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Online Program Paralysis: A Uniquely Modern Higher Education Malady

Online learning is here to stay, and is in fact growing, whether we’ve all accepted that reality or not. The pandemic pushed every institution forward; most institutions delivered something ranging from an “emergency” version of themselves online to high-quality e-learning built for the future. 

But objectively, how would your institution answer the following questions?

  • Are you positioned to capture a share of the growing online education market? 
  • Can you offer distinction in an increasingly competitive marketplace? 
  • How would your markets answer these questions?
  • How would your faculty answer these questions? 

If you’re unsure (or don’t want to say!), you’re not alone. Regardless, the following questions must be answered or your institution risks falling behind in the rapidly changing online landscape. As important, it must also have the clarity and conviction to act – to invest – with confidence.

1: What online programs should we be offering?

Any high-quality face-to-face program can also succeed online, right? Be careful with this assumption!  Eduvantis has seen this one play out, perhaps too many times. A program’s on-campus success does not necessarily equate to online success. There are many factors to consider, such as current and projected growth, changing market expectations around online offerings, type of online delivery format, university brand, expected return on investment, and willingness to meet an entirely new set of competitors. 

Among other things, institutions must analyze enrollment/conferral trends and job market data, conduct primary market research among prospective students, and benchmark against local, regional, and national markets. Bringing a market-based perspective to the decision-making around launching an online program and knowing exactly which market indicators to study are critical to making good, objective choices.

2: Should we outsource, lease, or build a new program?

When launching online programs, there are many options, pros, and cons. The decision to outsource, build, or lease (i.e., licensing learning technology from an EdTech company to supplement online courses or programs) must include consideration of factors such as available human capital, university culture, and availability of investment capital for start-up and ongoing program costs. Evaluating the factors to consider for each option, allowing you to make informed decisions, is imperative, but also can be paralyzing. We have seen schools get stuck in this phase for more than a year, paralyzed by choice.  We suggest you quickly, but thoroughly, assess your options, then move forward without looking back.

Note: A variation on this is if you are already using an OPM and are in the position to potentially alter that relationship. The same approach applies, even if you’re at a different starting point.

3: How should our hybrid/online offering be constructed to gain maximum market interest?

Planning for online programs requires careful consideration regarding how courses will be constructed:

  • Should courses have a single delivery model or should they be partially face-to-face / partially online?
  • Should the online portions be offered synchronously, asynchronously, or a combination of the two?
  • What assignment due date cadence should be established? 
  • How will group projects work?
  • Should courses be offered lockstep with a cohort of students or should learners progress at their own pace?

Our extensive experience researching these questions for many institutions has taught us one thing for sure – these details really matter, and it is different, to some degree, in every market. Measuring broad and institution-specific consumer preferences through a variety of methods helps you make informed, confident, data-based decisions about how offerings should be structured for an online environment. 

4: How should we construct our program curriculum most efficiently for scalability?

The right curriculum is an essential element of a degree program, but how it’s structured for online delivery is often an afterthought. It seems simple – just do what we’re doing on campus. This doesn’t work. There are numerous considerations when creating a scalable and efficient online program. 

Eduvantis recommends beginning with a close look at industry trends, conducting a competitor analysis to understand what similar online programs currently exist and how they’re structured, and determining which programs are growing and why. Deep-dive conversations with key stakeholders to identify the right program features are also essential. All of this helps to inform design sessions to create a curriculum model and program plan, which serve as a roadmap for subsequent program development.

5: In what ways might our various departments need altering?

It’s one thing to create an online program; it’s another to ensure your college or university has the infrastructure and operational capacity in place to adequately recruit, cultivate, instruct, and support students in a variety of ways essential to competitive success. For example, assessing how your institution interacts with students – from enrollment through graduation – is critical to identifying any gaps in staffing, processes, training, or technology, a failure of which will sink even an optimally-designed program in a growing market. 

Consider this your to-do list. Wherever you sit on the online sophistication continuum, rest assured you are not alone! Having worked with more than 100 institutions, Eduvantis knows nearly every one of them is wrestling, to some degree, with these issues. If your college or university would benefit from a collaborative, objective (and empathetic) strategic partner with proven higher education experience to help you navigate the ever-evolving online education market, we would welcome hearing from you.

About Stacia Klasen, Ed.D.

Stacia Klasen, Ed.D.

Stacia Klasen is a consultant with Eduvantis, a leading strategic consulting and digital marketing firm for higher education. She has nearly 20 years of experience in the higher education industry, primarily within the online learning sector. Stacia has served in various student affairs and academic leadership roles at the institutional level, as well as within the OPM space, where she consulted with university partners to implement impactful and scalable online degree programs using data-driven insights.