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Starting From Zero: Getting an Online Education Program Off the Ground

Amber L. Vaill (Becker College, USA)
Colleen Bielitz (Becker College, USA)
Session Information
October 15, 2015 - 2:30pm
Institutional Strategies & Innovations
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Oceanic 8
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 8

Learn the six key areas to consider when launching an online program and hear how we addressed them to launch Becker College's first online program.

Extended Abstract

While many higher education institutions have already started offering online courses, there are still many schools that have not yet started offering fully online programs. This is especially true with private, non-profit institutions. It is difficult to know where to start. Institutions must have staff in place with the know-how and experience to make it work, and they must ask themselves the right questions from the very beginning in order to have the best chances at success. Discussions must take place across various levels and divisions on the institution, and constituents from many areas must be involved in decision-making and planning efforts. Those involved must know what questions to ask and what types of decisions need to be made. When this planning is done well at the onset, it makes it easier to move forward and accomplish the institution's goals.

This session will focus on outlining the questions that institutions must ask and the decisions that must be made when launching online programs and related support services. We will focus on six key areas of decision-making and discuss what questions to ask and what the literature and best practices tell us about each area. We will also discuss our experiences and efforts toward getting our first online program off the ground at Becker College and provide a roadmap for attendees to assist them in planning and decision-making at their institutions.

The first key area is securing buy-in from various constituent groups on campus, such as faculty and administration. Studies show that the majority of Chief Academic Officers today view online education as an important part of their strategic planning. While administrators often see online programs as a way to enroll more students and generate revenue, faculty often have concerns about the quality of the courses, the institution's brand image, and academic integrity. Providing faculty with data to show why online education can help the institution and placing an emphasis on high quality course development processes can help faculty feel more at ease with online initiatives being offered on their campuses. Evaluating the individual culture of an institution is critical in securing buy-in from the campus community.

The second key area is developing a financial plan. A financial plan, including enrollment projections and a marketing budget, are an essential tool when seeking internal funding at an institution. It is also often a requirement when seeking approval from accrediting agencies. One strategy that has proven successful for working with limited availability of funding is to start small, with a single staff member to oversee operations, and building the team as enrollments and revenue increase. Seeking external funding through grants from foundations that support educational initiatives can also help get a program up and running.

The third key area is deciding where the online support staff will be placed organizationally. While it is common to find such teams located in both IT and academic areas of colleges and universities, it is important to consider institutional culture, working relationships among the various teams, and the pros and cons of placing the team in each area of the organization. While the team will need to be housed in one area, it is important to recognize that it will work across divisions and need to be involved in both academic and technology areas of the institution.

The fourth key area is determining the support services to be offered to faculty and students. It is essential to fully prepare faculty for the challenges of teaching online and with the knowledge and skills to move their teaching skills into an online environment. Pedagogical, as well as technical, training should be provided to faculty before they teach online for the first time, and ongoing support should be made available. Online students should be thoroughly prepared as well through an orientation course or program before their first online course. They should also be provided with ongoing support during their program. There are many ways to provide such training and support, and decisions will need to be made as to the best way to accomplish this. Also, the availability of technical support, including how and when it is delivered, will also need to be discussed.

The fifth key area is determining what, if any, services should be outsourced through a partnership with a service provider. It is important to be honest and look at institutional goals surrounding how fast the program needs to be launched and what can realistically be accomplished internally. Services such as curriculum development, technology hosting, technical support, and marketing and recruitment can all be outsourced, but usually at a significant cost. Some institutions select to start out with a partner and roll back services in-house over time. All of these options need to be explored.

The sixth key area is the selection of strategies for marketing and recruitment. Traditional avenues such as mailers and billboards do not work as well when seeking online enrollments. Institutions should investigate online marketing opportunities such as advertising on social networking sites such as Facebook and search sites such as Google. Many institutions do not invest enough money in marketing, and the number of students enrolled in their programs is often reflective of this. Planning a strategy early on will help secure the number of enrollments that an institution is seeking to bring in.

This session will discuss the key areas noted above, as well as Becker College's approach to each of these areas. We plan to help attendees put together a checklist of things they should consider and point them in the right direction for how to move forward on these checklist items. Individual institutions, all being different in structure and culture, will have different approaches to addressing these issues, but the list will provide attendees with direction on how to proceed. Attendees will be encouraged to ask questions throughout the presentation; we will seek to make the presentation an interactive discussion for all in attendance.

Lead Presenter

Amber L. Vaill is the Director of the Office of Teaching, Learning and Technology at Becker College. This department provides support and training for faculty in areas such as curriculum development, teaching strategies, and digital learning. She has been an educator since 1999, has worked in higher education since 2007, and has over 11 years experience in online education. Prior to working in higher education, she served as a secondary-level classroom and online teacher.

She began her career in online education working with such K-12 educational organizations as The Virtual High School, International Baccalaureate, and Aventa Learning. Through her work in these organizations, she gained experience developing and teaching online courses, designing and facilitating online faculty development programs, creating online student orientations, mentoring new online instructors, and serving as a curriculum coordinator for an Advanced Placement social studies program.

At the college level, Dr. Vaill has worked within academic and IT departments to provide support to faculty and students involved in online learning and to assist faculty with the use of instructional technology in the face-to-face classroom. She has developed student orientation courses for online learners, created online and face-to-face faculty development programs, provided oversight to online learning support staff, provided pedagogical training and ongoing support to online faculty, and regularly teaches and develops curriculum for online, face-to-face, and blended delivery.

In recent years, Dr. Vaill has presented at numerous conferences, including Educause, the Online Learning Consortium and NERCOMP, on topics including online faculty development, supporting students through a transition to a new learning management system, and the importance of online student orientations. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees for the NERCOMP organization.

Dr. Vaill holds a Ph.D. in Education with an e-Learning specialization from Northcentral University. She also holds an M.Ed in History Education and an M.Ed in Curriculum and Instructional Technology.