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22st Annual OLC International Conference
November 16-18, 2016 | Orlando, Florida | Walt Disney World Swan/Dolphin Resort

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April 20-22, 2016 | New Orleans, LA | Sheraton New Orleans Hotel

Getting From Here to There; Best Practices for Strategic Planning for Online Education

Elliot King (Loyola University Maryland, USA)
Additional Authors
Neil Alperstein (Loyola University Maryland, USA)
Session Information
October 16, 2015 - 10:45am
Institutional Strategies & Innovations
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Research Study
Institutional Level: 
Universities and Four Year Institutions
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Southern Hemisphere V
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 10
Virtual Session

An analysis of 30 publicly available plans reveals fundamentally different approaches to strategic planning for online education. Best practices are proposed.

Extended Abstract

Motivated in part by accrediting and governmental agencies' demands for accountability, strategic planning has become a more common practice in many institutions of higher education (Hinton, 2012.) Part of the challenge in developing meaningful strategic plans in higher education stems from colleges and universities being what are called "loosely coupled organizations." In a loosely coupled organization, while the activities of different units and stakeholders are linked in some way, most units maintain their own identities, goals and at least semi-autonomous decision-making authority (Wieck, 1976.) In a university setting, the organizational goals of the advancement division, for example, while related or "coupled" in some ways to those of let's say the academic unit, may remain relatively independent as well. The loosely coupled model makes it particularly difficult to implement institution-wide innovative initiatives that impinge on many different units or divisions.

Mindful of the innovation being spurred by online educational opportunities and the pressure on the traditional residential model for undergraduate education coming from several directions, every university and college in America must address the role online educational will play in their institutions over the next several years (Lorenzetti, 2012.) While every college and university does not have to offer online education, all institutions of higher education must determine how online education does or does not fit within their specific mission and why; and how to incorporate those decisions into their overall strategic planning process. In practice, an overwhelming majority of institutions see offering online education as an important part of their ongoing strategy (Allen and Seamon 2015.) What is less clear is how to involve stakeholders across this university in that effort.

Developing and growing a purposeful and intentional set of online educational programs is not well understood and has a unique set of requirements (Minnaar 2013.) For most colleges and universities, online education represents either a relatively new initiative or one whose footprint is broadening quickly in response to perceived market opportunities or other reasons. In many cases, online educational offerings have been developed on an ad-hoc basis by different units in the institution outside or ancillary to the primary academic mission (King and Alperstein, 2014.) That landscape is changing rapidly and as online education becomes more central in many colleges and universities, care must be taken to understand how the development of online educational programs fits into the overall mission of the institution, particularly its specific educational mission. As those determinations take place, online education places demands on various resources within the university, ranging from technology, to records to the faculty development and beyond. In short, colleges and universities need to develop a vision for online education that fits within the overall vision of the institution and a plan that will enable the institution to mobilize the resources needed to achieve and sustain that vision.

The process is not easy but strategic planning can play a useful role. Strategic planning has several well-defined principles and processes. Among the central tenants are:
* Identifying key value propositions
* Defining core, distinctive and unique competencies
* Cultivating commitment from key stakeholders
* Developing appropriate measures to gauge progress

With it roots in business operations, strategic planning in higher education has traditionally been a top down exercise. To understand how strategic planning methods are being applied specifically to online educations, thirty publicly available strategic plans for online education were reviewed. The objective was to determine the stakeholders, goals and strategies incorporated in the plans and to better understand how different institutions engaged in planning for online education. Plans were assessed to see how uniform and consistent strategic planning for online education was as well as to determine if strategic planning for online education adhered to best practices. The results highlight the variety of approaches institutions use for the strategic planning process for online education. Most plans differ in scope, reach and time frame. They were developed by different stakeholders and have different goals and objectives. Finally, most plans fail to account for impact the growth of online education may have on other aspects of the university.

People who attend this presentation will:

1. Be introduced to the principles of strategic planning
2. Review the results of a study comparing and contrasting strategic plans for online education from different institutions.
3. Explore potential best practices for strategic planning.
4. Engage in a short simulated strategic planning exercise.

The session will be hands-on and interactive. The goal is to help people apply core strategic planning concepts to the context and vision for online education in their institutions and develop appropriate approaches to shaping the future of online education in their settings.


Hinton, Karen E., A Practical Guide to Strategic Planning in Higher Education, Society for College and University Planning, 2012

Wieck, Karl E, "Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems," Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 21, No.1 Mar. 1976, pg. 3

Lorenzetti, Jennifer Patterson, "Why Schools Must Include Distance Learning in Strategic Plans," Distance Education Report, Vol. 16, No. 23 Dec. 1, 2012 pg. 1

Allen, I. Elaine and Jeff Seamon, "Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United State," Babson Survey Research Group, January 2015

Minnaar, Ainsie "Challenges for Successful Planning of Open and Distance Learning: A Template Approach," The International Research Review of Open and Distance Learning, Vol. 14 No. 3 July 2013

King, Elliot and Neil Alperstein, Best Practices in Online Program Development (New York and London: Routledge) 2014

Lead Presenter

Elliot King is the chair of the Department of Communication at Loyola University Maryland and the co-founder of its M.A. program in Emerging Media. He is the author or co-author of seven books including Best Practices in Online Program Development (Routledge, 2014) as well as hundreds of articles--academic, professional and popular--about the use of new computer and communciation technologies in different environments.