As the pandemic continues to stumble its way across the country, colleges that had never considered setting up online programs are now exploring how to do it. Most haven’t a clue.

That’s why many have turned to Online Program Managers, known as OPMs, commercial vendors that create and market digital programs. Some colleges, meanwhile, have decided to go it alone and build their own systems.

Whatever a college does, though, the decision to go online should involve a few key factors. That was driven home as I checked in with a handful of former colleagues from NYU Tandon Online and others—most now at other programs—to hear what advice they have for college leaders today.

1. Engage Faculty in the Decision to Go Online

“If faculty don’t participate, you won’t have a program,” says Lisa Springer, provost at LIM College, a small Manhattan fashion business school. Earlier, Springer was associate dean at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. “When creating on-campus programs, everyone says you need faculty engagement, but why not online, too?”

In Springer’s recent doctoral research, she found it common for colleges to set up virtual degrees out of new divisions rather than from existing academic departments. “You would never do that on campus,” Springer continued. “You set up conflict immediately.”

My own experience bears that out. A few years ago, when colleagues and I recognized the need for launching a remote undergraduate degree in a highly in-demand field, we moved ahead for months with plans without routinely consulting faculty members along the way. In the end, when it was time to submit our proposed online degree for university approval, our eagerly sought-after debut was rejected by department faculty members in an embarrassing, thumbs-down vote.

To avoid such blunders, some schools wisely invite faculty to participate in focus groups, not only to tease out objections, but to encourage them to contribute to the effort. In one focus group I attended, faculty members recommended that online courses include real-time sessions, that the school stream on-campus lectures and events to remote students, and that faculty establish a uniform and consistent online course evaluation rubric following industry best practices.

It’s especially fruitful to establish a university-wide online committee with senior faculty as members, tasked with studying the potential impact of digital education on the institution. It’s best to keep this high-level group running even after the virtual program is established, to assure professors have a hand in remote learning as it moves forward.

2. Calculate Solid Enrollment and Revenue Projections

“The first thing you want is a commitment from your college to finance your unit’s start-up costs,” advised Marlene Leekang, executive director of the Field Center for Entrepreneurship at Baruch College in New York. “You must then project when your new online unit will deliver a return on the school’s investment. Leaders at your college will resist financing it unless you can assure them it will eventually return the school’s stake.” Leekang worked closely with me at NYU’s Tandon School where she was executive director of finance and management for the online unit, which consistently generated serious surpluses.

Leekang encourages colleges to base remote enrollment and revenue estimates on judicious analysis, after performing careful market research—rather than depending merely on speculation—to support claims. At its best, research will identify direct competitors, as well as ways new digital programs can differentiate themselves from others to attract wide appeal.

That often means hiring consultants and running feasibility studies to determine whether there’s demand for the online degrees colleges have in mind. It’s unwise to launch new remote programs in fields new to the school. It’s far more productive to initiate online degrees paralleling popular ones already running on campus.

"When most faculty members earn their scholarly degrees, naturally, they absorb the subject matter of their discipline. But while they are skilled at what they teach, they are not often qualified at teaching it online."
—John Vivolo, director of online and campus learning at the Katz School at Yeshiva University.

“You must provide senior officers with strong evidence that digital education will offer your institution long-term financial stability, delivering a new way of supporting your college as a whole,” Leekang said. “You must show that your unit is not just a service arm, but wholly integrated into the rest of the institution.”

Apart from repaying the school for its initial subsidy and, crucially, adding new revenue streams to your institution’s bottom line, it’s prudent to build reserves to support continuing growth for ongoing sustainability.

Devising a positive economic case for a new online unit demonstrates that digital learning is not just a passing fad, but offers a compelling way forward, re-routing colleges away from a shaky on-campus-only fate.

3. Hire a Team of Instructional Designers

“Instructional designers form the bridge that helps faculty members teach online—a talent in which they are not commonly experts,” observes John Vivolo, director of online and campus learning at the Katz School at Yeshiva University in New York. “When most faculty members earn their scholarly degrees, naturally, they absorb the subject matter of their discipline. But while they are skilled at what they teach, they are not often qualified at teaching it online.” Vivolo was director of online and virtual learning at the Tandon School when I was online dean a few years ago.

To alleviate virtual anxiety among rookie online faculty, Vivolo says that instructional designers should be brought in to support and collaborate with them on how to teach online effectively. “An instructional designer’s role is not just to put stuff on the LMS, but to partner with faculty to show how a course should be delivered virtually,” says Vivolo.

When I taught online a few years ago at The New School, a liberal arts college in Manhattan, an insightful instructional designer steered me through dozens of ways of making my course interactive, reducing time lecturing by replacing it with stimulating student engagement, encouraging students to work actively with digital, video and print materials, but especially with their peers, working in groups.

When I first entered digital education more than two decades ago, instructional design was just at the starting gate. Most early online units sent virtual instructors off on their own, with little or no support. Today, with pandemic-fueled breakneck remote learning growth, it’s among the fastest expanding technical occupations. In 2018, long before the present health crisis, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected job growth over the following ten years at 9 percent, greater than average for all other careers. According to the eLearning Guild, instructional designers earn an average of about $85,000 a year (but keep in mind that salaries vary, based on level of education and location).

“At its best,” Vivolo concluded, “online teaching does not consist of lectures accompanied by PowerPoints—putting your course together with Scotch Tape and bubble gum—but devising new ways of making it active.”

4. Provide Online Student Services

“If student services are important on campus, they are even more so online,” argued Anita Crawley, co-founder of Educators 4 Equity and Justice and author of Supporting Online Students. “But often, when launching an online unit, student services staff are not at the table.”

My own experience confirms Crawley’s observation. At a high-level NYU committee, called years ago to review virtual education requirements, most departments—except student services—were represented. When the omission was called to the chair’s attention, it took months before a special subcommittee was appointed. It met only once and was never invited to participate in the work of the wider committee. When initiating new remote learning units, the absence of student services is no longer responsible.

“To achieve success and maintain retention, remote learners need support from student services,” continued Crawley. “Without them, they are likely to flounder and not do well.”

That’s especially true for remote students, with many first in their family to attend college and most who work full time. Data reveal that 70 percent of virtual undergrads and 80 percent of online graduate students work full or part time, with just 25 percent of residential students working full time.

Cawley says that running an orientation for online students to learn how to learn online is a top priority. “Remote students need to understand not only how the school’s learning management system works, but also what are the expectations of being an online student,” Crawley said. “They also need to be informed about technical requirements, software and connections, how to communicate virtually with instructors and peers and how to organize themselves remotely as learners.”

After all, student services abound on campus—study centers, career and mental health services, clubs and support for learning, among dozens of other benefits. Crawley insists that many of these must also be available to remote students as well.

“We have the capability now to perform many student services seamlessly with technology,” Crawley noted. A splendid example is found on Arizona State University’s mobile app, an online one-stop-shop, helping students on and off campus. With just one click, students can access the school's academic calendar, library and any of dozens of other sites.

5. Engage Digital Recruitment Specialists

Because prospective students—like all of us today—acan social media and search online relentlessly, digital marketing has replaced most traditional ways of reaching out to the online learning marketplace. Today, colleges promote programs and recruit students by exploiting email, social media and search-engine marketing, hunting for the biggest return on their sales dollars by investing in digital real estate where prospective online learners are sure to be found.

These new techniques require an altogether new set of commercial skills—selecting muscular databases, bidding on digital ad space and optimizing rank on search engines, among other methods—capabilities not commonly used in conventional campaigns. Nowadays, however, digital recruitment is not only deployed in virtual programs, but is pursued equally aggressively to generate face-to-face enrollments.

“Old-fashioned marketing was buying print media,” recalled Ardis Kadiu, CEO of Element 451, a higher ed digital recruitment and CRM firm. “Today, you can target prospective students much easier digitally. You now compete with many other online institutions—state, nonprofits and for-profits—many offering the same courses, competing with you on the same platform, playing in the same playground with everyone else.” Some years ago, Kadiu was an adjunct professor at the Tandon School.

Kadiu cautioned that if a college’s technology is not up to the mark—for example, if students don’t get a quick response to an inquiry—prospects are likely to go elsewhere. Typically, students explore a few dozen potential colleges before enrolling in the one they select. Most successful online units use marketing automation and customer relations management platforms that track and manage campaigns, driving efforts to convert leads to enrollments.

“The first college to catch students’ attention will have the greatest chance of capturing them,” said Kadiu, who acknowledges that digital media can be very expensive, running about $100,000 to $200,000 for a start-up campaign, with about 60 percent going for media buys, 30 percent for creative and agency fees, and 10 percent for technology. “Figure on spending a couple of thousand dollars to recruit an online student,” calculates Kadiu.

Most of the steps to go online take some doing—but they are no greater or more expensive than initiatives colleges undertake as a matter of course. Think of what it takes to build a fairly undistinguished academic building on campus that may take years, if ever, to earn back its investment.

Going online commonly requires far less financial and other major commitments than the millions required to run a modern university campus—but it takes a little more courage and inspiration.

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