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Online Learning: For the Board's Consideration

By Rick Beyer

Originally published in the September/October 2014 issue of Trusteeship magazine.

As technology continues to evolve, playing an ever-greater role in adaptive learning, learning outcomes, online enrollment, and retention, consumers are simultaneously demanding its conveniences in more aspects of their educational experience. Online education has shown its ability to meet consumer needs, while providing valuable financial contributions to host institutions.

As a result, any debate regarding the value and success of online programming may ultimately be left to the late adopters and laggards. The most recent IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) survey in 2012 indicated 26 percent of college students are taking one or more online courses. Online enrollments are substantially higher today and growing faster than overall enrollment. Still, about two thirds of colleges don’t offer online programs. If your institution does not offer these courses, students will seek them elsewhere.

While it is vitally important that institutions respect shared governance, neither the consumer nor technological innovations are willing to slow down. Boards need to stay abreast of important trends shaping higher education and encourage their senior administration to embrace innovation and new approaches to a changing competitive environment. While the board certainly should not dictate those new approaches or their pace, it can encourage and provide support to the administration, including the option for outsourcing to experts with appropriate depth of online core competencies.

During times of change, some institutions may become more rigid, ignoring the trends and hunkering down in survival mode. A look through history in other industries will show this rigidity is a common theme of organizations that have not survived to tell their story.

More Than Checking a Box

A vital part of embracing this innovation is understanding online learning. Boards must become knowledgeable regarding their institution’s online education program, as it is a strategic issue shaping the competitive landscape. The comment, “We have online programming,” is not enough. This is not about checking the box of innovation; it is about achieving the desired outcome for an institution. According to Babson Survey Research Group, more than 7.1 million students take advantage of this delivery method, and the move toward online education is outpacing the demand curve for residential enrollment.

Institutions that do not have online programming should be cautious about artificial, self-imposed barriers that will prevent success in the digital age. Those artificial barriers may include the intuitive belief that the only way to meet institutional mission is through face-to-face delivery of learning. It is possible for an institution to meet or even strengthen its mission using online programming.

Another self-imposed barrier is accepting a heavy-handed approach by a small group of faculty members who have practiced their trade over the decades in an era of analog lecture delivery. Sensitivities are required, but holding back an entire institution to live in an analog world may not be the best path for future success. For an administration, the board can be very helpful in providing its support to overcome artificial barriers.

Strategic Governance

We are starting to see clear evidence that online and classroom learning require different approaches to be successful, most notably with human resources and skill sets. When launching an online initiative, it is not uncommon for institutions to use existing, overstretched resources, investing insufficiently and merely dabbling in the digital world. While many would say that approach is better than nothing and a good way to start in the online environment, it may become the ingrained rhythm of the organization. Years later, the institution could find itself no better off than it was prior to this experiment. From a board perspective, understanding challenges and supporting the administration in seeking alternatives can be very helpful.

In sum, boards must support their institution’s forays into online education. As a board member, the best strategic approach starts with gaining knowledge and embracing opportunity. Strategic governance may include the development of a committee structure to address online education. Plenary sessions regarding online programming, innovation, and higher education trends are important elements for board meetings. Boards must become knowledgeable about the alternatives and collectively choose a road that will take their institution on a successful journey.