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Succeeding Online Requires Planning and an Understanding of Student Needs

The EvoLLLution | Succeeding Online Requires Planning and an Understanding of Student Needs
Launching and expanding online offerings is critical for any institution looking to be truly competitive in the modern era, but it’s important for institutions to offer these programs in such a way that they truly meet students’ needs and expectations.

Higher education institutions across the United States are looking for ways to expand their reach while reducing their costs. This has become particularly pronounced given the steadily declining resources at their disposal and the increasing public pressure to keep tuition and fees at the lowest rates possible. In this environment, many institutions have turned to the online marketplace as an easy way to kill two birds with one stone, but succeeding online takes much more than simply putting content on the Internet. In this interview, Furqan Nazeeri reflects on some of the most common mistakes higher education administrators make in the online space and shares his thoughts on what it takes to launch truly successful online programs.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are so many institutions looking at launching or expanding online offerings?

Furqan Nazeeri (FN): Institutions are expanding their online offerings in response to the well-publicized financial trends occurring in higher education. Costs are increasing while public funding is decreasing. These higher costs are being passed on to students in the form of increased tuition and potential students are increasingly scrutinizing the ROI of some degrees.

The increasing cost of attending college may be having an effect on enrollments as the number of students attending college has declined in recent years. This trend seems to be consistent regardless of demographics, with nearly all groups seeing stagnant or declining enrollment rates. The result is that higher education institutions face an increasingly competitive market and a need to diversify the ways in which they serve students.

Expanding online offerings helps to address some of these problems by providing a stream of revenue that is often more scalable and cheaper than on-campus options.

Evo: Reflecting on your experience, what are some of the most common mistakes higher education leaders make when designing online programming?

FN: Higher education leaders should start by considering who their learners are and the contexts in which learning will take place. Often, online programming is designed without understanding the diversity of needs within the group of learners being served and the result is the same as it would be for any other product designed without understanding the users: the programming serves a portion of the learning audience marginally well. Instead, designers should understand a variety of users’ needs and implement options that enable an effective learning experience for all learners, including edge cases.

Another common mistake is trying to design an online course to mirror as closely as possible an in-person version of the course. Rather than trying to duplicate the classroom experience, higher education leaders should leverage the affordances of the online setting to create new types of learning experiences. For example, we recently designed a MOOC for the Smithsonian called The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Popular Culture. One of the things we focused on was building an online community around the course via social media (Facebook group, Reddit AMA, etc.). The result was learner-to-learner interactions that were richer, more organic, and more diverse than the traditional discussion forum format (which we also used).

Evo: How challenging is it for an institution’s online programming to really stand out in today’s higher education marketplace?

FN: Online programming is ever expanding in the higher education space. We recently published a white paper in which we examined this landscape by looking at offerings from about 150 of the top institutions in the country. We found that over 70 percent of them offered some form of online learning, which clearly shows that offering online learning isn’t really a cutting edge idea anymore.

That being said, online learning is in many ways still in its infancy. We are still exploring the ways in which this kind of technology can be designed to improve learning outcomes, and it remains unclear exactly how online learning will disrupt higher education as “the great unbundling” progresses. The result is that there is still a tremendous amount of opportunity to create something in this space that is different from anything we’ve seen before.

Evo: What can institutional leaders do to ensure their online programs succeed?

FN: We believe that a successful online programs requires five things:

First, establish clear goals. What does the program want to achieve both for the institution and for the learners? Then, it’s important to design with those goals in mind.

Second, set up a clear governance structure. Too many programs have their effectiveness hampered by a muddy structure. Online programs should have an administrative leader with clear lines of authority.

Third, get faculty buy-in. It’s important to have faculty on board from the outset. They will be essential stakeholders in the course creation process and relying on faculty who aren’t invested can be extremely detrimental. This is easier said than done, of course, but it is critically important.

Fourth, rethink service delivery. In a traditional classroom experience, faculty are responsible for course creation, student mentoring and grading in addition to teaching. In an online setting, all four of those could be separated with different individuals responsible for each, for example. Also, things like financial aid and student support need to be delivered without students visiting a physical office. Similarly, marketing, admissions, and alumni support all need to be rethought in this context.

Last, evaluate outsourcing. There are firms like ours with experience launching and running dozens of online programs. The right partner can be invaluable, however the wrong one can create more headaches that it’s worth.

ExtensionEngine recently published a white paper titled Four Sustainable Models for Online Learning. Click here to download the paper.