This last entry of the strategy series both highlights important points from the series and also lays out the decisions that must be made to carry out the strategy during and after the pandemic. I start by laying out the assumptions that I make about the reader, her organization, and the operating environment. Next, I highlight some important point about management of changing expectations.
Higher Education Strategy Series: This is the 15th and last entry of this series. This page describes the whole series and provides links to all of the articles.
I provide a review of teaching modalities that are, or should be, under review by most institutions. The availability of these approaches to faculty will prescribe the actions that are available to an institution. The final step in the preparatory phase of this article is a quick review of scenario planning. A school’s leadership cannot plan for every eventuality; it must come up with a limited set of futures for which it will be planning. Scenario planning is the means by which this visioning is carried out.
The heart of this essay, and the raison d'être for this series, is to lay out the decisions to be made for both the medium-term and long-term as the school attempts to make its way from lecturing over Zoom to long-term success online. These decisions relate to the budget, different facets related to student retention, organizational changes that are coming, and non-student related activities organized by the school.
Let’s get started.
1.1 The academic leader
This series is written for an academic leader whose school has some scattered online courses or programs, and his/her faculty members have recently been forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to run all classes as remote teaching (with something like Zoom). The organization needs to be better at operating online, but money is limited and has to be spent wisely. Finally, recent experiences have demonstrated conclusively that teaching online is not the same as teaching face-to-face—but the leader and visionary faculty realize that it can be done well.
As the leader and her school navigate the pandemic and post-pandemic world, she will need to understand and set expectations much more transparently and frequently than she has ever done before. We are in a new world with a new normal that is nowhere near being understood yet. Employees, students, prospects and others have a lot of uncertainty and fear. The leader cannot assume anything about how things should be done, how the leader or school is perceived, or even what is normal. The leader must take specific steps to combat it:
- The leader needs to ensure that all parts of the organization are running surveys and focus groups in order to build a deep understanding of every facet of the school and student life. The school should start now asking for recommendations because good ideas can come from anywhere and no one person can claim to know what is or will be happening.
- Top down
- While school leadership is gathering information and making dynamic changes, as frequently as is feasible leadership must work to keep all parts of the organization informed. The school’s boards and leadership group must use private and possibly public communication channels for the following:
- faculty executive committee to department chairs and then faculty
- administrative leaders to staff
- school leadership to student leaders then to students
It is impossible to stop the spread of misinformation, but doing the hard work of setting up dependable information flows can do a lot to combat it.
1.3 Preliminary work
I assume that the reader is someone who has a workable strategy (possibly as a result of working through this series), a process in place to act quickly, and an understanding of work needed related to student retention. I also assume that she is generally making her way through the three stages of the pandemic response.
Now that the reader has gotten to the end of the series, she should have a workable strategy on which to base decisions. Even if her organization has not gone through the formal process of publishing or agreeing to a strategy, having a personal statement of an organizational strategy based on this series will lead to a more consistent and effective series of actions.
One of the more difficult decisions related to defining a strategy for a leadership group to make is that concerning the means by which the school will differentiate itself. And, in order for it to work, the economic logic of the whole system needs to be clear; otherwise, the program will be doomed from the outset.
In a recent article about the challenges facing Executive Education programs, I highlighted four decisions that a school leader must make if she wants to enable a strong rebound by her program. In this series we are not talking about just executive education, but the guidelines remain appropriate:
- This is discussed more below, but the school must be willing to invest (yes, that word has the right implications for the level and duration of the needed spend) in order to build an online program where one did not exist before.
- Decision maker
- The school will need to have a single person in charge of the program in order to adapt quickly enough in this changing environment. Good decisions are important, but optimized decisions are not necessary. Mistakes can be fixed later after the program has been deployed.
- Rule breaking
- When innovating, management theory supports the need to break organizational rules. What kind of rules will she allow to be broken? Who gets carte blanche to break those rules? The sooner the programs are running, the faster the school gets both revenue and feedback.
- Right partner
- Most schools have not created innovative digital products; further, they have limited excess manpower in all the specialties needed to do so. The easiest and quickest way to access the needed resources is by hiring the right partner. (While Extension Engine will not be a fit for every organization, our combination of experience, talent, and mission makes us a strong contender.) What partners is she going to hire? What does the institution need help with?
The sooner these decisions are made, the sooner the programs will reach the market.
Much more is written about this below, but school leadership must understand the implications of Tinto’s work on student retention as they relate to the overall success of the program. All parts of the educational experience are important—academic performance, faculty/student interaction, extracurricular activities, and peer-group interactions. Even—or maybe even especially—with an online program, school leadership needs to explicitly address all of these dimensions of the student’s experience if they want to keep students enrolled. An online degree is much more than online classes. A visionary leader realizes that much work will have to be done before the quality of her school’s online degree matches that of its residential degree.
Finally, when writing this series, I pictured a higher education leader and organization as going through three stages: hanging on to a broken piece of wood in a roiling sea and just hoping to survive, setting up a village on a deserted island, and then building a new planned community. Right now, the short term has been addressed as the school has made it through Spring 2020, offering remote teaching and making it to the end of the school year in one form or another. The leader is now in the throes of the planning process for the 2020–21 school year.
After that (or ideally at the same time), leadership has to think about 2021 and beyond. This will be a 5–10 year effort. At some point (hopefully), the pandemic’s immediate threats will have become clear and the implications will have come into focus. Long-term planning will really swing into full speed at that point.
The leadership of every school worldwide will never again be able to ignore, or even to minimize, its need to be able to operate well in an online-only environment.
The point of this series is to prepare the reader for this new reality.
1.4 Teaching modalities
In order to plan for the future, school leadership needs to figure out the school’s interest in using, ability to use, and need to use the following approaches. These will be the tools that the school will make available to its faculty as it attempts to adapt to the post-pandemic world:
- The professor and students are in the same room at the same time. This is the one modality that doesn’t need to be given any attention.
- Online synchronous
- This is what many courses transitioned to in Spring 2020. Given current technologies, this is very difficult to do well. (Extension Engine is actually currently building a tool specifically designed for OnSync teaching because of this.)
- Online asynchronous
- This can be quite effective for many learning objectives and types of information. It is expensive and time-consuming to do well. This will almost certainly become a larger part of the academic portfolio over time.
- Hybrid online
- Courses are taught using both online synchronous and online asynchronous approaches for different modules. For small and even medium-sized programs, this approach can provide a transitional approach that is palatable to more faculty, staff, and students when moving online from the well-understood face-to-face modality.
- Courses are taught using both online and face-to-face approaches for different modules. This approach has been used relatively frequently, especially when the face-to-face approach is used as a community-building effort at the beginning of a program.
- Concurrent synchronous
- Some students are online while some are face-to-face with the professor at the same time. This would require additional technologies, strain of the uncertain on the faculty member, and almost certainly additional personnel support for the professor. The compromises that must be made in order to use this approach seem to prevent the faculty member from delivering an effective or engaging learning experience to either audience. This is not to say that this approach will not at times be necessary; however, it should not be seen as an ideal panacea.
After the set of teaching modalities are chosen, the school should choose the technologies for each, create instructional resources, and run training for each of them. It should be expected that this set (and its supporting technologies) will change over time.
The school’s leadership team should come up with a set of scenarios for which it is planning. The following five would be a reasonable place to start. Each school will almost certainly have a different set. Leaders should keep in mind that they will have to act within the rules put down by the state governor.
- On campus
- All in-person by September 2020 with everyone on campus.
- All in-person by September 2020 but forced dispersal mid-semester because of a relapse of the disease. (This is essentially a contingency related to the previous scenario.)
- Fully remote in September with staged transition back to fully in-person by some future semester (maybe Spring and/or Summer 2021).
- Partially remote in September with only some students and/or faculty returning to campus. Another cohort of students and/or faculty added to the campus in Spring and/or Summer 2021.
- Fully remote for whole year, planning to go back to fully in-person by Fall 2021.
Once leadership comes up with a list, then it should create two rankings: by likelihood and by difficulty. Leadership should revisit these rankings twice per month for the next year (or until the school has reached its new “normal”). Leadership should have open and frank discussions about these scenarios and their relative importance. Every month (or even after every one of these revisions) leadership should post a summary of the discussion and the rankings. This should reduce anxiety and help faculty, staff, and students understand how the school’s leadership sees the world.
2. Decisions to be made
I have now laid out all of the groundwork necessary to look into the decisions that leadership will have to make as it tries to construct a plan from moving from Zoom-based remote teaching to long-term success online. As leadership goes through these decisions, it will have to consider how it would act under each one of its scenarios.
School leadership must determine where the money for all of this will be coming from. Leadership should think of this investment as they would any significant investment (such as a building or a new school)—they must get the money from an endowment, a gift, or corporate partners in order to execute this in a satisfactory manner. Leadership must make its available cash pile as big as possible; they must be proactive in building a war chest because demands will appear without warning.
Leadership will need to make foundational investments in required capabilities. They will have to keep an eye on the long-term while ensuring that the school has satisfactory solutions for the medium-term (i.e., 2020–21) across the board. High-level resource allocation will need to be reassessed at least every quarter, balancing progress across the organization on the medium-term efforts.
While progress is being made on the medium-term but the needs for the longer-term are becoming more clear and pressing, donors and partners should be kept up-to-date. They should be informed, not in an alarmist fashion but in a matter-of-fact tone, of what the organization’s current state is, what competitors are doing, and how improvement efforts are proceeding.
2.2 Tinto’s framework
As mentioned above and in previous essays, Tinto’s work on student retention provides a good framework for thinking about all of the areas of a program that need to be addressed in order to provide a compelling experience for students.
Teaching concerns are of primary importance. If the college wants to earn tuition and thereby pay its employees (and stay in business), then it must teach classes. In this age of the COVID-19 pandemic, that means that it must be ready to teach well online.
No matter what other change efforts are undertaken, the school should commit to gathering teaching-related data. This means not only traditional end-of-semester student evaluations, but also fast feedback and integrated data gathering:
- Fast feedback
- Given that many faculty will be teaching online for the first time, they should use a daily fast feedback form in order to get an overview of how student’s are responding to her class. At the end of each lesson, each student is provided an anonymous form in which he/she answers a few questions (in no more than 2–3 minutes:
- How useful was this lesson? (rate 1-5)
- What was the most important thing that you learned in this lesson?
- What was the most confusing part?
- How could you have prepared better for this lesson?
- What would have made this lesson better?
- Integrated data gathering
- A defining feature of online learning is that it enables data gathering and, hence, data analysis that can be used to gain insight into what parts of a lesson are working, are being ignored, or are confusing. As much as possible, online learning professionals should be involved at the beginning of this journey to provide guidance about what data to gather, how it can be gathered, and what can be learned from that data.
Traditional liberal arts
If the organization is a teaching- and liberal arts-focused school that has a majority of courses that depend on intense interactions in face-to-face classes, then leadership has a lot of work to do. Leadership needs to think about online synchronous and online asynchronous courses separately, with changing priorities over time.
While it is straight-forward (though not necessarily effective) to move face-to-face courses to an online synchronous format, these can go much better with a dedicated online synchronous platform to support it; Zoom does not provide what is needed to succeed. Changing to an asynchronous format is much more difficult, generally involving a complete rethinking of the course. With the right faculty, it is possible to provide training and support for them to do the transformation themselves (in this crunched time frame), but it should be understood that these courses would benefit from revisitation by professional instructional designers at a later date.
Separate planning will have to be completed for each of the organization’s chosen scenarios. Consider the following deadlines for the Staged scenario:
- Fall 2020
- A leader’s top priority will likely be to teach as much online as possible so that students who want to enroll can enroll and make progress to graduating. For this and the following deadlines, leadership needs to come up with a strategy for what to do about students who can’t or won’t come to campus. Will the school teach some courses both online and in-person? If so, leadership will have to come up with a plan to train and support faculty. Leadership will have to determine which courses will be synchronous and which will be asynchronous and define a plan for training and supporting faculty. During the summer while preparations are underway, leadership will also have to come up with a tool and process for tracking the progress of courses for start-of-semester.
- Spring 2021
- Assess the pandemic status and determine which courses will be taught on-campus. Again, leadership will have to determine which courses will be synchronous and which will be asynchronous. Use the tool to track the progress of courses. Has the policy for students who will not come to campus changed?
- Summer 2021
- Assess the pandemic status again. Will the school have a larger set of online courses for the summer to help students catch up? Repeat the process for the previous semester.
- Fall 2021
- Long-term planning has to be fully in process by now. How much will the school offer be online? How much will be synchronous versus asynchronous? How much will be offered separately online and face-to-face? How much will be offered concurrent synchronous? The only way that leadership can make appropriate decisions is if she has been gathering data throughout the process (surveys, focus groups, online data, etc.).
Large R1 university
If the organization is a large R1 university with many large lecture classes, many mid-sized classes for undergraduate majors and masters students, and smaller seminars for freshmen and PhD students, then its leadership has to think about these types of courses separately:
- Large lecture classes (>150 students)
- Leadership needs to plan for the long-term and moves these courses online for the next several years. By definition, students and faculty would find it difficult to maintain social distancing in these face-to-face class sessions. A further benefit of moving online is that it would keep the faculty and students out of the hallways before and after classes. These courses would benefit greatly—possibly even improve over the face-to-face version—from a well-designed flipped pedagogy. Faculty should be trained in the approach and support should be provided when possible (through online office hours or consulting).
- Mid-sized classes (25-150 students)
- This is a problematic range. Usually, courses in the 25–80 size range can still be quite interactive when taught face-to-face; with current online technologies, this is much more difficult, if not impossible. Just as with the large lecture classes, these courses in the whole size range would benefit greatly from a well-designed flipped pedagogy. When teaching synchronously, use breakout sessions to provide more time for students to connect with each other. Further, faculty should break up each session into shorter segments to make it easier for students to navigate the session with minimal fatigue.
- Small seminars (<25 students)
- It is certainly possible to use Zoom to teach online synchronous classes. It is not necessarily effective or comfortable, but it works. Faculty should be taught how to create resources for periodic flipped or even fully asynchronous sessions in order to reduce Zoom fatigue. Further, they should be taught how to use breakout sessions or other approaches that allow students to talk and connect with each other more frequently.
It would be a rare higher educational institution that does not base part of its strategy on some activities (outside of a class) that involve interaction with faculty or staff. Such activities can be significant differentiators across competitors when comparing traditional residential colleges; however, providing such interactions online differs in significant ways from doing so in a residential experience.
All schools now need to think about providing student services online. The University of Pennsylvania has been working for several years towards its vision of a virtual campus in which students can access a personalized portfolio of student services that is determined by the student’s enrollment status. It is likely that, for residential colleges, such services are all expected, satisficing-type features. However, in an online world, these features might be maximizing-type features that could differentiate a school from its competition.
- Career services
- Many edtech tools are in the market that support a student’s career search but what I am considering here are both the personal support that advisors provide for students and the personal connections that advisors facilitate between employers and students. How can this happen without an advising office with drop-in hours, without career fairs with its dozens of employers coming to campus, without on-campus information sessions in which students can meet a wide variety of employers? Related to this point, how can the school continue to support its connections to local companies if local offices are off-limits or effectively closed?
- Student advising
- Many students build deep relationships with their advisor and come to rely on them for support as they navigate their way through college. This currently only happens after they meet in-person. How can this happen online in a time of social distancing? How do drop-in advising sessions happen? How do group study sessions happen? How do all of the little services that student advising departments offer to their students get translated online? How do student advisors connect with faculty when neither the faculty nor their courses can be found on campus? These questions must be taken seriously and resources must be provided or student retention is going to become a big problem soon.
- Major advising
- Many schools assign students to a faculty member after the student declares his/her major. The purpose of this assignment is to provide the student with more detailed and informed guidance through that faculty’s department (and related disciplines). This advising usually takes place in-person and in a faculty member’s office. Sometimes the student has a relationship such that he/she is able to drop by the faculty member’s office unannounced for a visit. Other times, the student has to make an appointment. In any case, all of this needs to be considered and a plan constructed so that this advising can continue and these relationships can develop.
- Time with faculty
- Holding classes online changes not only the class itself but the experience of going to class. When a student goes to class, many times it offers the opportunity to meet with the professor, for even a short moment, before or after the class. This time no longer exists when a class begins and ends with the faculty member signing on and off of Zoom—or never appearing at all because the course is asynchronous. Schools should consider making it a policy that faculty provide 5 minutes before and 10 minutes after ever class that is simply unstructured with no learning goals at all. Students might be given the ability to “stand in line” to talk to the faculty during this time. Further, all faculty members should have posted “office hours” for drop-in visits and possibly the ability to schedule personal time with the faculty during certain time periods.
An aside: When absolutely all communications to students come electronically—no class announcements, posters in the hallway, flyers stuck in your student folder, notices passed along through the clubs, etc.—schools are going to have to be very thoughtful about how it manages, organizes, and prioritizes all of its communications to students. Is it going to have a personalized student portal through which all student communications get posted? Is it going to enable slack across all students, faculty, and staff? Or is it going to opt-out and let everyone handle it their own way?
College life is defined by its big, community-focused events. These have always been in-person without any care given to thinking how they might be done online because the need for it was simply inconceivable. That is no longer the case. Recently, IDEO and Extension Engine jointly sponsored a workshop for a few higher education institutions to brainstorm about how they might offer online commencement. The results were as follows:
- Allow for connection in uniquely digital ways
- Create a bridge between digital and physical traditions
- Design something exclusive that reflects the moment
- Leverage the accessibility of digital
- Make it your own
These insights can be extended to the other big events that come to define a campus: its orientation, its alumni/reunion weekend, and even campus tours.
Other significant extra-curricular activities relate to student government, clubs, and connections to the local community. Student government needs to be given special attention. The longer that students are expected to be away from campus (at any level, not just completely off campus), the more resources need to be provided to them. This is the voice of students within the school, and providing support and enabling their voices have never been more important to school leadership. Clubs will also have to be given resources so that they can communicate online, organize online, and provide a way to build community online. Some will not be able to do so, but others will still be able to carry on their mission. Empower these groups because this community-building is another means by which the school can improve its student retention.
Another important dimension of student retention that a leader will want to address relates to a student’s peer group interactions. This is probably the most diverse dimension, and one that the school has the least control over. On campus, the school campus itself provides the physical structure in which these interactions occur. After moving classes online and students off-campus, leadership is going to have to think creatively about if and how it will support these interactions:
- Class-based communication
- Classes on campus provide so much structure to student life. They are, of course, where much of the teaching and learning is centered. As we saw above, they also provide an opportunity to students to interact with faculty. They also provide an opportunity for students to interact with other students. They certainly hear students talk whom they do not otherwise come across when on campus. They also get to talk to friends and other classmates who are in the same class (before, after, and during class). Almost all of this inter-student interplay disappears with Zoom-based classes unless the faculty member and school leadership explicitly supports its occurence. With asynchronous courses, it basically all disappears. How can all of this peer interaction be restored after a school moves online?
- Departments often provide ways for students within its majors to interact with each other across grade level. Upper-class students can become mentors for younger students. Further, social occasions are sometimes held that allow a wider range of relationships to build. The department benefits because more students might choose and then stay in the major than they would without this support.
- Dorms form the basis for a wide range of peer interaction and support for student retention. Schools might end up being surprised by the high level of drop-outs if they do not take the support provided by dorm residential assistants and other staff seriously. Even if students are not on campus, school leaders should think about how they might enable younger students to be assigned to older students who are charged with mentoring, supporting, and acting as an information resource.
- Dining halls
- Dining halls provide students with a convenient place to get food as well as a convenient location for studying and socializing. Just because students are no longer on campus does not mean that these student needs simply disappear. What support might you provide for student access to food, the need for study locations and quiet spaces, and the need for socialization during the day and between classes?
- Social occasions
- Colleges have a near endless stream of social occasions on and around campus. Some are organized by the school but the vast majority are not; they are generally student-led and -organized. Some are put on by the Greek system while others are simply events organized by local businesses or other students. Again, while the students are no longer on campus, they still have a need for connection and a shared sense of community. Schools will not be able to recreate those experiences, but it would do well to provide students with some means of connecting with each other in non-academic settings.
2.3 Organizational changes
Over the coming years as they increase their efforts online, many organizations will have to build out a staff for the following:
- Head of online efforts
- The amount of centralization and the organization’s status on the path to online operations will determine where in the organization this position might be. It might be a vice provost level with more of a coordination, leadership, and managerial position. Or it might be a project management and productive position who is tasked with getting the school’s first degree program online.
- Instructional (or learning experience/LX) designers
- This job title encompasses a wide range of skills. High-level LX professionals can help come up with program-level pedagogical approaches that enables the program to achieve its learning objectives while providing the learning experience desired by faculty, administrators, and students. Low-level LX professionals can help faculty design and construct lessons that meet the specified learning objective; this is more of a productivity position. The mix between these two extremes will change over time. At times, when the organization needs to create a large number of courses or when it needs to create innovative courses, the college might need to hire third party organizations.
- Project managers
- Project managers (PMs) serve a vital purpose when creating online courses. Creating a course is just a special type of project, comprised of many steps, organizational resources, technologies, and coordination. The complexity of the courses and the volume and intensity of the projects will determine how many PMs a school needs to hire.
- Video was an integral part of pre-pandemic online asynchronous courses. Faculty would lecture or otherwise present material in recorded video sessions. Schools sometimes build recording studios for faculty. Time will tell if these professionally-recorded sessions will be replaced by “home movie”-quality videos. An intermediate step to hiring videographers would be to contract with local videography professionals until the quantity of work is sufficient to justify such a move.
- Graphics professionals
- When all lectures are transmitted digitally, it can make sense for the school 1) to help faculty to design their slides and other graphical material in a way that is easy to read and use on screens, and 2) to try to bring about some level of standardization to colors and layouts across faculty, staff, and administration. Graphics professionals are the ones to lead this effort. As with all of these positions, professionals have a wide variety of skills and experience. Further, lots of organizations are available for contract work. Both of these should enable a relatively smooth transition between contract work and increasing the organization’s staffing.
- Instructional technology (IT)
- This is the toughest set of jobs to fill. Two types of needs exist here: production and innovation. Schools are generally quite good at production-related requirements—keeping the network running, providing printers, enabling new devices to connect to the network, keeping the LMS functional, acquiring and installing new versions of software, etc. Innovation-related tasks are another story entirely. They generally have never been asked to innovate, so asking them to create and/or assess innovative educational technologies doom the effort to failure (or to being ignored). Invest in production IT professionals but bring in outside vendors if the school wants to innovate.
2.4 Non-teaching, non-student services
The final dimensions of a college’s activities that I am examining are the non-teaching and non-student services that it provides:
- Research centers
- Invited talks
- Faculty meetings
School leadership must come up with a decision framework and funding guidelines for each of these types of events. Both of these will certainly vary depending on the scenario under which the school is operating. In all instances, the decisions should be guided by the institution’s strategy.
Once the framework and guidelines are in place, then the faculty and administrative leaders of each of those events should be left to execute the details, providing updates to leadership as required.
We have reached the end of this journey. Congratulations! Anyone who has made it this far has a clear picture of all that needs to be done to offer competitive and compelling online learning. Just as a traditional residential degree is more than just the courses a student takes, offering an online degree requires more than just creating online courses.
A path does exist between the current state of offering remote teaching courses and offering a compelling online educational experience. Defining a strategy for your organization enables you to make that journey; doing so without one will ensure that your attempts to succeed will be too expensive, too difficult, and have a lower chance of succeeding. However, having the strategy does not ensure that you will be successful.
The decisions that you must make are difficult and many. The path to success will be hard to find but they exist. You no longer can choose to not play in the game, so you might as well get started. Good luck.
Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or comments.
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.