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Online Learning Response Team: An Efficient, Holistic, Adaptable Approach to Getting Online

The pandemic has challenged higher education institutions to move their courses online quickly. The varied status of each school prohibits a one-size-fits-all prescription for how to move forward. Extension Engine has created an Online Learning Response Team (OLRT) to work with schools with varying needs to define (and help execute) an efficient, holistic, adaptable approach to getting online. In this article, I describe our approach, highlight our work with two vastly different schools, and then provide a quick description of next steps to determine if this would work for you.

Extension Engine's Team

The composition of the team

The process of moving online is complex, with far-reaching implications that have both short-term and long-term effects. Team members include specialists in:

  • Strategic and organizational design
  • Instructional design leadership and operations
  • Project management (for coordination, information gathering, and centralized communication)

The benefits of such a team are many:

  • There is depth and diversity of knowledge related to online learning.
  • A nimble, small, core team perceives commonalities and distinctions among and across institutions.
  • A team of specialists with different backgrounds can define and launch projects quickly and confidently.
  • Adjustments can be made readily as things change (due to factors both internal to organizations and from external forces, e.g., changing COVID-19 ‘rules’).
  • A centralized knowledge base promotes a low start-up cost and quicker time to start.
  • An experienced team can balance an institution’s near-term need to prepare online courses quickly and efficiently with the institution’s longer-term goal of building lasting online learning infrastructure and capabilities.

Process

Extension Engine’s approach is always one of building a plan for implementation based on an understanding of the current situation. Let’s take a look at these stages.

  • Assessment: Our team assesses the current position of the school. We review the school’s mission and business goals. We determine existing resources (personnel, allocated budget, technology). We examine the issues related to when it wants to reach its goals (e.g., its timeline) as well as the status of its current courses and programs. We take note of scale in several dimensions (number of courses, number of faculty, number of schools, and diversity across that spectrum). Finally, the team notes the risks that the school faces relative to the market, the economy, political circumstances, and more. 
  • Planning: Next, our team devises a plan that addresses the school’s specific goals and needs, is as efficient as possible given the scale and level of service that must be provided, and integrates existing school resources (both digital and human) while creating and providing resources (same) that are needed. The first point is critical and somewhat surprising — Extension Engine does not follow a generic plan but composes one based on the client’s specific needs and situation. 
  • Implementation: Finally, our team executes, or helps to execute, the plan. Sometimes that means that we handle the decision-making, coordination, communication, and course creation. Sometimes it means holding office hours or leading group training sessions. Sometimes it means helping individual faculty members. Again, it all depends on the school’s unique situation.
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The typical timeline that we’ve seen is from twelve to fifteen weeks from the first day of the engagement until the end. Assessment and planning take about two to three weeks, while implementation takes the rest of the time. The cost is approximately $10,000–$15,000 per week, depending on the organization’s objectives.

Goals

The Online Learning Response Team strives to achieve three important objectives in its work — to make the online learning plan and its implementation efficient, holistic, and adaptable.

  • Efficient: As described above, the team takes the time to create a plan before it starts working. This keeps the efforts of all team members as focused as possible. It is easy for the scope of the project to creep and for the timeline to slip, and having a plan in place minimizes those risks. Having a plan in place before starting to work on the courses also keeps messaging consistent across all of the faculty and staff working on the project; there will be many constituents, so keeping them all aligned will minimize problems. Finally, creating a plan early allows the team to focus efforts on developing assets and processes that can be widely deployed and be most effective. 
  • Holistic: The team also works to create a plan and execute it with a holistic vision. We  look at the entire organization (as widely as is feasible: the department, school, or even the university) to determine how our efforts can build on, and not duplicate, those of the organization. We aim to coordinate across both many units and individual employees at the institution and at Extension Engine, either providing new capabilities or supplementing existing internal teams and resources.
  • Adaptable: Every plan that Extension Engine develops differs from all others, for reasons as varied as they are numerous: the initial situation, overall goals, intermediate deliverables, available resources, existing technologies, plans for future work, and so on. Further, although the initial plan is carefully constructed, during execution we stay attuned to the need to adapt it. This is why we work with an agile methodology and always have an eye on the overall timeline, the immediate past, and the near-term future.

Each of these important dimensions helps to describe a school that would be a perfect match for our team. If you want to move quickly and desire a holistic solution that can be adapted as the situation changes, then our team would love to work with you.

Two different projects

In the following I describe our engagements with two very different institutions with correspondingly different needs. We started working with each in May 2020 in preparation for this fall semester. One is a small liberal arts college that needed quite a bit of help with assessing, planning, coordinating, and implementing remote learning; the other is a large Research 1 (R1) university that mostly needed help with planning and implementing their online courses. Both are on the way to a successful launch in September, though each will arrive via a different path.

Small liberal arts college

This school has about 400 faculty with 1,200 courses to put online for this fall. Leadership did not have a clear understanding of how many faculty wanted help, how many courses needed attention, or the extent of the work potentially required for specific courses. So far, the faculty have not fully endorsed the idea of using their campus learning management system (LMS) to manage information (syllabi, documents, assignments) for their courses, let alone allowing the LMS to be integrated into the delivery of course content. 

Given the combination of scale and unknowns, leadership first needed help assessing their exposure to the risk of being unable to deliver courses face-to-face in September. To start, we created a stakeholder map of the organization to help identify who the college needed to enlist in this effort. This also highlighted those faculty and staff who would coordinate with our team to build a unified strategy and plan. 

Then we created an online survey to gather information about the college’s fall courses and the faculty teaching them. This survey had several purposes:

  • Information for professors: The survey provided information for professors. First, the questions themselves furnished clear information about expectations for the fall. After submitting the survey, professors immediately received an automatically generated survey results document with a numerical rating on the school’s risk assessment of the faculty’s courses. 
  • Information for administrators: The main purpose of the survey was to capture information about the state of fall courses in terms of their readiness for remote teaching. The Extension Engine team worked with the college’s leadership team to determine their expectations for “acceptable” online courses in the fall. Our team designed the survey around their particular needs. Administrators also received a copy of each professor’s survey results; they could provide guidance to the Extension Engine team on a course-by-course basis as needed.
  • Shared planning document: Each professor’s submitted survey was also accompanied by a shared planning document (available in Google Docs). This document contained initial recommendations for what needed to be done in preparation for the fall. In any project, this document is used by instructional designers as a starting point for providing individual guidance to faculty. These professionals can contribute to the document, and it can provide a living record of recommendations and completed tasks.

We soon saw that faculty were not getting as involved in the training and preparation process as the college had hoped they would, so our team helped run a more visible outreach program (including internal marketing videos to describe the program and the help being provided). We also began offering office hours to help specific faculty. Finally, we developed training materials for the faculty. As Extension Engine policy, all of these resources and materials are the property of the college even after the engagement is over.

Large R1 university

In contrast, this big research university determined that they wanted to improve the existing online course experience for their large freshman-oriented courses in a variety of schools and subject areas. University leadership decided to deliver the courses online regardless of whether the campus was open. They identified the faculty who would be teaching the courses in the fall and who would collaborate with us to improve them. We would work with the faculty to help them reduce the risk of going online, building each faculty member’s confidence in teaching remotely. 

We have been working with faculty individually. We collaboratively developed reasonable project goals (given the time available) while leaving space for faculty to identify their own priorities, all in service of helping them restructure their courses to be more flexible with their teaching methodology and approach. 

We also developed a set of resources — before even beginning work with the faculty — based on the school’s overall mission and metrics of success. We coordinated these resources with those developed around the university to make it easier for a faculty member to know what to do without being overwhelmed.

Next steps 

In conclusion, here’s an idea of what the next few months might look like, which might help you envision how Extension Engine could support your school's preparation for January.

The next few months

It is clear that schools are heads-down, working on this fall. As of the end of July 2020, most schools have already announced whether or not they are going to be online. Even for those schools that are planning on being face-to-face in the fall, they have to prepare for the eventuality (even if it’s only privately) that they will have to be online at some point. 

As for January 2021 courses, far fewer schools have announced their plans. Most are likely waiting to see what enrollment will look like in the fall. Our pessimism surrounding the return to a normal, face-to-face experience is based on the need for a vaccine, as well as the timeline for administering it to hundreds of millions of people. As for the need, according to this study (led by researchers at King’s College in the UK), antibodies that provide immunity from COVID-19 may only stay in the body for a few months. This indicates an ongoing need for social distancing until a highly effective vaccine is available globally, possibly for multiple vaccinations per year. As for delivering the vaccine, it will take months for hundreds of millions — if not billions — of doses to be manufactured, distributed, and administered. Thus, even if everything goes well, it will likely be Fall 2021 before any semblance of normality returns and with it, the face-to-face college experience that we once took for granted.

Thus, colleges should be preparing online courses for January 2021 just as surely as they are preparing online courses for September 2020. Further, given the need for revenue, colleges should also be preparing to ramp up their online offerings for Summer 2021.

Given all of the above, college leadership should ask themselves the following questions to determine if engaging with Extension Engine is right for their school:

  • Do you consider your online courses a strategic part of your overall portfolio? Or are these something that you would rather create as inexpensively as possible, hoping to rely on them as little as possible after COVID-19 fades?
  • Do you have a “special sauce” or a point of view related to education that you want to be reflected in your online learning? Or do you want to use a standard learning approach and get it done as cheaply as possible?
  • Do you want your team to build competency over time, enabling your school to create your own online courses? Or would you rather turn it all over to a third party and let them handle all of the details?
  • Do you want to own all of the revenue and have full transparency into what has been spent, what has been accomplished, and what is being planned? Or, again, would you rather pay a third party via revenue sharing and let them handle all of the details and gain all of the expertise related to online learning?

If you answered “yes” to the first question in each bullet point above, then we should talk. We love working with organizations like that. We understand that, in the short term, shortcuts will have to be made in order to get online quickly; however, as has been laid out in this paper, we also think that there is a right way to do this. We know what we’re not for everyone and that many will end up choosing a path that does not involve us; however, we would love to talk and hear about your needs.

Structure of an engagement

In this article, I described how Extension Engine provided a broad range of services for hundreds of courses to a small college, and offered more-personalized support for about a dozen courses at an R1 institution. These examples provide end points on a range of possible projects our team might work on. However, every project will be different, and we will design a plan that is the best mix of a client’s needs and our skills. 

Since the timeline to launch online learning is three to four months (and because mid-November to early January is interrupted by multiple holidays), work on a plan for January 2021 should begin by the end of September. We want to help as many schools as possible set up for success — for themselves and their learners. 

Contact me now to discuss your school’s potential for successful remote learning.

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Dr. Scott Moore

Dr. Scott Moore is the Principal Learning Strategist at Extension Engine. He leads our global Custom Learning Experience practice. In his 5+ years with us, he has worked with dozens of nonprofit, higher education, and learning business organizations as they considered using online learning to support their mission and margin. He has a deep understanding of organizational dynamics, online learning, strategic differentiation, decision-making, and more. Prior to joining Extension Engine, Dr. Moore was a faculty member, administrator, and dean at Michigan Ross and Babson College for 20+ years. Scott holds an MBA from Georgia Tech and a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences from Wharton.

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