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U.S. News and World Report recently published its ranking of the best online MBA programs. The list featured 284 schools with online master’s degree programs in business administration. In December 2017, this number was 251, meaning 33 new online MBA programs were launched in the past six months!

It’s an understatement to say that online learning has emerged as top-of-mind for many institutional leaders. And for good reason. Scaling offerings through online programs or courses has become an inherent part of growth for public, private, and non-traditional colleges and universities. And for some it is even a matter of survival.

Every day, we speak to university faculty and administrators who are looking to create an online course or degree program to increase enrollment, expand their revenue base, or reposition their brand. Those conversations usually begin with the same question: “How do we put this course/program online?”

At this point, I look for a diplomatic way to explain that’s not the right question to be asking. The real question is based on a shift in thinking about online learning. You are not simply putting a course online; you are creating an online product. It’s an important distinction. Your product—the program, course, certificate, or degree—has to be unique and very specific to what your market of current and prospective students want. The question that should be asked is: “How do we create a world-class learning experience that’s tailored to our students?”

Which brings me to the single biggest mistake a university can make when creating an online course or degree program. Unfortunately, it’s also the most common one: undifferentiated online learning.

Why a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work
The vast majority of online programs are simply online versions of an already established in-person program, or a replica of a program that can be found at dozens of other universities. I’ve seen little in these cookie-cutter courses that conveys an individual institution’s distinctive approach to education. Faculty become commodities. Most are virtually identical across institutions, differentiated only by the colors and logo. With this one-size-fits-all approach, unique pedagogy and branding virtually disappears. And, when this happens, what is an institution offering students that is distinctive or unique?

The single biggest mistake universities make when going online

Authentic, differentiated, visionary programs are driving the future of higher education. Now, more than ever, institutions need to create something that is unique and of value, which means you need to be in the driver’s seat and rise above the fray to capture and maintain students’ attention.

Geography used to be a differentiator for MBA programs, but saying you’re a “top 10 school in New England” doesn’t really help with an online MBA. The geography is now the online landscape, and the student experience online is the new campus. Having a differentiated campus is vital to program success. If the school gets this wrong, it almost doesn’t matter how well they execute the other aspects of course development and delivery.

Why aren’t more schools embracing differentiated, student-focused online learning? A lot of it comes down to governance. Universities have a governance structure that tends to favor the minimization of change and the reduction of risk. Instead of talking about enabling excellence, many institutions are stuck on standardization and adoption rates.

Excellence will be defined differently for each institution depending on the pedagogy, desired student experience and outcomes, their brand, and other attributes that make them unique. Colleges and universities need to take another look at where their online programs are going and their satisfaction with that direction. Is running with the crowd really what they want to be doing?

It’s time to move away from mass-produced, cookie-cutter programs that take a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, differentiate your students’ online learning experience, and thus your institution, by creating authentic, adaptive, engaging, customized programs that embrace your institution’s distinctive approach to education.

About the Author:

Furqan Nazeeri is a partner at ExtensionEngine, helping universities, corporations, and nonprofits develop online and blended programs that leverage the latest advances in learning science and technology to engage learners. He is a frequent speaker at conferences focused on innovations in online learning.


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