A few short years ago, online education had been considered radical and its quality/effectiveness suspect. A number of institutions of higher education, recognizing the potential for reaching new student markets and the opportunities to meet a number of institutional goals, invested significant resources to build strategic online learning initiatives. Others held back or slightly dipped their toe to test the water. Now, the use of technology to teach in facilitated online courses is considered traditional when discussed in context with badges, MOOCs and competency-based programs. Even more prevalent, blended (hybrid) learning is becoming the norm at the course and program level on many campuses.”

These are the words of Mary Niemiec, associate vice president for distance education for the University of Nebraska and director of University of Nebraska Online Worldwide. In her role directing online strategy for the University of Nebraska Online Worldwide, which offers more than 100 online programs from four campuses, she has in-depth experience in helping institutions determine whether and when they should expand their online offerings.

Reasons for expanding an online initiative

1. Traditional populations declining. Many institutions start considering expanding their online offerings when they see their traditional populations declining. “A number of institutions are looking at enrollments dropping and say, ‘Why don’t we go online?’” she says. “What we find is that many institutions are facing significant competition for students not only nationally, but also in their own backyards, where they had previously maintained a geographic advantage,” she says.

2. Dealing with a changing marketplace. This is one of the biggest drivers of increased online involvement for institutions. Students looking for online learning are searching in a greater geographic area than ever before. “Students used to look for online learning within 50 miles [of their location], and now it’s 100 miles,” Niemiec says. “Students are looking for program reputations [across] a wider geographic dispersion.”

3. Expanding their access for working adults. Niemiec encourages institutions to consider their target market when thinking about whether to expand their online offerings. For example, institutions may be hoping to expand their access for working adults and need to make sure their offerings are affordable and of high quality for both on-campus students and those studying at a distance.

4. The need to attract more students for sustainability and revenue reasons. Institutions may wish to expand their online offerings in “something you are known for and can be competitive in,” Niemiec says.

5. Seeking ways to better serve existing students. Other institutions may be seeking ways to better serve their existing students but are coming up against limitations in terms of schedule flexibility or availability of smart classrooms. Online learning can help address these problems. “Enrollment growth, tapping new markets beyond existing geographic boundaries, and leveraging existing investments in the use of technology to teach are potential solutions and ones in which online education could be part of the strategy,” Niemiec says. “Your drivers determine your approach,” she adds.

Reasons not to expand

Although institutions may assume that expanding their online offerings is a given, there are often compelling reasons an institution may not want to go further into online learning. “You may have the drivers, but do you have the capacity and can you sustain it?” Niemiec asks. “You can’t just chase the dollars; you have to have stakeholder buy-in. It’s not about slapping a program together.”

There are many considerations as to whether an institution should expand its online offerings. Niemiec notes that there are trade-offs inherent in the decision, starting with an assessment of the availability of investment capital to start and sustain the program initially. “Conduct an audit to be sure you have the resources,” she urges.

Institutions also have to be honest about the place that online learning will have within the institutional mission. “What is your reputation for?” Niemiec asks. In spite of her work with online learning, she notes, “It does not bother me that we [the University of Nebraska] are not known as an online school.” Instead, she hopes that the message the university delivers is “Here are our programs, and we’ll deliver them to you wherever you are.”

Watch the trends 

Niemiec predicts that some areas of online learning will see dominance by universities that have become known in that particular discipline, with professional programs leading the way. “We will see a narrowing of the market in certain areas,” she says.

For example, the iMBA program offered by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in partnership with Coursera is fast becoming a leader in graduate business study. The online Master of Science in Computer Science degree offered from Georgia Tech in collaboration with Udacity and AT&T uses the MOOC delivery format to make the degree highly accessible. One powerful aspect of these programs is their nearly limitless capacity. “They won’t be turning away students,” Niemiec says. Instead, these programs could set the standard for how these courses of study are conducted in the future online.

“Professional programs are the low-hanging fruit,” Niemiec says. Another example of a discipline that works well with online education is RN to BSN programs, which enable nurses to obtain an advanced degree in order to progress in their career and prepare for higher certification. All of these types of professional programs are ripe for development as online programs.

This does not mean that there is no place for general education in the online environment. “We’re going to see [gen-eds] become a certain number of credits toward the bachelor’s,” Niemiec says. Students will be able to complete lower-level academic requirements, perhaps in the form of a transfer module, that they can then transport to traditional bachelor’s degree programs, much as they do with on-premises community college programs now.

Overall, institutions considering expanding their online offerings need to do their analysis at the institutional level. They need to understand the key considerations acting as drivers and take into account the current online education environment. They must also be prepared to do a readiness analysis for their institution and consult the various resources available to help round out the research picture. Mary Niemiec’s lessons learned can help institutions make the decisions that will lead to online success.


Reprinted from “Should You Expand Your Online Initiative? Key Considerations for Institutions” in Academic Leader 31.8(2015)2,8 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.