Most higher education institutions developing online courses and programs have it all wrong.
Every day, we speak to universities that are looking to launch new online-learning initiatives, and many of these conversations start with the same question: “How do we put these courses online?”
By asking a few initial questions of our own, we’ve found that most institutions tend to anchor their thinking to their existing on-campus courses. This approach is limiting at best, and a recipe for mediocrity in many cases.
Instead of thinking about your new online initiative—whether it’s a single course or an entire degree program—as a generic rework of your on-campus courses, we recommend thinking of it as an entirely new educational experience. A new product. One that demands that you carefully evaluate all your requirements and ensure the program is designed specifically with your target audience of current students and prospective students in mind.
In other words, approach the process as a product company would when planning to launch a new offering.
(Next page: How to develop an online-learning program)There are several key steps to consider, most of which are overlooked. They include:
• Start with a business plan. Outline learner personas, target markets, revenue and cost projections, funding sources, faculty and operational resources, go-to-market plan, positioning, and unique differentiators.
• Articulate your vision. Ensure the program is designed to be unique and will address your students’ needs. And remember, you are now serving different students, providing different value, and competing against different competitors, some of whom may not even be universities.
• Create the organizational structure. Determine processes, secure resources, or find trusted external resources who can support you as you develop internal capacity and expertise.
• Identify creative ways to make your pedagogy come alive in a unique way in an online or blended format.
• Determine your learning platform. Don’t just assume that your learning management system (LMS) is the right place to host the learning—many limit interesting pedagogical approaches and result in non-differentiated offerings. Think big and look at other solutions: modern LMS platforms, open-source platforms, or even custom platforms. Make sure the vision drives the technology or, as I like to say, “Pedagogy over platform.”
• Maintain control. Ensure you have complete control over the vision and end product.
• Closely monitor progress. Track key milestones and user experiences to ensure your product is meeting user needs.
Defining a custom learning platform
The idea of a new or custom learning platform is the one that initially puzzles people. Many ask, “With all the money we’ve invested in an LMS, why not just use that?” And yes, if this were 2008, I might agree. But it is not. Online students have many options, so the experience needs to be engaging, flexible, immersive, and, most important, valuable. And unfortunately, most traditional higher-ed LMS solutions just don’t get you there.
Take a cue from some of the most successful online product businesses and treat your learning platform as the centerpiece of your online initiative. Do you think Amazon uses an off-the-shelf ecommerce platform? Or eBay? What about Netflix or YouTube—do you think they use a generic video player? Did edX or Udemy choose a basic LMS?
Of course not. That’s because for these organizations, the online platform is their business. It’s core to what they do, and they need to have control of the experience. They are not putting offline offerings online; they are online businesses.
Let’s look at this another way. Assume you were going to start a new on-campus degree program that requires new classrooms. Would you call “Buildings-R-Us” and buy a generic building that’s similar to scores of other buildings on other campuses? Would you ask students and faculty to just adapt to that building and deal with the limitations?
Or would you hire an experienced architect who understands needs of the faculty, the program, and the students and ask them to think about this as more than just a building, but as a learning space, critical to the experience of the students and success of the program? Would you then hire a construction firm to build that building based on the architectural plans?
Of course you would. That has been the standard for decades. So why are online-learning programs treated differently?
When considering your next online-learning initiative, think about the unique requirements of your students, your faculty, and your program. Then approach it the same way a company would when developing a new product in a competitive market, and ensure you’re offering a truly differentiated, engaging solution.
Think big, be bold, and think like a product company.
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