Six strategies for launching online distance learning programs for colleges

Sue Dietrich

October 22, 2014

Improving efficiency in higher education presents significant challenges to a college’s leadership, particularly when considering ways to improve the efficiency of the teaching/learning process. For example, consider online distance learning. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 25.8 percent of students at Title IV colleges and universities were enrolled in at least one online distance learning course in fall 2012. More than one out of every ten were enrolled exclusively in online distance learning programs, with one out of every five graduate students taking online distance courses exclusively.

Six strategies for launching online distance learning programs for colleges
More than one-quarter of college students take at least one online college course. (Click to enlarge.)

Why are so many students taking online courses? Because they offer tremendous convenience and flexibility. They also provide great efficiency and flexibility for administrators and faculty. Online courses require no management of physical classroom space, and faculty who might not be available during a specific day or time for an in-person class can now be scheduled to teach. In addition, adjunct faculty can reside in a different state, providing a broader pool of faculty candidates.

While online distance learning programs will surely grow in the coming years, there are many challenges in moving from on-ground instruction to online learning. These challenges can be intimidating to campuses and prevent them from taking advantage of this significant trend in learning modality.

However, the following six strategies can help your campus ensure a smooth launch of its online efforts, a launch that’s beneficial to your institution, instructors, and students.

1. Establish a clear vision for online distance learning. One of the greatest obstacles to online learning is fear that the culture, mission, and purpose of the institution will change. This fear can be felt from faculty, alumni, staff, students, and board members. By establishing a clear vision for online learning, you reassure constituents that convenience in learning does not automatically lessen the quality of the educational experience or outcomes. Sufficient research on the efficacy of online learning now exists and can be used to assuage fears. Researching other colleges with successful online distance learning programs can also be helpful in demonstrating the many positive benefits of online learning.

2. Allocate sufficient time to implement the program. It is important to introduce online course delivery slowly, to identify internal champions, and to provide internal support and resources to faculty. Allow a full academic year for faculty to experiment with the learning management system, obtain training, and experiment with their course content. Establish incentives for the creation of online course content among faculty and recognize those who make this transition. Because converting a course from on-ground to online can seem difficult and daunting, an instructional designer familiar with the LMS and experienced in teaching online (possibly even an existing faculty member) can be instrumental in the successful adoption of an online program. Hire an instructional designer either full- or part-time to provide onsite assistance in course design.

3. Prepare students for the online learning experience. Not all students are good candidates for online learning. The enrollment process should include the student’s self-assessment of academic strengths, motivation, self-directedness, and comfort using technology. Assessments such as the Noel-Levitz College Student Inventory and satisfaction and priorities assessments for online learners also provide valuable data for enhancing the student experience. Because attrition of the online learner is nearly double that of on-ground learners, greater focus on retention efforts is important for this population.

4. Start with individual courses before jumping to full program delivery. After field-testing individual courses and measuring student outcomes, identify a full degree program or major that would translate well into the online format. Faculty from that major should be supportive as well, as they will be responsible for implementation. Graduate degrees lend themselves nicely to online and, as the above data from the National Center for Educational Statistics show, 22 percent of graduate students take courses exclusively online.

5. Gain approval from regional, state, and professional associations. When an institution offers more than 50 percent of a degree program online, approval from the regional accrediting association is required before student recruitment can begin. Allow approximately six months from time of submission of your change document for approval. If your degree program is also professionally accredited (business, nursing, medical), additional time will be required. If you plan to offer the online program in other states, or expect learners from other states to enroll, state approvals may be necessary.

6. Establish the delivery of services for distance learners. Services previously delivered face-to-face must now be translated into electronic delivery. Web-meeting tools can be used for academic and financial aid advising. The ability to register online, pay tuition and fees, and view academic progress should be available through the student information system. Access to library resources is also an important consideration for the online learner. Prior to implementation, a planning session with all affected departments will identify electronic alternatives to face-to-face services.

Offering online courses and degree programs enables the college to provide an efficient learning modality to a growing number of students. It enables maximization of faculty resources. It reduces the demand for classroom space. Careful planning and thoughtful implementation strategy will maximize the likelihood of a successful launch and deliver many positive benefits to the institution and the student.

Questions about how to strengthen your online distance learning programs?

Please email me if you would like to discuss your online distance learning strategies in more detail. I am happy to answer your questions and can also arrange a time to talk if you like. Noel-Levitz also provides consulting and assessments for online learners, as well as other nontraditional student populations.

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