Steps for Creating and Growing Your Online Program

When you think about all the reasons why a college or university would want to offer courses online, “Because it’s easy” isn’t one of them. Yes, it’s a smart way to grow your programs and reach a greater number of students. Yes, it can be an attractive revenue stream. And yes, in order to attract today’s learners – adult and traditional-aged students alike – you likely need an online offering.

Easy? No. Rewarding? Yes.

Fortunately, making the leap online programs today is a lot less painful than it used to be, in part because you have the benefit of learning from schools that have successfully transitioned some of their courses to an online delivery.

One such school is Abilene Christian University (ACU). In 2002 ACU began thinking of ways to increase its outreach through online courses. Carol Williams, PhD, then graduate dean and assistant provost for research, had distance education added to her responsibilities. ACU had more than 4,000 undergraduate students and about 400 residential graduate students. It had no “continuing education” unit or infrastructure. Now, some eight years later, ACU has nearly 500 online students in five master’s degrees and four certificates. Online programs are the fastest growing area for the university.

Williams shared the ACU story during the recent online seminar Growing Successful Online Programs at a Small School in which she told about her frustration over the lack of resources that address the unique needs of small schools looking to compete with the big dogs online. The ACU experience may hold some lessons for other small, private schools who are contemplating the leap to online.

1: Define your purpose for having an online program – High-quality online programs require a significant upfront investment, and should align with the mission of the university. As a result, it’s important that you’re able to articulate why you want to put a program online. As you develop your business plan and budget, be sure to include a timeline, a realistic assessment of available resources, and metrics for success.

2: Assign an administrative leader – The institution needs to designate an administrative leader who can manage all aspects of program development and delivery. This person needs to understand “the big picture” while coordinating with deans, faculty, instructional designers, support services, library personnel, and others who play a role in the online students’ learning experience, Williams says.

3: Create faculty buy-in – Many faculty feel teaching online is inferior to teaching face-to-face. Williams works hard to dispel those and other myths. She also recommends starting with faculty who are known as innovators on campus, and providing a workload and compensation plan that recognizes the additional time and effort required to design an online course. Providing support from instructional designers is critical as well, she says.

4: Build online student support services – Because many online students may never set foot on campus, all the normal functions related to financial aid, registration, billing, library, and technology support must be available online.

5: Consider outsourcing – Many smaller universities are stretched thin when it comes to marketing and admissions. Adding online programs to their job responsibilities may be a tough sell, and likely won’t get you the results you want. Williams suggests outsourcing these tasks to vendors who specialize in adult learners and online education.