Best Practices in Selecting New Academic Programs

Scott JeffeVice President, Research (Graduate and Online)December 14, 2020

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with my colleague Rob Green to discuss what he sees as the most serious challenges facing institution as they finish up their first pandemic semester as well as how they should proceed in expanding academic programs in a (hopefully) post-pandemic world. Rob is uniquely positioned to understand this as the former leader of digital learning initiatives at Columbia College Chicago and COO of Berklee Online, where he led teams responsible for expanding each institution’s online footprint. Rob joined RNL earlier this year as our senior vice president for digital learning and is playing a leading role in helping our clients with world-class instructional design services.

The complete conversation about academic programs is in the video below, and I’ve also included a transcript of some of our conversation.

Watch the entire RNL@Home conversation

Scott Jeffe (left) and Rob Green discuss academic programs, online delivery, and more. Be sure to subscribe to receive updates on our latest research, blogs, podcasts, and more.

Scott: What do you see as the greatest challenges for institutions approaching the end of their first pandemic semester?

Rob Green: One of the biggest challenges is assessing the quality of what we all put in front of our students this fall. Many institutions didn’t have time to create fully engaging online experiences but rather cobbled together the LMS (Canvas, Blackboard, D2L) and Zoom to keep things moving forward. We now need to get student feedback on their learning experiences, and then use what we learn into high quality instructional design and multi-media. We need to use that assessment to build a roadmap for instructional design and more general strategic planning so that we are ready for the next big thing. If it’s not this pandemic, it will be an earthquake, a flood, or “just” a massive technical outage. The last nine months has proven that we have to be ready—for virtually anything. Building high quality, flexible online (and hybrid) courses and programs is a strategic necessity. Why? Because it now comes down to retention for the spring and beyond.

Elevate the online learning experience with expert instructional design

With RNL Instructional Design Services, you have a team of experts working with your institution to deliver online learning experiences and courses that will maximize student engagement and academic performance.

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Scott: Do you think that students may have given their institutions a bit of a pass this fall that they won’t be as likely to give next spring?

Rob: Yes, I think a lot of students did so. I also think that we will still be judged by these students—perhaps differently by the age of student. We’ll also be judged by the parents of traditional students who are budget conscious in this economy and the job market. They are not as likely to be forgiving next spring. In some cases, even high-quality online experiences are likely to result in some students making the decision to enroll, but not come to campus—denying institutions of vital auxiliary revenue sources.

It comes back to that assessment campuses must do. No one is expecting report cards that are A-plus across the board here, but we need to learn how we did and see what tweaks we can make in order to ensure that courses are engaging for the students and that learning design leverages every best practice that it can, coupled with the unique needs of students at each institution.

Scott: Shifting gears a little bit. What are the most important factors for institutions to consider when they start the conversation about new academic programs?

Rob: Many institutions start with the premise, “We need to focus on graduate degrees because they are a growth vehicle.” It is really important to ask whether this is driven by the fact that they may be easiest to build those programs (as a natural steppingstone) or whether there is clear market demand for such programs. There just are not the resources to build new academic programs on a hunch.

Market analysis need to be conducted for each program under consideration. You start with an analysis of similar academic programs and related occupations—both current and future projections. You’ve also got to understand what skills qualified employees will need in such occupations. Then couple this with a competitor analysis of both your list of competitors and other institution in the region. Only by knowing what they are doing can institutions build unique and different offerings that give them a competitive advantage. The last critical step is to understand what students think of your institution as a provider of program X, Y, or Z. None of the other data tells you what students think of YOU as the provider. There are a number of ways to do this, but it really rounds out the picture.

You can’t make decisions exclusively looking outward. You also have to look inward and realistically assess where there is expertise, capacity, and a will to create new offerings. It’s finding the right balance between market demands and internal resources like staffing, technology, and infrastructure.

Scott: What else do institutions need to be thinking about when they’re thinking specifically about adding new online academic programs?

Rob: Here is a list of some of the important things that I always have asked stakeholders at the institutions at which I worked and ask clients before they get started:

  • What are we known for?
  • Do we have the faculty to develop the curriculum?
  • Can our faculty teach online?
  • Do we have support mechanisms for the faculty?
  • Do we have the right technology in place as an institution?
  • Have we made the right investments in technology to support expanded online?
  • Have we invested adequately in Instructional Design?
  • Do we have Instructional Designers in house? If not, are we prepared to outsource?

Keep in mind that faculty are typically focused on the content, the learning outcomes, the objectives, and the teaching experience, but not on needing to become experts in a learning management system. This can become a huge gap in the student experience. A lot of institutions find themselves spending too much time training faculty on how to use a learning management system so they can actually effectively teach the courses that they spent so much time thinking about and developing.

Scott: Do you think that we have suddenly taken a great leap forward during the pandemic in exposing all faculty to online delivery?

Rob: I think so. We’re in the thick of it now where it could only get better. Like I said, we were all forced to run really quickly to get up to speed for instruction during the pandemic. Some institutions were definitely in a better position for this than others, but I think that one of the things we all fear is change and faculty fear change just like everyone else. But now we’ve all been put in a position where there was no choice but to make this work and to go in the direction of online or remote learning. So we’ve taken that first big step. Now let’s think about what a truly engaging online experience can be. Let’s take it to the next level and I think by faculty being in the online space more than ever, they’re working daily with the students and discovering what’s working, what’s not, and they’re going to have a lot of ideas and ways that this could be done better.

Scott: What do you see as the most critical gaps coming into view with this great leap forward for online learning?

Rob: It comes down to resources, whether it’s financial or human capital, just not having the staffing levels to appropriately do this so that the faculty get the support they need. There are institutions that are trying to do all this with one Instructional Designer and one Instructional Technologist. They’re trying to put best practices into place and take care of all the faculty needs. They’re also acting as support desks at times and trying to fix little minor things within a course while also trying to promote standardization—that word is often not very popular, but proper standardization and design processes afford the faculty the time to really focus on the learning. Institutions have to see the expansion of their instructional design services as operationally critical. This can’t be done “on the cheap” and be successful in creating the kinds of engaging, high quality experiences that will result in high student retention. We’ve got to keep the students coming back for more which will increase retention and ultimately provide our students with what they deserve.

Elevate the online learning experience with expert instructional design

With RNL Instructional Design Services, you have a team of experts working with your institution to deliver online learning experiences and courses that will maximize student engagement and academic performance.

Learn More

About the Author

Scott Jeffe, RNL

Scott Jeffe has worked with more than 200 institutions in 40+ states to apply market data to strategic decisions. With a focus on profiling the demands and preferences of nontraditional (adult, online, etc.) students, Scott...

Read more about Scott's experience and expertise

Reach Scott by e-mail at Scott.Jeffe@RuffaloNL.com.

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