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How Small Colleges Can Compete and Thrive in the Online Learning Space

The higher ed landscape is becoming increasingly competitive, but small college have an opportunity to leverage the online environment in order to thrive.  

We’ve all heard the famous words, “the only constant in life is change,” uttered by Heraclitus – the ancient Greek philosopher – in his observations of the natural world.

At a time of heightened budgetary pressures and a more diverse student body, the added pressure on smaller institutions to offer a greater array of educational offerings – specifically in the realm of online and hybrid learning – only continues to rise. As with any industry, the innovative, forward-thinking players find themselves with a fighting chance to thrive, while those clinging to the comforts of past realities guarantee themselves a place in history.

Amidst these challenges, there’s no shortage of articles citing the value of a robust online learning program in supporting institutional enrollment goals. Yet the question remains: how can smaller eLearning programs stand a chance against more established programs? Or stated another way: what can administrators at smaller programs do to achieve similar quality outcomes, given tight budgets and competing responsibilities?

Definitive answers to these questions remain elusive; however, all is not lost. By creatively packaging job responsibilities, aligning staff growth with programmatic growth, and creating a culture of trust that encourages tactful risk-taking, eLearning administrators at smaller institutions can lay the foundation for a dynamic eLearning program, well-positioned for success.

Package Job Duties and Align Staff Growth with Programmatic Growth

Just examine the litany of roles that comprise a typical eLearning team: project manager, graphic designer, curriculum developer, instructional designer… the list can seem endless! It’s not uncommon for administrators at smaller institutions to experience challenges in hiring qualified experts. Couple this with employee attrition being even more taxing on smaller institutions, and it’s easy to view effective hiring as a futile effort.  

At the same time, smaller institutions can gain a competitive advantage by shifting away from the industry norm of “hiring for the position,” to one that emphasizes “hiring for the person.” Rather than seeking a candidate to fill a pre-defined job role, these administrators might consider appealing to candidates seeking to grow and engage in multiple functions. Instead of posting industry-defined roles like the ones above, smaller institutions may consider defining custom roles (based on institutional workflow needs) that effectively cluster responsibilities from different areas of eLearning.

For instance, rather than posting for an “Instructional Designer” – an established job title appealing to one demographic of applicants – posting a similar, overlapping role, such as “eLearning Assistant” or “Online Learning Coordinator,” may appeal to a different demographic who is still in the process of defining their trajectory within the realm of online learning. By hiring in this manner – for roles that involve smaller portions of work in several areas, versus the entirety of work being in a singular area – administrators can align the staff member’s technical and professional growth to the evolving workloads and needs of the online program. As the program grows, so does the employee’s skillset, leading to their role becoming increasingly specialized, as warranted.

By taking this approach, no longer are these staff members siloed to working in niche roles (in service of an established manager’s vision). Rather, they start to take genuine ownership and pride in how each piece is interconnected in driving the overall success of the program.

This approach not only leads to a more invested, autonomous eLearning staff, but enables administrators to proactively reallocate time that would otherwise be spent on unnecessary oversight and operations, to more strategic work. Over time, these employees become experts in their own right, with not only increasingly specialized roles, but unparalleled brand loyalty and institutional knowledge.

Maximize Faculty Investment in Programmatic Success

Without a doubt, faculty members represent the most important constituent in the success of an online program. James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, said it best with the quote – “faculty are the lifeblood of a college, the heart of the academic enterprise, and the essence of what makes an institution great.”

At larger programs, it is not uncommon to find robust faculty course review committees, established inquiry processes between the instructional design team and faculty, and other formalized pathways for continuous online course improvement. These processes ensure a clear fit between a specific task and a specific role – a level of one-to-one task efficiency that can be challenging to implement with tight budgets. Couple this with smaller institutions’ added reliance on adjunct faculty, and quickly, the task of continuous programmatic improvement can seem daunting.

In reality, administrators simply need to find ways to spin this obstacle into a competitive advantage. Without the capacity to instate highly specialized, one-to-one roles, it is even more important to embrace the resourcefulness and input of existing faculty. Rather than lamenting the absence of a formalized review hierarchy, administrators are advised to “lean in” and implicitly trust the voices of faculty constituents, as valued members of the broader eLearning team.

For example, assume that a faculty member receives a previously built master course to teach with, and then proposes course improvements. It is not uncommon in these cases for administrators to become caught in a paralysis of inaction – responding with cautious ambivalence – due to the lack of an established workflow for impromptu changes with an instructional designer. Over time, this prevents meaningful course improvement, leading to frustration among faculty and stagnation in the program’s overall growth. Alternatively, what if administrators engaged in tactful risk-taking, fully trusting the process, and wholeheartedly welcoming the faculty member’s input? Or, to take it a step further – what if they chose to implicitly trust the faculty member so much so, that they grant the faculty member full access to the master course to perform revisions – cutting out the need for a middleman entirely?

Of course, determinations for this level of access should be made on a case-by-case basis; however, on a broader level, it underscores how simple acts of implicit trust (or tactful risk-taking) can lay the foundation for building a culture that values continuous growth, learning, and involvement among all constituents. Most of all, it drastically cuts costs, drives professional growth among faculty, and spurs the potential for new workflows based wholly on an individual’s unique interests and competencies.

Key Takeaways

While simple solutions don’t exist, eLearning administrators at smaller institutions can achieve better outcomes by reframing assumptions about their limitations. An online learning administrator’s primary role, above all else, is to maximize constituents’ stake in the success of the program. By implementing the aforementioned strategies, a smaller program may quickly find itself poised for rapid growth, with an involved team of faculty and staff, and an engaged body of students.

Despite all the challenges facing higher education in the coming decade, let that remain as the single greatest competitive advantage of innovative, smaller online programs – the potential to cultivate and create growth-oriented, involved leaders, which is a victory in and of itself.

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