This week, Inside Higher Education reported on an online collaboration that was voted down by faculty after the first year of operation. It got me thinking about some critical success factors that institutions should make sure they address as they start an online learning innovation. Here are a half-dozen that I have found to be important across different institutional types:
1. Define Terms – Over the past couple of years, MOOCs have received a lot of attention. Institutions new to the field may assume that all online learning is about attracting very large numbers of students to free programs. In fact, over the past two decades, online learning has grown around the idea of transforming traditional on-campus courses to serve both traditional and nontraditional student populations. Frank Mayadas and I have developed a set of definitions for the vast majority of online courses. These can help institutions better define their goals.
2. Target Your Student Population – Online learning can be used to serve a variety of different student populations. Initially, many institutions targeted returning adult students who otherwise lack access to campus programs. Others use online learning to innovate with new pedagogies for traditional students. Still others focused on building partnerships with a particular industry or professional community or on collaboration with peer institutions. It is important, as a very early step in the planning process, to define your target population.
3. Define Your Mission – Articulate the purpose of the online learning initiative—who will it serve and why do you want to serve them-- and how the initiative will complement your overall institutional mission. Then, create a vision that will help the institution judge progress toward that mission. Both the mission and the vision should be developed in consultation with a broad spectrum of the institution’s leadership and shared widely.
4. Create a Governance Structure – Higher education is a complex cultural organization that has a tradition of shared governance that ensures a balance between academic freedom and initiative and administrative oversight and management. Online learning is both an administrative and academic initiative. It is important that it operate within the shared governance principle. Institutions should create a governance structure that involves all academic and administrative units that will be affected by it and that will have a role in its success or failure. Any new academic or administrative policies should be approved through the institution’s normal pathways for new policies.
5. Guarantee Early Success – One can anticipate that not all faculty or academic departments will be enthusiastic about online learning at the beginning, so early programs should be those that are very likely to succeed. Initial programs should combine two features. First, they should be led by academic departments and faculty who are enthusiastic about the program. Second, they should be programs that are likely to succeed. Once faculty have expressed interest, the program should be tested against several criteria, including: (a) the suitability of the program for online learning, (b) the program’s reputation for quality, (c) similar programs offered online by other institutions, (d) the existence of an identifiable target student population that can sustain the program’s cost over multiple years, and (e) the institution’s ability to reach that population to promote the program.
6. Create a Business Model It is important to create a business model that ensures that all new costs associated with the online learning initiative can be recovered through tuition and fees without weakening other, ongoing priorities at the institution and that any excess revenue is appropriately reinvested. As with other aspects of the program, it is important that the business model be openly shared with both administrative and academic leaders.
It is important to remember that online learning did not begin with MOOCs. Institutions have been developing online learning programs for the past two decades. Many early initiatives were supported by grants from the Sloan Foundation. Other on-campus initiatives were supported through the National Centerfor Academic Transformation. There is a growing community of institutions that have gone through the start-up process and that are now institutionalizing online learning as an ongoing strategy for realizing their mission in the Information Society. Organizations like the Sloan Consortium provide a meeting ground for this community and can help institutions get off to a good start.