Launching a first-of-its-kind online program? Use these two strategies.


Launching a first-of-its-kind online program? Use these two strategies.

Even before the pandemic, enrollment in online graduate programs was increasing 6.7% on average annually. And during the COVID-19, enrollment in online graduate programs has surged, increasing 63% from 2019 to 2020. This growing demand for online delivery is pushing some leaders of graduate and adult-serving programs to adapt programs historically only offered in-person for online or hybrid formats.

So, is it time to offer hybrid and online modalities for most graduate programs—even those not typically available online? The prospect of offering more programs online is appealing, but adapting programs historically only offered face-to-face to an online or hybrid modality is challenging, especially when there are no similar programs available in the market. Here are a few tips for successfully designing and marketing online programs when you can’t find an obvious model to follow.

Evaluate programs for structure (not for subject matter) when necessary

When developing distance delivery options for a program, it is standard to evaluate competitor programs within the field to identify relevant program features, such as admissions and curricular requirements. But in the absence of similar online or hybrid programs already in the marketplace, the next best step is often to look at different program types with key similarities.

For example, our Market Insights team recently conducted research on five hybrid Doctor of Physical of Therapy (DPT) programs to help a partner university add a hybrid option to its existing Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program. In terms of subject matter, DPT and DVM programs are clearly different. But in our research, we found many similarities between the two programs, including clinical requirements and opportunities for both synchronous and asynchronous coursework. These similarities allowed us to surface insights about hybrid DPT programs that could apply to a hybrid Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program. Although this is not a perfect solution, this process can yield positive results when launching a first-of-its-kind hybrid or online program. Here’s a look at some of the recommendations we were able to provide:

Program Design Recommendations
Aid students in understanding the differences between different modalities to ensure student success. Provide resources defining the ideal candidate for distance-delivery programs.
Help students gain hands-on experience, build skills, and network with peers and faculty without having to complete all aspects of the program in-person. Utilize on-campus immersions.
Allow students manage coursework at their own pace while providing program structure. Offer a combination of synchronous and asynchronous coursework.
Create opportunities for students to meet their clinical hours requirement. Create employer partnerships. Reference EAB research on building employer partnerships to learn more.
Facilitate clinical placement for students struggling to find opportunities near them. Establish Clinical Placement Teams.

Proactively address differences—and similarities—between online/hybrid and in-person programs in your marketing

When creating an online program that is not currently available online at other institutions, the lack of precedent can create uncertainty for prospective students. One way to address students’ concerns is to clearly outline how the in-person and online versions of the program are similar and any key ways they differ.

St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas is an example of a school that opted to be first in the online space and took an interesting approach to do so. Recently, St. Mary’s University launched the first fully online JD program accredited by the American Bar Association. The program will launch in Fall 2022 with a class of 25 students. St. Mary’s University School of Law assuages potential student concerns with FAQs on the program webpage. Questions featured on the FAQ page include, “Is there anything I cannot do as an online student?” and “Can I participate in campus events and extracurricular activities?”

When opting to enter the market with the first online or hybrid program of its kind, administrators will need to use unique methods, like the ones highlighted above, to adapt their programs and set them up for success.

Ready to find out more?

Learn more about developing and marketing online programs.

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