The need for Colleges and Universities to reach the adult learner through distance learning is more of an imperative in today’s economy as employees have skill gaps that will require retooling or upgrading from their current set of skills. Because of this, employers are confronted with significant recruitment challenges in the present labor market. This presents an abundance of opportunity for institutions of higher education that have the desire and will to position themselves to become a strategic partners with employers offering B2B opportunities to their employees or to work directly with the employee for B2C development. However, this imperative can only be achieved by effectively leveraging and build-out of a Distance Learning platform.
Institutions of Higher Education that are in the exploratory phase to either enter or expand their online offerings first need to answer the following question: Do they wish to be a selective program or one with open access? These are two distinct paths with varied mission expansion potential along with an attendant financial investment and rate of return. Although we expect the Online Higher Education Market to continue a growth trajectory, the market players will evolve where most likely there will be four to six major national open access providers with significant, scalable programs. Selective programs will continue to expand an institution’s mission but will not provide the potential results of mission expansion that an open access, consumer driven program can.
In looking at the potential of developing an online program, a college or university will have the following multiple phases in the decision matrix to include overall governance, administrative makeup, course development/design and technology and staffing levels.
In Phase I, the first consideration for an open access program must be the organizational structure for the program along with the faculty governance model. Will this be a stand lone unit or collapsed under an existing academic department? I strongly suggest working collaboratively with faculty to position the program to meet the demands of the working adult population which is a paradigm shift for many institutions steep in tradition accustomed to servicing the traditional college students only. This transformation will require academic governance to be responsive to the needs of the adult learner and the employer to ensure the traditional faculty governance and administrative models do not place unnecessary burdens on either.
The Adult Learner is managing multiple priorities in their life and is looking for a program that allows them to grow intellectually through academic rigor but understands the concept of “value add”. They are first concerned about their family, careers or even the care of their parents – education attainment is secondary. They will reject both academic programs or admission reviews and administrative services that are not well thought out with the consumer in mind. The Adult Learner for Online can easily consider another institution if she/he is not receiving superior service throughout their student experience. This holds true for the employer as well. They will not partner with an institution that does not have an entrepreneurial approach to the workforce needs of their employees.
Once the governance model and the culture questions have been addressed, then Phase II involves: Will the institution build this program out independently or does it make sense to partner with an Online Performance Management (OPM) firm? Should the college or university consider a consortium of like institutions to assist with the buildout? These are foundational questions with long term impacts on mission expansion, revenue recognition and the future financial health of the organization.
Phase III will then require the appropriate level of investment based on the model and decisions made in the previous two phases. There is enough experience in the industry to ensure that any decision incorporates best practices for the various components of online learning. The major elements are course development, course delivery, along with information technology investments around a Learning Management Systems (LMS), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Student Information Systems (SIS). Both Faculty and Administrative staffing levels for this model will need to be positioned in a way that allows for quality services through student/staff ratios along with the development of service level agreements to ensure the consumer is provided with excellent customer service levels. This will all be driven by a marketing budget that can provide the appropriate exposure that will fund mission expansion.