Determining the Focus of a College's Activities

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Questions: Where will the institution be active, and what is the relative importance of each area? Answers here can be specific degree or non-degree programs (or related groups of the same), target clusters, geographical areas, underlying technologies, and pedagogies or learning experiences.

Higher Education Strategy Series: This is entry #10 of this series. This page describes the whole series and provides links to all of the articles.

Details: The goal here is to choose where and how to compete. From the Generalized Differentiation (GD) analysis, the institution has chosen a program and target clusters. In practice, these clusters also probably included the geographical areas to focus on. For online programs, these sometimes matter and sometimes don’t.

Other programs

Additionally, after choosing one specific program to work on, the institution should think about other programs to focus on. Consider a few directions the institution might take:

  • Same discipline, related degree: If a school has created a master’s degree for accounting, a master’s degree in finance would probably use many of the same core courses, reducing the production cost for the second degree.
  • Same discipline, related non-degree: If a school has created a master’s degree in transportation design, it could create certificates from extracts of the courses. Or it could retarget the content toward prospects with the goal of increasing applications. Similarly, it could retarget the content at alumni, aiming to increase engagement with the school. All of these options have the benefit of lower production costs thanks to the existing resources from the degree program.
  • Different discipline, unrelated degree: At some institutions, cultural or business reasons might dictate that varying disciplines from around the institution create online degree programs as well. Some learnings can be shared across disciplines (depending on the amount of shared resources), but both the teaching faculty and faculty leadership will probably need significant guidance and support. Further, staff support might have to be hired and new technology (learning management system [LMS], pedagogical tech) might have to be established.
  • Different discipline, unrelated non-degree: The same issues exist here as for the previous option, but the institution can implement a wider range of pedagogies and learning experiences than in a credit-bearing program.
  • Face-to-face programs: Institutions also have opportunities to develop or adapt online resources for use in or support of face-to-face programs.

Every institution has a different situation and mix of existing and possible programs, so every institution’s set of options will differ. However, getting a fuller picture of the options that are available to the institution will directly pay off with a plan that can be less expensive, bring in more revenue, and present the institution in a more favorable light in the marketplace.

Student retention

Before I continue with my analysis of possible areas of focus for a program, I want to look at the problem of student retention; that is, what is needed in order to maintain the highest possible percentage of students from initial enrollment to graduation?

When attracting students to attend a program (whether online or residential), leaders have to understand what those students are looking for from the program, and it is absolutely the case that students who apply to an online program are looking for something different than those who apply to a residential program. Thus, it only stands to reason that students who are attending a residential program but who are then forced to attend an online program (because of a situation such as that with the pandemic) will almost certainly not be satisfied with that experience.

Vincent Tinto (in Leaving College: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition, 1993) proposed that students need to be integrated into the following four systems in order to have the best chance for success. The first-year experience for successful residential colleges is designed to achieve that integration in all four systems.



Let us consider two other situations and the problems facing each.

Online adult learners

For online learners (usually adult), many programs have been online for more than a decade. The development of quality courses ("academic performance" in the above) has been the focus for much of that time; unfortunately, the other three cells have each received little-to-no attention. Thus, any efforts to improve the overall student experience by focusing on improving course quality would be appreciated; however, a huge opportunity exists for some college to improve the quality of the other facets of online learning.

Residential students forced to go online

Here the situation (such as the one faced during the pandemic) is a bit more complicated. Let’s consider each of the four systems:

  • Academic performance: Performance is certainly influenced by the quality of the courses themselves. No one would propose that the emergency remote instruction courses delivered in Sprint 2020 were high quality. Online asynchronous courses are difficult to pull off—expensive, time-consuming affairs that need a variety of skill sets brought to bear—while online synchronous courses, given current technologies, are much more difficult to pull off than their face-to-face counterparts. Thus, the quality of academics will almost certainly suffer.
  • Faculty/staff interaction: When on campus, students have almost innumerable easy ways to connect with faculty and staff. They can try to chat with faculty immediately before or after class, or they can go by the professor’s office hours. As for staff, they are located all over campus; once the student is able to find the staff member’s physical office, he/she can usually go by that office at almost any time during working hours. On the other hand, once online all of those communication channels are typically lost. A flexible and well-communicated plan for enabling and encouraging these interactions is needed for there to be any hope of success here.
  • Extra-curricular activities: Schools can have hundreds, if not thousands, of extra-curricular activities for residential students. Most of these are built around the concept of bringing students physically together and building a community of like-minded members. Few if any are prepared to continue operations online; they will, for the most part, suspend operations until students return to campus.
  • Peer-group interactions: On-campus students build up many social relationships around campus: in their classes, with other students in their majors, in their dorms, at the dining hall, at career events, at weekend parties, and more. The student does not have to do much to take advantage of these opportunities other than show up. Once the school goes online, all of these well-understood communication- and connection-pathways disappear or, at least, drastically morph into other forms that are more difficult to use.

Thus, while universities have technically been able to "stay in business" by offering remote online teaching, the quality of the experience for students has been decimated.

Geographical areas

Higher education institutions are finding out during this pandemic just how much geography matters right now to their institution. While it might be theoretically possible that distance does not matter if the Internet is available, quick execution of online asynchronous and quick "film a play and call it a movie" transitions to online synchronous classes have proven that, contrary to the popular belief, distance does matter.

As we have shown in the analysis, schools have be very clear about their value proposition when it comes to addressing different geographical areas. Similarly, schools have to be cognizant of the risks for different types of programs, and some of these risks have become more obvious to all:

  • Online programs: These require high speed internet service from the school to the student’s location. They also require the creation of courses, policies, organizational structures, and more that are distinct from their residential counterparts.
  • Residential programs: These require travel, places to live, and a good food supply. They require, as we have all recently been made well aware, the ability of all parts of the community to gather in a single location. Finally, these rely on a single localized economy.


Choosing to compete via technologies is tied to organizational capabilities as well as other strategic decisions. An institution should only choose to compete based on technology if it has either 1) unique access to that technology or 2) access to resources for creating that technology. It must also have the commitment to the development and ongoing evolution of the technology in order to maintain its relevance and competitive position. That access to resources could refer to internal personnel or contracted third-party vendors (or personnel) under the guidance of sufficiently senior leadership. It would be nearly impossible to use commercial software as a basis for differentiation; this could only work if the software unlocks access to some unique internal resource.

In some cases, a technological tool can be valuable not through the ability to create the software but the institution’s willingness to make the investment. The software might be complex or nuanced enough that it would take a significant investment to create it. Building this software and then improving it over time can provide a defensible point of differentiation in the market.

Pedagogies and learning experiences

Choosing to compete with pedagogies and learning experiences (possibly known in marketing brochures as “the student experience”) is almost certainly tied directly to an institution’s history in face-to-face programs. If an institution is well-known for using a specific pedagogy (e.g., case-based, project-based, or community-based), then it would make sense to choose to compete based on this. The institution already has the insights and abilities to deploy its pedagogy in the face-to-face world; what remains is to determine how to transition the pedagogy into the online world.

Similarly, if an institution has a history of providing a specific type of student experience (e.g., service-oriented, entrepreneurship, cultural immersion) for students in its face-to-face programs, then using that feature as a point of emphasis in competition also would make sense. Again, the question is how to provide the learning experience online.

Keep in mind that the lack of such a foundation in either case should not bar an institution from competing in either of these ways. Online learning is still very early in its evolution, and both online pedagogies and student experiences are continually developing in significant ways. It is not as if these have been chosen, staked out, and claimed by various competitors. So much is changing that new competitors could — not easily, but still could — choose to compete with some pedagogy and/or learning experience and the software systems to support it. But it would take a significant and ongoing commitment by leadership.


For this series, I am posing activities for an educational leader to complete. The unifying project for these activities is to define a medium- and long-term plan for competing and winning online.

  1. Consider a few choices that you might make for your next program to go online. What other programs might you create along with it? What would be the benefits of each? Given this, which program would you take online and why?
  2. Considering Tinto's model of Student Departure, what opportunities do your online programs have for improvement? Can you come up with a list of 10 separate improvements? 20?
  3. Think about the programs that you took online in the pandemic. Again, considering Tinto's model, what backup plans can you start working on in order to address concerns in the four distinct systems that he outlines?
  4. What does your school need to make in order to create the outlines of plans for the risks for both online and residential programs? Who should start working on these?
  5. Does your school or program have a pedagogy or certain type of learning experience that it is known for? Have you investigated how it might be translated for online? What would it look like?

Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or comments. 

Keep Learning

Define and Act on Your Institution’s Strategy

Dr. Scott Moore has written a 15-part series on defining and acting on a higher education strategy to guide leaders during these difficult times. It is targeted at educational leaders who are participating in shaping their school's actions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.


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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