edge, and change to financial models often involves some of the highest risks, but it looks like UA is on its way to a more sustainable model than we’ve seen yet in this space.

Susan Farber 2015/09/25 at 9:47 am

Mr. Del Casino’s description of his institution’s decisions and budgeting strategies to use online courses to address higher education’s students’ needs and constraints and to implement a sustainable and economically & academically responsible model of online learning. i hope other administrative leaders of higher education review this 2-part article and share their insights, experiences, challenges and solutions. I look forward to reading their thoughts!

Steve Gibbs 2015/09/25 at 12:13 pm

The bottom line seems to be that the maximum amount of revenue is going back to the students, and via the hands of the people best set up to know what students need and how to provide it. I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out over a longer stretch of time.

Anita Wheeler 2015/09/25 at 2:36 pm

Creating a balance between student service and generating the revenue required to continue the work isn’t easy, and it looks like UA may have hit on a new way to do that with the distributed cost-sharing model. Putting student access and support on top while making it so that no one unit or college has to bear all the risk seems ideal. I wonder if this will be the new model to strive for.

Vincent Del Casino 2015/10/09 at 12:43 pm

Hi Everyone, thanks for the thoughtful comments on the piece. We will definitely continue to update the community as our programs expand. An integrated model that works through this strongly decentralized model has many rewards and definitely some challenges. But, we believe the gains will outweigh the growing pains institutionally as we press forward.

Jennifer Franklin 2015/10/14 at 4:51 pm

This is one of the most informative, sensible and well-reasoned articles I’ve ever seen on UA’s online ‘game plan’. However, although the necessary resources may go a bit further due to your appointment along with recent UA reorganization, they still remain a long way from scaling to faculty and student needs!

Jennifer Franklin, Ph.D.
Director (retired); Evaluation Services, OIRP

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