Partnering Internally to Grow Online: How to Support Online Expansion as a Service Provider
Demand for online education is on the rise and many colleges and universities are scrambling to meet it. After all, this modality allows for the expansion of access to institutional programming and represents an exciting and potentially lucrative revenue stream. While many institutions have turned to outsourcing as a mechanism to getting online quickly, some have looked internally to service provider divisions to support their move into the digital learning space. In this interview, Kim Siegenthaler reflects on how Mizzou Online partners with colleagues across campus to launch online offerings, and shares some insights into how to develop and maintain these cross-campus relationships.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it beneficial for Mizzou Online to work with faculties and departments across the university to deliver online programming, rather than building everything in-house?
Kim Siegenthaler (KS): The distance education structure at the University of Missouri is academically decentralized and administratively centralized. This model ensures that Mizzou Online and academic departments work collaboratively to develop and deliver online programs.
Our role is to help the departments accomplish their goals in the online space. I think our structure is beneficial in several ways. First, it means that students are being taught by the same pool of faculty whether their classes are online or in-seat. Second, it allows the departments to focus their attention on the academic piece while Mizzou Online handles logistics that are less central to the work of the departments. For example, most departments lack expertise in market research and marketing. Mizzou Online provides this support to the departments. Third, it contributes to economies of scale. The University of Missouri now offers 111 online program options, 40 of which launched within the last five years. Our structure enables Mizzou Online to provide logistical support for a rapidly growing number of programs without adding lots of new staff. Fourth, it contributes to a greater awareness and understanding of distance education across the campus, which has aided the rapid expansion of programs.
Evo: How do you expand a partnership from working with a single professor to building a relationship with an entire faculty or division?
KS: There isn’t a single pathway for relationship building with departments. Sometimes it does start with a single professor who is interested in developing an online program. When that happens, we quickly loop in the department chair or program director. It is important that they understand the amount of work necessary to develop, launch and sustain a quality online program. A single faculty member simply cannot be successful doing it all on their own, particularly when attempting to develop the program on top of all their regular responsibilities. Support from the chair or director is essential to getting additional faculty committed to the effort.
The single-professor approach happened more frequently when distance education was viewed by most faculty as something “other” but over the past several years, distance education has become much more mainstream at Mizzou. Much more often now, we’re contacted by a faculty member, program director or department chair following at least some departmental discussion about developing an online program. They are already interested and come to us with questions about how to proceed.
Evo: What are some of the central challenges you tend to face when trying to build and expand a relationship with a given faculty, and how do you typically work to overcome those obstacles?
KS: Some faculty view online learning negatively. They perceive that it is inherently inferior in design, less rigorous, etc. If they are entrenched in that view, we try to avoid getting into a debate over the merits of online learning, because we are unlikely to shift the faculty’s perception regardless of the evidence we present. If the faculty seems the slightest bit receptive, we remind them that at the University of Missouri, the faculty member has academic control over course content and rigor. We might suggest a few examples of well designed courses for review, or suggest they talk to another faculty member who has taught extensively in the online space. In general, we focus our energies on those who are interested in teaching online rather than on trying to convince naysayers. More than 30 percent of faculty and instructors are teaching online and the number continues to grow each year.
Other faculty may not have a negative view, but lack experience with online learning. They tend to express doubts about online learning as a suitable format for their discipline or for a specific course. We will often point them to VirtuallyInspired.org, a collection of innovative online courses that demonstrates that almost any subject matter can be taught well online. We’ll also connect them with an instructional designer who can help them visualize how their content could be delivered effectively online and introduce them to the various tools available to enable students to demonstrate their work.
Evo: What are the characteristics that define a successful and mutually beneficial relationship between Mizzou Online and its partners?
KS: Two key elements are trust and communication. Part of establishing a trust relationship comes from educating faculty about what our office does and doesn’t do. This ties back to the first question about the benefits of our collaborative approach. Faculty want to be certain that the academic control of the program remains with them and that Mizzou Online will not encroach on that space. Assuring faculty that we respect that boundary, and repeatedly demonstrating that respect whenever academic issues arises greatly alleviates this concern. We have developed a process for regularly communicating with our partners about all things related to their programs. Each online program is assigned a Mizzou Online program coordinator who is the go-to for questions and concerns.
In short, Mizzou Online’s mission is to increase access to a University of Missouri education via online education. As I indicated previously, we cannot accomplish our mission without partnerships with the academic departments. When considering a move into online education, departments are often concerned about the additional work that the online program will create for their faculty and staff. As university budgets shrink, departments have become accustomed to doing more with less, but many feel they are at a breaking point. They cannot envision how to do more without additional resources. Mizzou Online provides resources that enable departments to take this step:
- Seed money for online program development
- Revenue share for enrollments in online programs
- Logistical support in areas such as student services, program coordination, marketing, research, and state authorization.
As we grow together, we each receive benefits.
Evo: What advice would you share with other online program leaders looking to solidify relationships with partnerships with faculties on main campus?
KS: Be a proactive problem solver. One thing that has worked for us is to identify pain points departments face in the online arena and find ways to alleviate them. For example, we established an advisory council of representatives from departments with online programs to help us gather information about their needs. We’ve also just launched a distance student support services team charged with identifying gaps in support services for campus students and distance students.
Be open, honest, transparent, forth-coming, communicative, etc—employ all those buzzwords! For many departments, online education represents a very small portion of their overall work. When departmental leadership changes, there is often a loss of awareness and understanding on the department’s online efforts. It helps the new leadership get up to speed when we initiate communication about their programs, resources available through our office, and so forth. When planning changes to policies or practices, it’s important to communicate those changes before implementing them so that departments aren’t caught off guard.
Be customer focused. The departments are our customers. I don’t think it is possible to reiterate too often to our own staff or the department that Mizzou Online is a support unit for the departments. We succeed only when they succeed.