Scaling Online Programming: The Fundamental Building Blocks

Scott JeffeVice President, Research (Graduate and Online)January 26, 2023
Andrea Carroll-Glover

Andrea Carroll-Glover has built online programs from the ground up at each of the institutions at which she has worked. Since joining the Capella University team more than 15 years ago, and then leading online development efforts at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, Andrea has brought her business background in sales, marketing, operations and product development to the process of helping her institutions meet ever increasing demand for online study.

Andrea indicated that her background working in tech startups has more applicability than we may think to higher education. About six months ago, Andrea joined the RNL team, where she now is a lead consultant working specifically with RNL’s growing list of institutions seeking assistance in growing their “online footprint” through strategic partnerships in marketing, curriculum design, recruitment, and enrollment.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Andrea to talk about what she thinks are the essential ingredients that any institution seeking to grow and scale online programs needs to have access to in order to be successful. While our conversation explored many areas (see below), it was clear that among the most important things that needed are:

  1. A FRAMEWORK upon which the viability of program concepts can be assessed
  2. An established and consistent ROADMAP for implementation of each new program
  3. A detailed understanding of the COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGES that the institution has – for each program it launches.

Below are highlights of our conversation: one question answered with video of our interview, the rest transcribed from our conversation (and edited for readability).

What are things that go beyond a modest sized institution’s ability to do themselves?

What innovations have you brought to growing online over those 15 years?

Andrea: There are several things that I think have led to success:

  • Developing a strong and consistent framework to both bring forward new online program ideas, and evaluate the strength of those program idea. Institutions are riddled with ideas, but they often don’t have a process for how to evaluate these ideas and how to assure that they’re connected to market needs. They is often a gap in understanding of how to meet the unique needs of adult and online students.
  • Always being mindful that each institution is different – in terms of the types of programs, the degree levels, the discipline areas, and how many programs an institution can bring forward at any one time. A lot is dependent on institutional bandwidth, but all of it has to rest on a balance between the importance of academic quality and program design that meets the needs of today’s students (and the employers they work for).
  • Program differentiation is also of critical importance, and I’ve done some things at the institutions at which I served to offer real differentiation that goes well beyond having a unique program name:
    • I’ve built a competency-based education model that helped students get credit for what they know, and help the institution directly address students’ concerns over time to degree and the cost of higher education.
    • I’ve also worked on digital badging that allows students to stack credentials, earn digital credentials, and help students demonstrate the skills and knowledge they have learned. I’ve had students that have actually gotten jobs in their chosen profession before they even graduate, because they have these signifiers.

What are the critical elements of successfully scaling online program development?

Andrea: There are several things of fundamental importance that provide a roadmap for success:

  • Quality program design: Nothing is more important than quality academic program design – which must be an entire online support ecosystem. Especially after COVID, it can’t be just pasting a classroom course into an LMS.
  • Provide a quality student experience: This starts with a comprehensive review of the student experience from the time that they first learn about the institution, to the time that they enroll in a course, and then on to how they progress from course to course to graduation. You’ve got to have an infrastructure that supports student (and faculty) success. You’ve got to think about how you would scale these things from the beginning. Developing systems that are so customized that they are not scalable is not the route to success.
  • A deep understanding of what online students need in order even be able to consider your program. Online students are juggling multiple responsibilities, have limited time, are highly sensitive to costs, and are “allergic” to policies that they perceive as wasting time and money.
  • Align with institutional mission and strategic plan: The best way to get buy-in from your institutional leadership is to be sure that your online strategy is aligned with institutional mission and the strategic plan. Institutional leadership will help advance those initiatives that are clearly aligned with mission and plan. They will also be able to garner greater support for additional resources by having that alignment.
  • Consistent use of data insights and analytics. All proposed courses and programs should be underpinned by data that prove that there is opportunity for success. This helps choose programs from among the areas that the university has strong programming and faculty. It also helps weed through issues of internal capabilities, capacities, and limitations.

How many programs should a typical school take on at one time?

Andrea: There is no one size fits all. It is dependent on the institution’s capabilities and capacities. Institutions with all the above pillars in place can launch more programs than can institutions that do not. Most institutions do not, and are either learning their way into this or are somewhere along the route to those ideal conditions. In these cases two to four programs per year is a more feasible number. They have to keep chipping away at the

For these institutions, moving forward involves a ton of change management, because you are challenging conventional approaches of program delivery. This might include different academic calendars, more frequent start dates, new marketing practices (that are far more digital), and different approaches to instruction. Just these four things involve changes affecting, the registrar, the marketing department, the enrollment/admissions office, and the academic establishment. You can’t get more comprehensive than that.

Read more insights from Andrea

See part two of our conversation, Strategic Decisions for Growth, as Andrea discusses how institutions that want to be able to scale their online offerings should think through those elements that they must take on themselves and those elements that they may be better off seek a strategic partner. Read the blog.

About the Author

Scott Jeffe

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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