Critical Success Factors to Grow and Scale Online Programs
As competition continues to grow in the online market, it’s time to take a look back at the success and scalability of your existing online program(s) and evaluate your approach to launching new programs. The higher education press is full of stories about online programs that failed to live up to their promise by under enrolling students, creating unhappy students or producing poor quality courses.
 
While no one will profess that success in distance education can be reduced to five easy steps, there are a few critical success factors that should be considered early in the process.
 
1.       First, evaluate the level of institutional support you have for the initiative? Online programs that seek to expand the institution’s geographic and academic footprint require enlisting the right stakeholders and obtaining buy in from faculty and staff at all levels of the institution. Effective online programs require a strategic vision which helps guide the process from its planning stages through implementation. Institutional support comes from senior leadership at the university, but also from other areas that will be required to support online students. Are there strong relationships with the library, student accounting/finance, the registrar, disability services and other units?
 
2.       Effective marketing is critical. Understanding how to leverage your brand in a competitive market is an important issue that requires careful planning. Have you thought about what differentiates your institution? What makes your program different from another university’s program? What particular value does a credential from your university add to a prospective student’s resume? Thinking through these issues and crafting a message that resonates with your target audience is an early step in generating future student enrollments.
 
3.       What are your plans to support students at a distance who will not be able to come to campus for services? Developing a proactive student support plan is an important factor in your future success. Many online learners are adult students who juggle career, family and school issues. They will need to access university services that may be used to supporting students during work hours, or in person. Online learners will need virtual support preferably during the early evenings or on a weekend. Often times they have been away from a learning environment for many years and need extra support to become reacquainted with study skills and other success factors. As life occurs while they are in the online classroom, sometimes empathy and assistance are needed. Supporting online learners requires a proactive strategy to keep students engaged, successful and on the path to graduation.
 
4.       The importance of effective course design is often overlooked. Educational technology has evolved rapidly in the past decade, and there are a variety of tools and techniques available to support student leaning and enhance faculty satisfaction in the virtual classroom. Ineffective course design can lead to a frustrating student experience and possibly adversely affect student retention.
 
5.       Finally, pay attention to career outcomes. What services does the university offer to help support online students with their career goals? Is career counseling available? What about a portfolio tool that allows students to build links between their academic and work worlds? These days, online students are looking for programs which help them advance their careers. Think about the previous four factors and how career services and support can be built into each of them. 
 
As management guru Peter Drucker once said, “What gets measured, gets managed”. Make sure that you have selected key metrics that you track semester over semester to monitor student activity, satisfaction, persistence and outcomes. Compare your metrics to those of your peers and continue to look for opportunities to build better, stronger programs that created engaged, successful students.
 
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in August 2014 and has been updated to reflect current trends and outcomes in distance education.

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