I am sitting at the SeaTac airport waiting to fly back to Boston from the 2019 UPCEA Annual Conference, and I thought I’d share some observations from my conversations with conference attendees.
Every year the market for online learning changes, and my conversations reflect that. I had multiple exchanges about competition, capacity & capability, and faculty engagement.
All, one way or the other, came back to online program managers (OPMs) and their relationships with schools.
The market is a long way from the “build it and they will come” stage. It’s also past the “first-mover advantage” stage for most programs. Customers seem to be choosing between two different types of moves into the market:
- “We just need something so that people who want to choose us can choose us. It doesn’t need to be very good. It just needs to be online so that it is convenient.” Let’s call this the convenience move.
- “We are entering a crowded market and need to do something effective and engaging, and that builds on our distinctive strengths.” Let’s call this the distinctive move.
Neither of these moves is necessarily the right one. But I would say that you should make an explicit decision as to which direction you’re going rather than accidentally ending up with a convenience program in a crowded market.
Further, don’t think that you can build a distinctive program on a shoestring budget. Think of it this way: A university typically uses an architect who specializes in academic buildings to design a campus building to its exacting specifications. Why? Because the university wants a building that both projects its intentions to succeed in the affiliated programs and enables it to succeed in those programs. It can’t do this by saying, “Build what you built for your last client. It’ll be good enough for us. Change the colors, but keep everything else the same.” That’s not going to work with academic buildings, and it’s not going to work if you’re trying to create an online program with a traditional OPM on a platform that everyone else is using.
Sometimes the convenience move is appropriate. Sometimes the distinctive move is appropriate. Choose carefully.
Capacity & capability
The promise that traditional OPMs make is “sit back and relax; we’ll handle this.” It’s an enticing vision, especially for an overburdened administration. I can definitely see why it’s so hard to resist. Schools generally have very little excess capacity in both their information technology (IT) and learner experience design (LXD) staffs. I have often said, “The two hardest things to do in academia are to hire staff and to fire staff.” Well, if you go the OPM route, you don’t have to worry about that so much. That’s why you pay them!
This can be a Faustian bargain for the school, because in seven to ten years it might end up with no more (or, possibly, even less) expertise in online learning than it had when it started. The online world is sure to be even more complex and will demand more expertise and investment at that time than it does now. Further, skills in and expertise related to online learning will be required core competencies for school leadership, but OPM customers won’t have the opportunity to gain them. And “online” learning won’t be some segregated portion of the school; it will be an integral part of the institution’s offerings, providing face-to-face courses, blended programs, new credentials, and whatever else evolves over the next decade. How does a school think it’s going to extricate itself smoothly from these relationships when it doesn’t own the intellectual property (IP) of the courses, doesn’t have control of the platform on which the courses are hosted, and has neither the capacity nor the capability to create and manage online programs?
Certainly, it would be great if a school were simply able to hire the people and develop the skills and insights that it needs overnight. But this usually isn’t realistic. Extension Engine specializes in providing a solution to both of these problems:
- Capacity: We fit our staff with and around yours. If you need instructional design (ID; or technology or video, etc.) capacity, we’ll provide it until you want to (and can) provide it yourself. Your staff works with ours and will gain the insights that our staff has accumulated during the creation of dozens of online learning programs.
- Capability: We go into an engagement with a customer knowing that it will come to an end. It will end when the school has the knowledge, insight, skills, and abilities to carry on self-sufficiently. These proficiencies must be developed in the areas of strategic thinking, marketing, project management skills, LXD expertise, creative and video expertise, and IT expertise in the academic tech stack and pedagogical tools. We can help you hire the appropriate people and help you develop a road map for managing and running the program yourself.
The third major theme of my conversations with attendees revolved around faculty engagement — mostly related to the fact that it’s hard to find and nurture. As a former faculty member myself for 20+ years, I feel like I can comment on this from a position of empathy. It’s hard to get faculty engaged with the process of developing and teaching online courses for lots of really good and valid reasons. That’s to be expected — and their reasons should be respected — but it’s still true that the school has a need to for the online program (usually related to revenue) or it wouldn’t be going through the effort of trying to create it.
So what’s the leader of a program to do?
- She has to recognize that creating an online course is a nontrivial effort by faculty and should be rewarded appropriately (through money and/or a reduced teaching load during the semester that the course is being created). This should be discussed openly with the program’s faculty leaders. In order for this to be a productive conversation, the finances of the program have to be considered by all.
- Now that what I would refer to as “the basics” of faculty engagement have been handled, the leader must address the implicit rewards that a faculty member enjoys. This involves, to a greater or lesser extent with different faculty, the following dimensions:
- Personality: Most faculty like to teach a course that feels like their course. They want to introduce and explain topics in a certain way and use certain examples at specific times. Before choosing a vendor (or internal team) that is going to be used to create a program, faculty should understand how that team might integrate their personality (or teaching approach, or pedagogy) into the course. Some give-and-take is necessary between “anything goes” and “you have to do it this way.” But this conversation should be held at the beginning of the process, not while a course is being created. Too much relies on this understanding — including both student satisfaction and the program’s financial viability. This also demands that the vendor be clear about the extent it is willing and able to accommodate individual faculty members.
- Relationship: Many faculty, but certainly not all, get into teaching because they like to develop relationships with students. The program leader definitely needs to understand the faculty’s desires, because this can have a great impact on pedagogical choices, program size, and (of course) financial viability. A range of options are available (depending on the type of institution), from intensive use of graders, assembly into smaller cohorts that are headed by teaching assistants (TAs), or simply limiting the size of courses that a single faculty is responsible for. Again, all of these choices have significant financial implications; an in-depth and open discussion between the program leader and her leading faculty needs to happen so that an informed decision can be reached and accepted. This demands that the vendor (or internal team) be able to design a program under a variety of different decisions related to relationship building.
These components — the integration of personality and the understanding of relationship — should be supported by amazing, high-quality LXD professionals (such as those at Extension Engine). These professionals help each faculty member create a personalized curriculum while ensuring that it's a high-quality online course (and minimizing faculty workload in the process).
If faculty believe that the OPM vendor is arriving with an established vision for the program, with predefined pedagogical options for the courses, and with the learner experience limited to whatever its platform already supports, they may feel that their needs are being ignored and that their standing at the school is being minimized. Extension Engine’s approach is designed to draw faculty into the visioning, planning, and execution of the program and course design as early as possible so that their needs regarding personality and relationship are met — leading not to opposition but to a faculty partnership in the actual process.
The above provides a pretty fair accounting of the concerns of the UPCEA attendees I spoke with. And it should provide some insight into how Extension Engine thinks about and addresses these issues.
Let me know if you want to talk — you can send me an email at email@example.com. I love hearing about challenges that professionals are working to address.
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