A significant majority of Chief Academic Officers in U.S. institutions of higher learning say that online learning is critical or important to their growth and/or future success of their institution. Yet, often there is no actual plan in place to address online learning. There may be a bullet point or two about online learning in their institution’s overall strategic plan – perhaps the expression of a lofty goal about wanting to be the leader in online learning among their peer institutions, but that is about it. Institutions may have a robust offering of courses along with some programs, but typically, there’s no real strategy that cuts across the institution for eLearning.

To create a successful eLearning initiative, it’s necessary to have a solid, well-thought-out plan underlying it. This is true whether an institution already has some type of online program in place, or is just starting out. So how does an institution go about creating a strategic plan built for online programming success? When Blackboard’s Enterprise Consulting team works with colleges and universities, we follow these three steps:

1. Analyze the current state of online learning at the institution

The first step in developing a strategy for eLearning is to evaluate the current state of online learning at the institution. Through our discovery process, we analyze and identify areas of good practice as well as areas for improvement. Among the elements that need to be included in the analysis are the overall organizational structure of the institution, and where and how eLearning fits into it. We identify what the specific governance structure and decision-making flows are for eLearning. For example:

  • Are there clear lines of reporting?
  • How are programs (degrees, certifications, badges) selected?
  • Within a program, how are courses selected? Is the selection process faculty-led, or demand-generated?
  • What’s the process for determining whether the courses are high enough caliber to pass quality muster?
  • How often are courses re-examined and renewed to ensure they haven’t grown stale?
  • How are the stakeholders involved, and how is their input sought and their buy-in achieved?

The importance of stakeholder participation cannot be overemphasized. In working with our clients, we put together a project steering committee that draws representation from across the institution, sometimes finding that this is the first time they’ve ever discussed eLearning at the institution as a comprehensive group. Bringing stakeholders together is essential to create a successful eLearning program and developing a comprehensive strategy.

This analysis of the current state of online learning should be conducted whether an institution has some online programming in place or is just starting out. Even if there’s no “current state” to analyze, institutional administrators need to think through how online learning will operate within the school. That requires figuring out the processes and policies that will govern it, and thinking through the elements of the learning experience that will support it.

2. Develop a framework, roadmap, and actionable strategy

Understandably, there will be gaps between the current state and the ideal state of the organization. Concrete steps must be identified that will take the institution from Point A to Point B, and create a framework for success. Because eLearning needs to create the overall campus experience online, it calls for a deliberately integrative approach. Therefore, a clearly defined strategy needs to be developed with actionable items and a roadmap of how to achieve them. When developing an eLearning strategy with institutions, we consider the entire program lifecycle of online learning from marketing and recruiting to completion/graduation. Three major buckets are:

  • Student Enrollment – Marketing to Registration
  • Student Success – Enrollment to Completion/Graduation
  • Program Development – Market Analysis to program selection to quality assurance

By walking through a step by step process of each important point along the eLearning lifecycle, we help guide the institution in thinking around a comprehensive eLearning plan. Important steps to consider are developing market research based programs. Using a “build it and they will come” approach to choosing online programs is not a solid strategy and can waste valuable resources on programs that are doomed from the beginning.  Such research can help refine target audiences, select the most competitive programs, differentiate the institution’s message from others, and recruit and enroll students. Also, based on market research, the appropriate length of time for a program should be determined before program development begins. This could lead, for example, to conversations about developing certain programs into stackable credentials or competency based education for potential participants.

Quality assurance is clearly a huge consideration when developing a strategic plan for online learning. Key quality elements we consider when developing a strategy are a robust, comprehensive faculty development plan, clearly defined course development process with the inclusion of professionally trained instructional designers, success metrics for courses and programs, course and program quality review cycle (that is adhered to), and ensuring the technology stack is adequate to support a quality learning experience and is not solely focused on the LMS.

And last, but probably not least, ensure adequate resources are available to support your eLearning initiative. We help create a business case for eLearning at your institution. The business case should be articulated, and supported by market research and analysis. Financial planning could include full pro-forma budget that goes 3-5 years out, complete with expected costs and income. Expense and income inputs should include courses per program, credits required per program, development cost per course, average course size, terms per year, cost per lead/enrollment (CPL/CPE), expected enrollment, retention rates, percent full-time/percent part-time, faculty and staff stipends, as well as student support needs (ie. help desk).

3. Consider the entire student experience

As a part of the above mentioned step by step process of eLearning program development, we give special consideration to a subset of processes that includes the student experience. Colleges and universities increasingly focus on the overall student experience on their physical campuses to attract students due to increased competition for enrollments. Competition for students is every bit as fierce in the online arena, where moving to another school is generally easier for the learners. Creating an excellent overall online student experience is critical for institutions to remain competitive.

Consider how things work on a brick-and-mortar campus. Students can find where they need to go by looking at a map. They know where the registrar’s office can be found, the bursar, their instructors, or the library. They know which buildings house classes, and where students can meet to work on projects. For online learning, this information is not necessarily natural or intuitive. Institutions have to take special care to create an environment that works as seamlessly online as it does on campus. Often, online learners do not have the option to come on campus when they need academic or technical support and more than likely are not participating in their learning experiences during normal campus operating hours.

Mapping the student experience and what it means to be an online student at the institution, with all critical touch points, is a critical step in an eLearning strategy. Through this process, gaps in business and academic support services can be uncovered. Strategies to fill these gaps and make a seamless student experience should be included in the action strategy and roadmap. In order to close the services gap, institutions may need to consider dedicated online support personnel, or outsourcing some of these functions to accommodate online learner expectations.

In today’s colleges and universities, few things are more exciting than the potential that eLearning offers. Successful institutions treat online learning initiatives with the same importance and gusto that that they do for on-campus learning. At the end of the day, whether on campus or online, the goals should still be to deliver quality outcomes and quality education. A solid strategic plan for eLearning can ensure reaching those goals.

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