Assessing Your Exposure to Risk When Going Fully Online

by Dr. Scott Moore | July 29, 2020

Estimated time to read: minutes

Institutions of higher education need to get their courses online. When this consists of 500, 1000, 5000, or more courses, it is clear that the institution’s efforts at supporting its faculty need to be targeted. In order to know where to direct its support efforts, school leadership needs to understand where it has its greatest exposure to risk in the transition from face-to-face to online. Extension Engine has recently helped a college go through the process of building a framework for assessing its own particular risk exposure and designing a survey to gather the information to help measure its risk exposure. We are currently helping them interpret that data and build a plan that responds to it.

What "risk" are we addressing?

Many higher education institutions have found themselves, as this pandemic progresses, needing to deliver courses online at scale for the first time. In Spring 2020, students could excuse faculty and school administrators if their online course experience was not of the highest quality. And very few people would argue that it was of anything more than an acceptable quality.

Now that the Fall 2020 semester is approaching and schools are preparing for an unpredictable environment, leadership has to acknowledge that, however undesirable it may be, the possibility of going fully online is still in play. As of July 2020, 50% of the 1200+ schools that the Chronicle of Higher Education is following are planning on students coming back to campus and delivering face-to-face courses. 

In this situation, an institution’s risk is its inability to deliver all or a part of a course’s learning objectives across a wide range of the institution’s offerings. A high risk course might require a specific environment in which learning has to occur (such as a science lab) or that the course might be taught by a faculty with age-related or health-related risk factors. A low risk course is one with learning objectives that can be met in at least a modified way during online delivery by a faculty member who is willing and able to make those modifications.

How to assess it?

The challenge for an institution’s leaders this summer and for the foreseeable future is to understand what risk means to them as well as having a complete inventory of their courses and the risk exposure of each. At the risk of stating the obvious, a school has to know what its problem areas are before it can address them. 

The Extension Engine Online Learning Response Team worked with a college’s leadership team to build a framework for assessing their risk exposure to moving courses online. This included both general dimensions and school-specific dimension. The team then built an online survey for capturing those factors across the faculty and all of their courses.

After filling out this survey, the system processed it and then generated a Google Document that goes to the faculty member and summarizes the information about each course.

The system also adds the faculty’s responses to a database across all courses. This database goes to the administration, allowing them to build an overall picture of their risk exposure.

What can be learned from this?

The survey provides information for both faculty and administrators.

By the faculty

Our team and the school’s leadership worked very closely to ensure that faculty would be able to see the benefit of filling out the survey and working with our team. An implicit message of the survey is that the school is attempting to support each faculty’s individual needs. Clearly, the school needs to understand the needs before it can assess them, and faculty can use the survey to understand how the school can help them.

The Google Document report that faculty receive after filling out the survey is a shared digital resource among the faculty member, academic leadership, and instructional design staff. Instructional design staff will use this document to provide specific help on specific problems that a faculty member has with a course. The ID staff will also look for indications that the faculty member does not necessarily understand some trouble spots and might need some individual coaching. 

Academic leadership will use this document to gain insights into how a faculty member self-assesses his/her ability to deliver a course online. They can use this information to guide the team’s instructional designers to faculty who they think will need help with the process. Faculty will use this document to guide their efforts to going online. The document contains specific help from ID staff to help him/her address the trouble spots in the course.

By the school

The survey asks questions about different dimensions of the delivery of the courses, specifically related to online delivery. Many schools use the Quality Matters (QM) Rubric to help with the standardization of course experiences across the institution. While that provides some baseline standards, we also want to take into account the culture and personality of the college’s programs and missions:

  • Course Overview and Learner Orientation
  • Learning Objectives (competencies)
  • Instructional Materials (delivery format and modality options for online)
  • Technical Assistance (Zoom, Google etc..)
  • Learning Activities and Learner Interaction (discussion, peer review etc.)
  • Learner Support (“Zoom Fatigue”, focus, and environment)
  • Accessibility and Usability
  • Assessment and Measurement strategy
  • Facilitation Approach and Planning

Thus, the database built up from faculty responses will contain all of this information, allowing administrators to ask questions of it. College leaders can analyze this data by school, by department, looking where hotspots are and what administrative guidance might be appropriate. 

This tool also puts courses in “risk levels” that can help focus the team’s efforts to ensure that the highest risk courses receive the most attention. This tool also helps administrators in the following ways:

  • It helps build an understanding of faculty attitudes towards both online learning (confidence, ability) and face-to-face learning (health worries).
  • It creates an inventory of the college’s courses and faculty outside of the traditional academic review that usually does not address issues related to online delivery and pedagogical flexibility. 
  • It helps them build an understanding of how faculty understand their own courses. (Do the faculty assess risk, understand risk, and understand the process of going online in the same way that the administration does?) This tools provides a snapshot of the faculty’s views.

The overall goal of these efforts (and this tool) is to help ensure that the college’s courses have a minimum standard of quality and consistency in their online delivery: full online syllabus, grade information, and a plan for a student orientation for when the course goes online.

Looking forward

While the tool and the shared Google Document provide the most visible face of this effort, the real value of these are only available because of the cooperative work between our team and the college (a) before the survey in building up an understanding risk and (b) after the survey in responding to the information with an action-oriented plan. The college learned about its courses so that it could build a path forward. Leadership could sleep better at night knowing that it had fewer “known unknowns” to worry about. Further, faculty gained a resource that was created to address his/her very specific needs. Faculty also gained a singular place to go to get directions on how to improve his/her own course.

In the future, this process should become part of the school’s culture. It can use this and similar processes for making itself more resilient and self-aware. More practically, it could also hire a number of instructional designers and/or creative professionals to help faculty move their courses online. 

Finally, after going through this process, the college will have much better insight into the training that faculty need in order to succeed online. Assessing this will come all during this summer, fall, and early winter when student survey results are in. It will be up to the school to determine how it will want to respond to what it has learned.

Keep learning

The Online Learning Response Team

The pandemic has challenged higher education institutions to move their courses online quickly. We work with your school to define and execute on an efficient, holistic, and adaptable approach to getting online.



Dr. Scott Moore

Dr. Scott Moore is a former Principal Learning Strategist at Extension Engine. In this role, he led the global Custom Learning Experience practice. He worked with dozens of nonprofit, higher education, and learning business organizations as they considered using online learning to support their mission and margin, using his deep understanding of organizational dynamics, online learning, strategic differentiation, decision-making, and more. Prior to joining Extension Engine, he was a faculty member, administrator, and dean at Michigan Ross and Babson College for 20+ years. He holds an M.B.A. from Georgia Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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