How to Be More Strategic With Online Programming

How to Be More Strategic With Online Programming

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

Although you might know a few faculty members who are adamantly opposed to online education, online programming—development of individual courses and degree programs—continues to expand. Because of this sustained growth, online courses and degrees are now viewed as more mainstream and less “marginal” in nature.

My experience, both at my institution and in talking to online administrators across the country, reveals that colleges and universities are beginning to think more strategically about their online offerings. I especially see evidence related to developing strategic plans for online education. When I became the Director of Online Education at my institution nearly 10 years ago, this was the case for only a few colleges and universities.

If you Google “Online Education Strategic Plan,” you will find dozens of examples developed by various institutions. I’ve read a dozen or so, and I can confirm that there is tremendous variability in their makeup. Some are fairly short—five to seven pages in length—while others are 30-plus pages long. Some are very goal driven—I read one recently in which an institution had plotted out goals to 2025—while others only briefly mention goals or don’t mention them at all.

Throughout my years in higher education, I’ve met individuals who couldn’t imagine not having a strategic plan for their unit, division or institution. On the other hand, I’ve interacted with plenty of faculty, staff and administrators who think strategic planning is a waste of time and want nothing to do with it.

Strategic planning can be complicated and can sometimes take months or even years to complete. On a very basic level, I view strategic planning as being broken into four steps or phases:

1. assessing what currently exists
2. determining where you want to go
3. coming up with action steps to get you there
4. regularly evaluating and assessing your efforts

Without question, if an institution is going to move forward with creating an online education strategic plan, the appropriate stakeholders should be involved. Having an online education committee or online advisory board is a great way to do this.Widespread representation in this group should include faculty, students, administrators, student support services, business services, continuing education and extension, teaching and learning specialists, information technology, and so on.

Getting input and feedback from the greater campus community is a noble goal, but don’t be surprised or offended if faculty, staff, administrators and students–who are all just as busy as you are–don’t show much interest. (Years ago I offered a campuswide open forum, “The future of online education on our campus.” I envisioned a packed auditorium and lots of questions, discussion and debate. Nope. The audience ultimately consisted of an associate dean, a staff member, and two faculty members. That was it!)

There can also be a tremendous variety in the types of items addressed in online education strategic plans. They might include online-learner support services; the number of online courses and degree programs offered; state authorization; intellectual property; retention and completion rates; professional development opportunities for faculty; administrative structure; emerging technologies; budget/revenue sharing models; quality assurance; data gathering and learning analytics, and many more.

I do think there is value in creating an online education strategic plan for your institution, and if you currently don’t have one, I’d encourage you to start initiating those conversations. However, as I mentioned, it can take months or even years to develop a plan and have it approved.

Tips for thinking strategically
Even if your institution doesn’t have an actual plan in place, I’d like to now offer a number of ideas on possible ways to be more strategic with online offerings.

1. The first idea is to identify courses that students frequently transfer into in your institution, so that you can direct development resources to the departments that offer these courses. For example, I recently worked with our Office of Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning to create such a list. In the process I learned that over the past three years 2,144 students have transferred into our introductory general education English course from other institutions. Knowing what courses students are frequently transferring into in your institution could help you be more strategic with resources and course development efforts.

2. Another idea is to look internally at your high-demand courses or the courses for which your institution consistently struggles to offer enough sections. It could be useful in planning for courses with potential for online development. I’d suggest doing this exercise for regular terms (e.g., Fall, Spring) as well as intersessions (e.g., Summer, Winter terms), as course demand could vary by term. Offering more bottleneck or high-demand courses online could help students complete general education requirements in a more timely fashion or could help keep them in sequence for required courses in their major, which could help them graduate sooner. (Again, this is information your office of institutional research should be able to provide.)

3. The last idea I will share is to ask your students what online courses they would like to take or have available. I think we sometimes underestimate the value of reaching out and getting feedback from our students. Every year or so we survey students at my institution who take online courses. One question we ask is what additional online courses they would like to see offered. After information is gathered and summarized, it is shared with appropriate program directors or department chairs for use in planning future course offerings.

In conclusion, there is a lot of variability in how institutions strategize future online offerings. Some institutions allow faculty to develop any online courses they want, while others require a strict committee review and approval process for new online offerings. I encourage you to give some thought to how strategic your current efforts are related to online education and whether or not being more strategic could ultimately benefit your students, your faculty and your institution.