Increasing the number of non-traditional and distance learners has been identified as an objective in UNI’s Strategic Plan and the Strategic Plan for the Board of Regents. While the development of “stand alone” distance education courses can help ease scheduling difficulties and increase access to selected offerings, the development of entire degree programs for delivery through online, blended, or off-site instruction represents a key strategy in efforts to attract new students to the university.
The idea to explore the delivery of a degree program via distance education may come from many directions, including requests from prospective students, faculty members who believe an audience exists for a particular program, or recognition by staff of emerging needs and market trends. Regardless of the origins of the concept, given the highly competitive distance education market, the ability to move quickly when opportunities are identified provides a competitive advantage.
At the same time, because the development and delivery of an academic program through online, blended, or off-campus instruction requires a significant investment in resources, a number of critical questions must be addressed as part of the decision-making process. The primary responsibility for working through these questions and making a final decision about whether to move forward with offering a degree program at a distance is a collaborative one involving the sponsoring academic department and college and the Office of Continuing and Distance Education. In addition, consultation with other stakeholders who are directly impacted by the decision to offer a degree program via distance education is critical to ensure commitment is solid for the program plan.
The process of deciding whether to move forward with delivery of a distance education program can be considered in three stages: exploratory, advancement, and commitment. In the exploratory stage, an initial assessment takes place to determine whether or not offering the program is in the realm of feasibility. This stage also provides a foundation for the advancement stage, in which the details of the program staffing, support structures, finances, marketing, and assessment are analyzed and developed. In addition, approval or notification requirements from outside entities, if required, are addressed during the advancement stage. The final stage consists of a more refined assessment of the demand for the program, a review of all the criteria, and a decision about whether to commit to the delivery of the program or take another course of action.
The criteria involved in deciding to offer a degree program through online, blended, or off-site instruction are listed as follows in the form of key questions.
- How does the proposed program support UNI’s strategic plan and advance our institutional priorities?
- What is the level of commitment for the proposed program from the home academic department, college, and top administration?
- What are the primary goals in developing and delivering the program through distance education?
- What is the target audience for the program?
- What evidence exists of substantial need and demand for the program?
- How does the program being considered compare with competing programs with regard to cost, structure, and quality?
- On what basis would students select our program over other options?
- Do any special challenges exist with respect to marketing the program?
Staffing and support
- Is a core group of faculty members supportive of the concept and willing to develop and teach the courses if sufficient interest is shown?
- Has an advisor/coordinator been identified who can answer questions about the program?
- Are strong support services in place to ensure the success of both faculty members and students?
Financial impact/opportunity costs
- Have revenues and expenses been projected for the program?
- Have the opportunity costs of developing and offering the program been considered?
- Is the program scalable if demand increases beyond current capacity?
- Have the program structure and tentative course schedule been developed so that prospective students can clearly understand the delivery methods and pathway to completion of the program?
- Has a marketing plan been developed?
- Have necessary approval and notification requirements been met?
- Is the outcomes assessment plan for this program adequate to ensure that the teaching and learning is of high quality?
Following the advancement stage, the program will be marketed extensively, and prospective students will have the opportunity to ask questions and express interest in the program. The ability to track prospective students and respond quickly to student inquiries and questions is essential. As a result of the marketing efforts, a list of prospective students with definite interest in the program will be in hand.
Historical yield rates are used to project the number of students who would begin the program if it is offered, and attrition rates are projected. The potential for program growth in the longer term is considered.
In making the final determination of whether to move forward with a commitment to delivering the program, not only is it essential to consider whether the number of students is sufficient to meet the program’s goals, but it is also sound practice to revisit all the criteria outlined above. If the criteria have been addressed and demand is deemed sufficient, a commitment to program delivery is made, and students are notified of the next steps. When a commitment is made to begin a program, the university is obligated to offer the full set of courses in the manner set forth in the plan.
Note: Programs are typically offered using a cohort model in which a group of students moves through a prescribed set of courses in unison. One of the primary advantages of this approach is the reduction of risk, since the university is guaranteeing a specific set of courses within a defined time frame, rather than making an open-ended commitment. The cohort approach also provides stability and predictability with regard to class sizes, which increases efficiencies. The model has also proven effective in helping to build a community of learners which, in turn, builds cohesiveness among the students and improves retention.
Approved by Academic Affairs Council, 9/27/10
Interest in or questions about developing a distance learning program may be directed to Continuing and Distance Education at (319) 273-2121 or ContinuingEd@uni.edu .