Higher Education and the Pandemic: An Inflection Point for Online Education and Instructional Design

Even as colleges and universities work feverishly to respond to and, hopefully, recover from the COVID-19 health crisis, the future for many institutions remains uncertain. Decreasing enrollments, budget cuts, and repetitive belt-tightening activities of the past decade have left many colleges and universities weakened, with very little discretionary spending available and, in an increasing number of cases, struggling to survive. The challenges facing higher education have become the center of national debate. Today’s students and their families face increasing, record-setting tuition costs, and, when they graduate, are doing so with enormous debt. As a result, Americans are beginning to question the value of higher education: “Is this much debt worth it?” Into this mix, we can now add a global pandemic, an economy in free-fall, and record unemployment.

Despite this gloomy outlook, higher education’s response to the COVID-19 health crisis has demonstrated that many colleges and universities have learned to use technology in ways that have made them more resilient, able to continue to provide classes to students scattered around the globe even during the height of a global pandemic. It is an incredible story and one that will be retold from hundreds if not thousands of different perspectives, but the common thread that will weave this history together is that colleges and universities were able to continue to serve their students even during a global pandemic because their academic programs were available online. While it is almost certain that some institutions will “hunker down” and seek to “weather” this crisis with the hope of returning to business as usual once the curve flattens, others will have found in this moment an inflection point, an opportunity to improve their online presence and commit their institution and its resources to the future, competing for and serving online students. This paper will cover six critical considerations for acting now to move your academic programs online.

1. An Institution Willingness to Change

The first thing that is needed to transform your college or university is a willingness among campus leaders to consider how moving your academic programs online could help to reduce costs and increase academic productivity. How can online learning help your institution achieve its strategic academic goals? How can moving your academic programs online better serve your students? In determining if your campus is ready for the level of change that is needed, please review the following criteria:

  • Is your institution committed to controlling or reducing costs and increasing academic productivity?
  • Is there a demonstrated commitment on the part of institutional leaders to online learning?
  • Is your faculty culture open to teaching online?
  • Does your institution have a mature information technology (IT) organization(s) to support faculty integration of technology into courses? Or does it contract with external providers to provide such support?
  • Does your institution have a demonstrated commitment to learner-centered education?
  • Is there a demonstrated commitment at your institution to preparing faculty to teach online?
  • Is your institution committed to providing support for 100% online programs?

If your organization is not fully committed to real transformation, if the support and resources are not there, then it is unlikely that a project of this type will be successful. If you can answer “yes” to all the above criteria, however, your institution may be ready for real change.

2. Program Feasibility Studies

Have you done your homework? Prior to initiating any online program development, a strategic analysis of market size, demand trends, competition, and growth prospects for your programs over the coming years needs to be completed. The results of this study will then help guide you in developing the most competitive positioning for each of your online degree programs. A complete program feasibility study should include:

  • an academic program demand analysis;
  • a cost and curriculum analysis;
  • a price sensitivity analysis; and
  • a market share analysis.

If your study indicates that your program will not do well, it is strongly urged that you do not move that program online. If your study indicates that there is definitely an encouraging if not strong market demand for your program(s), then your next consideration should be program design.

3. Smart Program Design

Sadly, a lot of the programs we have seen hastily moved online during the past few months leave a lot to be desired. In many cases, it was a matter of faculty moving material into the campus learning management systems as quickly as possible, without much time for instructional design considerations. When we say “smart program design” in this case, we are referring to the way in which a particular program has been designed to promote student success and achieve its goals. When we are designing the program, we want to do so with the learner in mind. What are the learners’ needs? Is each course design student-centered? Does the program offer an accelerated path to completion for those who need to earn their credentials quickly? Does the program offer multiple starts during the year so that I can get started when the student is ready, rather than when the institution is ready? Is the program available asynchronously given that some students may work during the day and take care of children at night? You get the idea.

At a minimum, your program planning should include:

  • reducing barriers to enrollment where possible,
  • accelerated program schedule,
  • multiple starts per year,
  • course sequencing and workload balancing,
  • course mapping,
  • authentic assessment and practice opportunities,
  • opportunities for instructor/student interaction and presence building,
  • instructional design strategies guided by evidence-based practices,
  • collaborative course design, and
  • program management.

It is very important to look at the academic program as THE EXPERIENCE your students will have in attending your institution, albeit virtually. In the absence of physical ivied walls, quads, and the student union, how can you design your program so that even though the student is online, they still have access to and come to appreciate the richness of the experience of attending your institution?

4. Instructional Design

Your faculty are the best and brightest in their fields. They are experts in Biology, Chemistry, Physics. They are leading figures in Literature, History, and Psychology. We want them to stay abreast of developments in their disciplines, in their research. They cannot be expected to keep up with the latest studies in learning theory and assessment design, in course management systems and adaptive learning technologies. It is important, therefore, that your institution have an instructional design team available to do the “heavy lifting” of moving your programs online. Instructional designers will help to ease the burden on faculty with course design, development, and quality review. Instructional designers will also help you with:

  • instructional design strategies guided by evidence-based practices,
  • program/course blueprinting and course conversion processes,
  • developing learning objectives,
  • course mapping,
  • developing opportunities for instructor/student interaction and presence building,
  • developing authentic assessment and practice opportunities,
  • working with the institution’s IT department in the building out courses in the learning management system (LMS), and
  • providing ongoing faculty support.

If you do not have an instructional designer on staff, you might consider partnering with a company that provides instructional design services. Regardless, it is unrealistic to think that faculty will produce course optimized for online delivery if all they have received in terms of training in online teaching is a basic introduction to the campus learning management system.

5. Faculty Support

Your instructional design team will be invaluable to you in working with your faculty and subject-matter experts (SMEs) to set milestones, timelines, and objectives for your course development. Developing online courses is a team effort and each faculty member should be given the opportunity to explore and develop their own teaching practice as part of that team. Participating faculty will need:

  • guidance on best practices in online instruction,
  • training in the learning management system (LMS),
  • training in creating course videos and lectures materials,
  • training on program procedures, course housekeeping, etc.,
  • instructions on who to contact when things go wrong (because they do!).
6. Program Assessment and Maintenance

The sixth critical component in developing and sustaining quality online instruction requires having a quality review process in place that regularly examines courses for those characteristics that are most relevant to student success. Once the course has been developed, reviewed, and launched, your instructional designer will need to survey each faculty member and student for feedback about ways to improve the course through periodic redesign. Good program design and assessment should include:

  • course alignment with Quality Matters and OLC open resources,
  • periodic technical review,
  • optimized instructional models and systems,
  • periodic data-driven course revision process, and
  • continuous updates and improvements.

Online programs must be fed! They will require answering countless questions from instructors and students alike, but that is a good thing! We can learn from all the communication and develop smarter and more helpful resources to be included in the next iteration of the course, improving it with each redesign.

It is up to each college and university leader to determine how they will respond to this crisis. Will that response focus on today or will it serve as an inflection point in terms of considerations about building more resilient learning environments for all students?

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