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How a Small Liberal Arts College Builds Online Programs

Since 1742 Moravian College has had a history of providing access to underserved students. It was the first school to educate women and the first to educate Native Americans in their own language. As times have changed, so has the college. A men’s college (a seminary) was added in 1807, and in the 1950s the two colleges merged to become coeducational. Then, as the new millennium progressed (and in keeping with its mission of access), Moravian College faced the need to transition into the digital age. 

At the 2019 Eduventures Summit, a panel of representatives from Moravian College and Extension Engine discussed the issues involved with transforming a college with actual policies against the use of online resources into one with an ongoing commitment to online programs.  

The goal of Moravian College’s engagement with Extension Engine was not only to build online programs but also to build internal knowledge and capacity, enabling the school to ultimately grow the program  on its own.

Continue reading, or you can watch an 8-minute version of this discussion below and view the entire panel discussion here.

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Breaking with the traditional approach

While Moravian College has always been forward-thinking, it has also been deeply enmeshed in tradition. Until very recently, the college operated with a firmly nondigital approach. As Provost Cynthia Kosso recalled during the discussion, “There were rules in the faculty handbook against using online resources.” This resistance to using online resources meant faculty members were literally typing up their own student evaluations on paper charts.

It took the impetus of a tech-savvy new president, Bryon Grigsby, to spur a technology renaissance at the school. Concerned that there was no online programming, he appointed a team to do a “fresh eyes” assessment with the goal of moving toward the creation of an online learning program. 

Choosing a partner to build online learning

The team soon discovered that Moravian had neither the bandwidth nor the resources to build online programs on its own. With no way to exponentially increase those things overnight, the first idea was to partner with an online program manager (OPM). However, as the team began to socialize this idea across campus, they soon learned this was not a good cultural fit. 

“If we hire people to help us develop the pedagogical medium, that’s different than giving OPMs material to create a class that we feel like we’ve lost ownership over,” said Kosso. “That sense of ownership was a huge piece for us.”

The gap was too wide. The intangibles of a historically “giving back” learning experience did not promise to translate well with an OPM. No one could fathom how such a transition could deliver the unique Moravian pedagogy, allow the college to maintain ownership, and provide a foundation for continued growth.

Looking for an alternative to OPMs

At this point, the team at Moravian began investigating the idea of a more customized learning approach. During the panel, Scott Dams, Dean of Graduate and Adult Enrollment, recalled the president’s sentiment: “We’re the sixth-oldest college in the country and this is what we do — we educate, we build curriculums,” he said. “We’ll farm out food services, or transportation, but we’re not going to a third party for curriculum development.”

Moravian did not want to simply hand over their material to others who would take it and turn it into an online program. That felt too much like a loss of ownership of the material. Instead, what they actually needed was help with the development of a new pedagogical approach. Moravian wanted to create the curriculum — they wanted to own the curriculum. That sense of ownership was a key factor in their decision to partner with Extension Engine.

How the Extension Engine process differs from traditional OPMs

Extension Engine is a company that helps build online learning programs while creating internal capacity. Using our lineup of project managers, instructional designers, creatives, technologists, and marketing professionals, we provide the whole range of services required to build a Custom Learning Experience around your pedagogy. We then help institutions grow by building that internal knowledge and online learning capacity — through launching the program, co-operating, and preparing the school to maintain and grow it on their own when they are ready.

When we began working with Moravian, the first thing we did was research. The first order of business was to thoroughly learn the culture of the institution. You cannot understand prevailing attitudes, much less lead the constituents to change them, if you do not first take the time to learn what they are. 

We worked with Moravian’s team to determine what they wanted, what they already had, and where they wanted to go. We also went through an ideation process to discuss what was possible, what technology they could have, and what choices were available to them. Perhaps most important — we discovered what everybody wanted to do and shared what we learned back with their team. 

Gaining faculty buy-in

Faculty are often resistant to an online curriculum that they feel will remove the human element. They resist putting something online that doesn’t have their stamp on it or their voice behind it. We understand that faculty are very protective of a face-to-face experience they love and care for deeply. 

To that end, we spent three and a half hours in a room with Moravian faculty members helping them feel what an online curriculum could be like and explaining and demonstrating how our learning experience designers work with them all the way through the process. While the end result will be a different type of learning experience, it can still be valuable and engaging. This part of the process also helped everyone think about what we wanted the learning experience to look like — and what makes Moravian unique — in a way that generated excitement.

What building a Custom Learning Experience means

Building a Custom Learning Experience is not just about the technology. It’s not just about the course. It’s also about getting the faculty on board, getting the administration to understand what it’s like to run an online program, learning how to hire and direct instructional designers, and then successfully marketing it. It’s about finding a way to fund all that in an ongoing manner. 

Ultimately, we’re not just program builders but also process builders. What Moravian College needed was help developing, constructing, and launching a system for sustainably providing an online program going forward — and that’s exactly what we at Extension Engine do.

Watch the panel discussion

You can view the entire Eduventures panel discussion, including Q&As from the audience, here.

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