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Research Report

Launching an Online Education Programme? 5 Questions and Recommendations from EAB Experts

All higher education institutions (regardless of whether they had an existing online education programme) pivoted to online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it was out of necessity rather than as part of a strategic decision. Even as institutions have returned to ‘business as usual,’ online education is here to stay.

As universities look to tap into new markets and adapt to the changing preferences of their existing student populations, an online education strategy is essential. Without a dedicated strategy, online education programmes can fail to get off the starting block. To help universities avoid misconceptions or false starts, EAB experts propose five questions to consider when designing an online education strategy and five change-management tenets that promote success.

This report is written for U.K. and European audiences, but these takeaways are still applicable to any higher education institution interested in launching online education courses and degrees.

Five executive decision points when launching an online education programme

1. Which markets can we compete in?

The online education landscape is competitive due to the growth in alternative providers and difficulties in rivalling already-established traditional higher education providers. Realistic sizing of your regional markets and an acute understanding of the difficulties caused by time zone differences and language barriers in international markets are essential when considering your potential market size.

  • “”

    EAB Resource: New Programme Launch Guidebook

    To help leaders avoid profitless growth, this guidebook offers ten detailed, step-by-step resources to enhance the rigor of program planning.

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2. Which courses should we launch first?

Identify highest-potential launch opportunities by considering existing academic expertise, competitor offerings, future market needs, and ease of launch. To uncover the best potential courses, use internal data to assess institutional strengths and capacity and external data to assess student interest, market trends, and employer needs.

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    EAB Resource: Market Insights Market Opportunity Scan

    This project analyzes regional employer demand to identify and rank fields with potential for viable new course opportunities.

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3. Should we build in-house or work with an online programme management (OPM) provider?

Many universities have found that the internal infrastructure that has served them well in attracting and teaching on-campus students is insufficient to support the flexible online and hybrid programmes that today’s students demand.

When deciding whether your institution should collaborate with an OPM, keep in mind not only revenue considerations but also alignment with the university’s mission, the amount of influence your institution can have on the service, the range of services offered, and the duration of the service contract.

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    EAB Resource: OPM Toolkit

    Use this resource to decide whether to build the necessary IT, instructional design, and marketing capabilities in-house or to work with an online enablement vendor.

    View Resource

4. Which organisational model best aligns with success in online education?

Online education programmes can begin with various administrative organisational models; fully centralised, fully decentralised, or a mix. Develop a data-informed case for the resources and organisational structures needed to achieve institutional goals when configuring your initial online education unit. The most successful online education units eventually use centralised services to ensure holistic student support.

  • “”

    EAB Resource: PAE Organisational Benchmarking Initiative Resource Centre

    Our Organisational Benchmarking Initiative Resource Centre gives members access to one of the largest datasets on organisational structures within continuing, online, and professional education.

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5. How to differentiate our online programmes?

To compete for prospective students, a high-risk tolerance and sustained investments in marketing, technology, student services, and organisational infrastructure are table stakes. To stand out in a competitive market, you must articulate your university’s unique value proposition that is relevant to all online learners, difficult to replicate, and provable to the market.

  • “”

    EAB Resource: Dynamic Strategy Resource Centre

    EAB has identified eight strategic competencies that every leadership team must develop to overcome the pitfalls of periodic, stakeholder-driven planning cycles.

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Five “lessons learned” when launching an online education programme from our PAE experts

1. Unwavering executive commitment is paramount

Executive buy-in and vocal support for developing an online education unit are essential to win over existing academic and professional staff. Executive sponsors should communicate the vision to the rest of the university, remove obstacles, and persuade resistors.

2. Lean decision-making structures prevail

Striving too hard for institution-wide representation in governing committees can lead to competing and unprioritised recommendations. Instead, focus on assembling a powerful guiding committee; this group should have a shared commitment to the online education programme and enough seniority to ensure its successful rollout.

3. You can hire in expertise, but you can’t hire in political capital

Hiring staff with expertise in online education is critical to the ultimate success of your online programme; however, they often lack the political capital of high-performing existing employees. This can lead to resistance or apathy when new staff attempt to implement changes that would benefit the online programme. Consider preparing existing employees for change and uncovering supporters before hiring new staff.

4. Hire the right people in the right roles at the right times

Although the impulse may be to hire all necessary staff simultaneously, hiring in phases is more beneficial. First, hire leaders versed in online education to develop vision and strategy, then hire instructional designers to work with academics to create courses. Next, hire marketing professionals to recruit potential students, then hire student services and academic support staff closer to the launch.

5. Pay equal attention to student success and support services alongside academics

Focusing all initial energy on academic programming and only considering student support services at the end, or not considering it at all, is a mistake. Existing support services that prioritise on-campus students will damage the long-term growth of online students. Personalised, timely, and student-centric support services are critical to the success of new online education programmes.

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