Small institutions face their own unique set of challenges when it comes to starting online programs. “There are commonalities among small institutions as they think about their place in online learning,” says Vickie Cook, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service at the University of Illinois Springfield. She has a depth of expertise in this area due to her work at U of I, which has 5,400 students and 1,700 online majors in 20 programs, both undergraduate and graduate. This puts her institution in the middle of the range of small institutions, which she defines as between 600 and 10,000 students.

Fit with mission, vision, and budget

“You really need to look at the mission fit,” says Cook. “How does online learning fit with [the institution’s] mission and vision?”

Cook recommends that institutions look at how online learning will contribute to the institution’s pursuit of excellence, not just immediately, but five and ten years or more into the future. This will involve a look at the institution’s strategic plan in addition to the mission and vision, and it may generate some surprising conversations. For example, if the institution feels strongly about online education but it is not supported by the mission, vision, and strategic plan, it may be time to revisit those planning statements to see if they need to be revised or expanded to incorporate this new direction.

“[You also need to have] a discussion about budget,” Cook says. She notes that some institutions believe that they can construct an online learning program “at bargain-basement price,” but it’s important that a plan be constructed to financially support the program both immediately and in the long term. “It’s an expensive endeavor,” Cook says. “It has to fit with the mission and vision, the long-term plan, and the budget.”

Structure and leadership

There are several different structures institutions may use for their online learning endeavors. “Some institutions try to build a silo,” Cook notes, while others make the governance of their programs more similar to that of other departments within the university. Whatever the structure, it’s important to cultivate good leadership.

Often, institutions will tap an instructional designer to lead the online learning programs. “Instructional designers may become solid online leaders, but they don’t start that way,” Cook notes. Instead, these individuals need to be cultivated to become effective leaders. “Leadership development needs to be worked into the long-term plan,” Cook says.

One good model to look to for inspiration is continuing education, which often faces challenges similar to those faced by online learning at small institutions. “They have pulled resources across the university,” Cook notes. Often, continuing education departments have also learned the importance of using technology as a tool to support the educational endeavors rather than making technology the focus of the programs.

Cook also says that it’s “important that [online learning leaders] have a seat at the cabinet table.” Without representation at the cabinet level, the programs are in danger of failure. To discuss issues at this level, online learning leaders need to have several different competencies, says Cook. She includes: bridge building, the ability to work with diverse teams, the ability to communicate between silos in the institution, and an understanding of how higher education works as essential skills that online learning leaders must have.

Partnering with a third party

One of the most important questions, Cook notes, is “do we do this ourselves or do we partner with a company that takes 15 to 60 percent of tuition revenue?” Third party companies offer ease of start-up and continuation of an online program, but if the institution does not make sure that there is a good match with the provider, there can be trouble.

First, Cook notes, “the third party has to be on board with the mission and vision” of the institution. The provider needs to understand the unique aims and characteristics of the institution and work to make those a reality in the online environment. If they do not, there is a risk that the program could turn out to be too similar to other programs from that provider.

“Many people just want a quick start,” Cook says. However, it is important that institutions do their diligence in investigating not only how the third party provider will work with the institution now, but what might happen in the future. “What happens if the third party vendor is sold?” Cook asks. Answers to these and other questions are essential before signing an agreement.

Increasingly, Cook says, institutions are not the only ones doing the interviewing. Third party vendors are interviewing institutions as well to make sure that the fit is a good one. This is a positive development for institutions who may wish to work with a provider who will help with their online learning endeavors.

Challenges of marketing

“Marketing is much more difficult than when online learning started,” says Cook. It stands to reason. When online learning first began, it was natural to market it by using sales propositions that emphasized convenience and flexibility, attributes that are characteristic of online learning itself rather than a specific program. Things have changed. “One of the greatest challenges is to differentiate and to market the online program in a crowded online landscape,” Cook says. In the current environment, the US News rankings can be an important guide to marketing emphases.

The University of Illinois Springfield has clearly been successful with this, landing at number 20 on the US News Best Online Undergraduate Programs 2015.

Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is the managing editor of Academic Leader and the chair of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference. She is the owner of Hilltop Communications (

Reprinted from “Bringing Online Programs to Small Institutions,” Academic Leader, 31, 4 (2015): 7,8. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.