"Building a Successful Online University"

Stanley Trollip, PhD Capella University

strollip@capella.edu

 

Universities throughout the world are beginning to offer their learners some options with respect to how they can take courses. Historically, of course, most courses comprised various variations of classroom instruction, ranging lectures by faculty members to graduate seminars, from laboratory work mainly in scientific and engineering areas to tutorials. Today, there are growing numbers of examples where both traditional classrooms and laboratories are being replaced by web-based courses and simulations. In many cases both types of course continue to exist and the learner can choose in which to enroll.

In addition, there are now a few universities where there are no "bricks and mortar" classrooms at all. All classes are offered via the World Wide Web, making use of a variety of media, collaborative tools, and computer-based instructional simulations. This talk deals with these Web-based institutions and focuses on what is required to get them into existence and be successful. For the most part, the paper is based on my experiences at Capella University, formerly The Graduate School of America, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the United States. Capella University was founded in 1993, was accredited in November 1997, and now comprises five schools, about 2,500 degree learners, and several thousand people taking individual courses or certificates. The five schools are Business, Education, Human Services, and Psychology, which offer Masters and Doctoral degrees, and an Undergraduate Studies school that offers an Information Technology degree. Currently Capella University offers over five hundred courses in about 80 programs and certificates.

There are some issues about setting up an online university that I am not going to deal with, such as financing and the process of getting accreditation. Both of these are obviously critical, but do not differ very much from what needs to happen when establishing a new traditional university.

The areas I deal with in this paper are Business Philosophy, Instructional Philosophy, Faculty, Infrastructure, and Customer Service.

 

Business Philosophy

There are two main approaches in how to set up a new university, namely to run it in the same way as a traditional university or to run it as a business. I believe this choice is one every university should be making, whether or not it is for profit. Even a traditional, not-for-profit institution can run itself as a business, even if making money is not its goal.

Why this issue is important is that it drives how the institution views its constituents. Traditional approaches tend to result in students, or learners as I prefer to call them, being treated almost as second-class citizens. There is a general attitude that the learners should be grateful that they belong to the institution. This often leads to inefficient processes and large bureaucracies. On the other hand, a for-profit approach focuses on the learner as the reason the institution exists. This typically leads to a learner-centric institution that strives for good customer service. It is interesting how difficult traditional institutions find it to think of their learners as customers.

The customer focus results in a fundamentally different philosophical approach to running a university. At Capella, we measure customer satisfaction and amend internal procedures to improve it. We have Department of Learner Affairs that handles any problems that learners may have with any aspect of their relationship with the university. We believe that these issues are important, not only because we are a for-profit organization, but that they are essential for helping take the "distance" out of distance education - a goal any online university must have.

 

Instructional Philosophy

As an institution goes online, it is important for it to settle upon an instructional philosophy that suits it. This is not a trivial issue because many different factors contribute to the decision.

Any instructional designer will tell you that one of the first items to attend to in planning any instructional event is to understand the target population. That is true for an online institution as well. There are a number of possibilities. The learners could be learners in a traditional institution who may want to take online courses. They may be 18-22 year-olds in an undergraduate program. They may be mature adults, who are working professionals. Each of these may need a different instructional approach.

For example, if the target population comprises working professionals, it is relatively easy to create a profile for them that will help define how best to design courses for them. Working professionals have the following characteristics: they work, usually during the day; many have families; many travel; and most have had lots of real-world experience and experiences. Although varying from institution to institution, they may also be located in very different geographical locations. Given this profile, how would one go about designing online courses to meet learner needs?

If the target audience is 18-22 year-olds, who do not have families, and who have recently started working, how does the instructional philosophy change?

I will deal with the details of these different approaches in a different paper, but suffice it to say that courses for the working professional need to be built on a thorough understanding of adult learning principles, whereas courses for teenagers may use a different set of principles.

One other issue that is very important in the formulation of educational philosophy is the technology that is available to the potential online learners. If they have access to high-speed internet access, then it is possible to consider the incorporation of streaming media as part of the delivery system, whereas if a substantial portion only have slow access, a much more text-based approach would be appropriate.

It is more important to choose the appropriate instructional approach in an online setting than it is in a classroom. Although learners may choose to withdraw from both types, the evidence is strong that distant learners are more prone to withdraw if they are not happy.

 

Faculty

The issue of who should be on the faculty of an online university is very interesting. If a traditional university opens an online component, the issue may revolve around whether existing faculty members are going to take on the role. If so a variety of issues arise. First, ownership of the content of courses is currently subject of great controversy. Universities see the opportunity to increase revenues, while faculty members see the opportunity to take their online courses outside the confines of their home university and provide them through other institutions for profit. This intellectual property debate has yet to be resolved and may even be resolved differently for different institutions.

On the other hand, universities like Capella typically build their courses with a clear understanding that the intellectual property belongs to them. This can be accomplished because most courses are developed under a contractual arrangement by contractors, not employees.

Arrangements with the faculty members who teach the courses are similar. Again, it is common practice in an online university for instructors to be hired on contract to teach previously developed courses. Although the instructor is encouraged to bring his or her experience and perspective to the course, the content is to remain as developed. This brings consistency to the courses and helps ensure curricular integrity. In many traditional United States universities, the content of a course is largely dependent on the instructor teaching it, often leading to difficulties in keeping the curriculum intact, if indeed a curriculum exists.

One problem shared by traditional and online universities is how to prepare instructors to be effective in an online world. I have seen many faculty members think that going online merely means transferring their notes to the Web - usually with highly unsatisfactory results. The issue is much more complex than that. The role of the instructor depends on the target audience, the nature of the content, the available technology resources, and so on. In the context of Capella, both at graduate and undergraduate levels, the instructor forsakes the role of being "the sage on the stage" and becomes more of the "guide on the side." That is, the instructor becomes less of the provider of content and more the facilitator of discussions about the content. This can be a difficult role change for some, especially those whose approach is to lecture to learners. It is less difficult for faculty members who have always tried to engage learners in discussions and activities.

Whatever the role, however, one component seems to be essential, namely being present. That is, learners who are at a distance have a great need to feel part of a class and not to feel isolated. Our experience is that this means that the instructor has to be a frequent and active participant in everything that goes on in the class. If learners feel that the instructor is not present, there is a much greater tendency for them to drop out - a concern for both not-for-profit and for- profit institutions.

The net result of this is that faculty members need to be trained well if they are to be excellent and engaging online instructors. Several online universities, including Capella, insist that people who are going to teach courses must themselves go through an online course about being an effective teacher. This provides both the perspective of being an online learner, and the hints and strategies of being successful online. Instructors who do not go through such a course typically do not achieve satisfactory results for a while.

 

Infrastructure

As part of the overall effort to minimize the effects of distance, online universities need to invest in infrastructure that enables learners to accomplish everything from a distance, including discussions with academic advisors, application and enrollment, finding out about courses and registering for them, having access to the rules and regulations that govern their passage through the institution, being able to pay or apply for financial aid, having access to a transcript, and so on. In addition, it is highly desirable to provide learners with the full facilities of an excellent library without them actually having to find and visit one. That is, all facilities of a normal academic library should be accessible online.

Building all of these facilities to work smoothly online is a time-consuming and expensive process. It requires a great deal of attention to the human factors of how learners interact with the institution and the will to constantly make changes that benefit the learners.

 

Customer Service

The final area I want to discuss is that of customer service. Traditional institutions have never had a good reputation of treating their learners as though they were true customers. In fact, many do not like the word or even the concept. In the online world, it is likely that treating learners as customers may be or may become a necessary attribute. Because of the potential sense of isolation of a distance learner, there is an increased need to be treated well. It is a daunting thought to run into a problem with the registrar, for example, who may be thousands of miles away. It is difficult for a learner to walk into the registrar's office and complain until the issue is resolved.

One of the first areas of customer service in an online university is the Admissions Counselor. This is usually the first point of human contact a prospective learner has with the institution. This potential learner needs more assistance than a traditional learner. More time is spent talking about the experience of being online, on how to minimize the distance and increase the sense of being in a community, and about the techniques required to maximize success - the most important one of which being the need for self-discipline. Often it is easier to suggest that the person takes a single course to "test the waters" before committing to an entire degree or certificate.

A customer-centered approach helps this because there is an ongoing monitoring of all internal systems that impact learners. If deficiencies are found or if learners complain about some aspect of the organization, immediate remedial action is taken to remove the source of the problem. The problem is not pushed back onto the learner to solve. Online universities tend to have customer (learner) support areas(Help Desks) that are open constantly. Their purpose is to be a single point of entry for everyone. Problems are then routed as quickly as possible to the appropriate internal resource to resolve. The customer support representative would also follow up and ensure that the issue had been dealt with.

 

Conclusion

Developing an online university or establishing a significant online presence at a traditional university requires careful planning and a significant investment in technology infrastructure - not just for delivering courses, but also to handle all the other back-office aspects as well. I do not believe that just providing effective online courses will be sufficient to being successful. Learners are going to demand all the facilities and customer service outlined above. Learners are becoming accustomed to prompt and efficient service and will go to online institutions that deal with them accordingly.