Report outline challenges, tips from college and university officials implementing online learning programs

online-learning-challengesAccording to recent polls and surveys among college and universities that are either in the final stages, or have fully implemented, online learning courses and platforms, there are a number of common, well-defined challenges and trends experienced by IT departments and faculty. The good news is: there are also scalable tips.

The data comes from a recent UPCEA and NASPA report on thoughts from higher-ed leaders on the challenges and emerging trends in online education.

In general, “Postsecondary leaders recommend tapping into existing expertise across the organization in areas such as online pedagogy, organizational models, lean innovation, and post-traditional student success,” say UPCEA and NASPA in the report. “They also offer advice for how to avoid potential pitfalls involved in scaling online programs and centralizing related decision making and resources. Finally, many suggest that ensuring a good experience for online students benefits all.”

The UPCEA and NASPA report polled 675 administrators, most of whom are chief student affairs officers and senior-most administrators in charge of online, continuing, and/or professional education, and presents a comprehensive look at trends—both current and emerging—driving online learning in higher education, as well as the common challenges and scalable tips for implementation.

(Next page: Challenges and tips)

Due to increases in student trends toward online learning options, colleges and universities are increasingly implementing online and blended learning programs, says the UPCEA and NASPA; however, many challenges can be identified as common thanks to recent networking events among higher-ed online learning leaders, ranging from small baccalaureate through large research institutions.

And from these challenges have emerged seven scalable tips for all institutions, as well as two emerging trends for institutions to keep on their radar.

Seven scalable tips:

1. Don’t bite off more than you can chew: Begin with self-contained programs, such as graduate or degree completion programs to allow for modeling successful online implementation and build interest and support from stakeholders. Allowing time for maturation is also critical, as scaling quality programs takes planning and investment with strong leadership and buy-in throughout the institution. One vice president of online learning, said, “Graduate programs are a much easier place to start because they’re contained within a single department. You don’t have to figure out general education requirements. Start with degree completion programs that are transfer-friendly within a department that wants to play. As more faculty get comfortable, they’ll start coming out of the woodwork to take programs online.”

2. Engage broadly, but don’t fight uphill battles: Including all stakeholders in early discussions ensures their input is heard and that potential issues or resistance is identified early. Next, partnering with early adopters to launch initial programs will help the success of the program win over any detractors—this goes for faculty in particular, who often influence their peers and focus on developing the infrastructure that will make online learning successful.

3. Tap into existing expertise: If the institution has had online, distance, or professional education, those responsible for these units and their teams likely hold a great deal of valuable expertise, operating in an “innovative environment outside the mainstream of the institution, one with the student experience at the center,” describes the report. “Leverage their experience working with post-traditional students and supporting students in an online environment. You may find that ideas and strategies that did not work well previously now prove incredibly effective when implemented within the proper context.”

4. Hammer out the issues with one program before trying to scale: Use early programs as a laboratory to work out the kinks and design solutions to the issues that arise with scale in mind. According to the report, it’s important to consider:

  • How will intellectual property rights be handled for course content?
  • How will online classes be adapted for ADA compliance?
  • How will support services be offered to students?
  • Will the transactional interface and processes for registration be the same or different?
  • How will tech and instructional design support be delivered to faculty?
  • How will you ensure academic integrity in the online environment?
  • What is the criteria and process for selecting courses/programs to take online?
  • What are the quality standards for course content and production value?

According to one vice provost for academic affairs at a large research institution, “Centralizing allowed us to address ADA compliance, state authorization, develop a robust IP description, and support for instructional design, but most importantly, quality control.”

5. Define a system for gathering data and assessing performance: Institutions should think ahead to the questions they’ll want answered when online learning is fully scaled and integrated. Also consider how this data can inform innovations in the face-to-face learning environment, “especially as the line between traditional and online learning become blurred,” says the report. “…the rich data from online learning is sparking a sort of pedagogical renaissance at some campuses.”

6. Recognize online students need different services than traditional students: Though many online students are likely to be adults juggling family and work, “even if they are 18 years old, they don’t have the benefit of being able to wander into a support center on campus,” emphasizes the report. Many respondents of the survey warned against the assumption that online students somehow don’t need high quality developmental support, just because they are often older than their campus counterparts. According to the vice provost for online learning at one large public university, “Sometimes you can tap into the ground services if they’re easily accessible online, but otherwise you have to build it differently. Career planning and placement tools, financial aid, bursar, etc., those can stay the same, but for others such as counseling, career coaching, tutoring – these need to be tailored [to the online environment].” Because of growing diversity in our student body, “our approach to developmental support is changing,” said the provost of an online university. “We’re embedding coaching, career development, mentoring, and the like through our academic programs.”

7. A good online experience benefits all students: Even traditional residential students are increasingly incorporating online and hybrid classes into their programs, notes the report, since they’re often tech natives and used to self-service resources. As a result, these traditional students now expect a “unified student support experience that moves with them across their online and on-campus courses,” explains the report. “This means that designing excellent support experiences for online students means addressing the needs of all students.” The development of centralized services for online students accessible anytime, anywhere can help control chaos and confusion, say survey respondents.

For more information on the survey, the advice from respondents, and the emerging trends to take note of, read the executive summary here.

(Next page: Infographic on challenges and trends)

onlinelearnchallengesinfographicresized


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