Developing an online program: tips for administrators

How does a university put classes, programs, and degrees online? What are the key points that administrators should know? Three years ago I wrote a successful internal grant to create an online track in International and Global Studies at PSU. Since then my colleagues and I have successfully moved core classes online, and we have many students completing their degree virtually. I do all of my teaching online now, and I’m the lead adviser for our online track in my department. Although I have a deep interest in pedagogy, particularly Universal Design and the negotiated syllabus, that’s not what I want to explore today. Instead, I want to talk about an administrator’s perspective (having been a dean and a department chair) regarding how to put programs or degrees online, based on this experience. Here are my top tips:


  1. At the university rather than department level, first begin with the general education requirements, then B.A. or B.S. requirements, then language requirements, and then the department requirements. It does students no good to be able to complete their major requirements online if they can’t complete their BA/BS or general education requirements in this format.
  2. Have one person be charged with advocating and supporting online education. They need to be someone with enough power to be able to call together diverse stakeholders. One of their challenges will be to create a website with all of the information that an online student will need in an accessible format, and to make sure that there is integrated program to move core requirements online.
  3. All letters of offer for new deans should state that they will advocate and support the development of online classes and programs. Every dean should be required to create a strategic plan for online instruction in their unit. These plans should be made publicly available, and they should be examined at their annual review.
  4. You need a strong center to support online learning, with dedicated instructional designers. If you don’t have this, start here. Without their support, new online classes often reflect traditional pedagogies awkwardly adapted to an online format. An excellent design thinker or pedagogy expert can transform a weak class into one that is exciting and beautiful. The one request many faculty have when putting classes online is to have dedicated support, which goes beyond calling the Help Desk to answer technical questions. Having had the help of an outstanding team at my university’s Office for Academic Innovation, I believe that such resources are critical for online learning to succeed.
  5. If possible, it is best to create a separate structure for online learning.   In the original version of the blog post I had said that change happens best within existing departments.(revised on September 12, 2019). But if you look at how universities have quickly grown their online offerings -from Southern New Hampshire University to Oregon State University) they have done so by creating separate online units. In my own experience, as online grows within a department it creates tensions. As faculty teaching face to face see their class size shrink, while online classes thrive, they will work to limit the spread of online class offerings. If you can, create a separate budget and administrative structure for online programs. This approach is what has allowed Southern New Hampshire university to thrive, at the same time other universities are closing or consolidating, especially in New England.
  6. At the College level, all new hires should have in their letter of offer that they will teach some of their courses in an online and hybrid format. One would like to think that all recent PhD. graduates would have some experience with, or instruction in, online pedagogy. Sadly, this is not the case. There are few parts of the university that are more conservative than graduate education, particularly for the doctorate. If online education forms part of the letter of offer for all new hires, this guarantees a transition to an online teaching. All departments requesting new hires should also be told that the position will only be refilled if the new hire teaches at least one course a year online in the future.
  7. Don’t assume that senior faculty late in their careers might not engage. My textbook partner Kim Brown has become a consistent online educator, and she excels at it the same way that she always has in the face to face (F2F) classroom. In particular, she’s developed a brilliant infographics assignment.
  8. Within a department, begin first with the core requirements and only afterwards prioritize putting alternative or elective courses online. This might seem obvious, but many departments don’t do this.
  9. Summer session is often not on contract, and most students want to go home in the summer. This means that department chairs may have more scheduling discretion in the summer, and there is much more student summer demand for online classes then. With a couple of exceptions, as department chair I said that all summer classes would be online. My colleagues agreed create those online courses, as it was a way for them to teach during this key time. Deans should prioritize online classes in their funding plans for summer.
  10. Don’t force existing faculty who are very reluctant to teach online to do so. That is seldom a recipe for success. The most powerful advocates for online instruction are people’s colleagues. If faculty see other people teaching online -and enjoying their experience- they are much more likely to try it.
  11. Small amounts of money are critical. No group will work harder for some funds than academics. There is no better use of administrative funds then giving a faculty member a small stipend over the summer to create a hybrid or online course. Before we won a significant grant, I would find savings every year in my departmental budget, and award small amounts to faculty to put courses online.
  12. Pay equal attention to hybrid classes. In my experience, hybrid courses are at least as popular as online classes. They are an important gateway for faculty, who typically find teaching a first hybrid class much less intimidating than a fully online class. Once they have taught a couple of hybrid classes, they will have the skills to teach a fully online class. Similarly, most students are at first reluctant to take online classes, particularly with faculty they may not know. They will, however, readily take hybrid classes. Once they have taken a couple of classes in this format, they typically feel much more comfortable taking classes fully online. This means that our students typically mostly take classes face to face in their first year, take hybrids in their second and third year, and by their fourth year are taking many more online classes.
  13. Don’t push online instruction to adjuncts. Course design in an online environment takes a great deal of time, and this work may not make sense for adjuncts who are mobile. Also, students are nervous about taking online classes with faculty they haven’t had a class with before. As a department chair, the best strategy is to start with your full-time faculty and best teachers. This will also help to dissipate faculty concerns about the quality of online instruction, no matter how unjustified they may be. I sometimes have had complaints from students, including that their online course even lacked a syllabus or the complete content in the course shell. I think that these cases are typically when an adjunct is hired to teach an online class one time, without sufficient notice, and without enough support. Such experiences can end any wish students will ever have to take online courses. The best online classes are taught by your full-time faculty, with help from an instructional designer.
  14. Don’t assume that most of your students will be from far away. In my classes I have students everywhere from Morocco to Peru. But 90% of our students are still from the greater Portland area. Many of them can no longer afford rent in Portland, and have had to move out to the suburbs with family and friends. But they still want to finish their degree. Other students have young children or jobs. Most of your students will be from your local area, which means that thinking about their needs matters. For PSU, I believe that online education forms part of our access mission, which we’ve always viewed as being core to our university’s history and identity.
  15. Don’t pay faculty more to teach online. Some faculty will argue that they should be paid more for online classes, as they are more work. In my experience -having developed and taught six fully online courses over several years- online classes do take more time to create, but they take a little less time to offer once they’ve been taught once. So overall, it’s a wash. Faculty do deserve to be compensated for putting a class online, but there shouldn’t be any further compensation on an ongoing basis.
  16. Don’t confuse Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with a high-touch class. Most online courses are taught by people who like thinking about pedagogy, and how to innovate. Their courses typically are very different from MOOCS. I don’t think that faculty need to worry about competition from them, because they usually have a very different purpose. Yet academics are deeply suspicious of MOOCs. Don’t conflate them with other online classes, particularly when you talk to your faculty.
  17. Don’t record lectures, or think that your faculty will need special resources for this. Please just don’t. That was how online instruction happened in 2002, but now there is such a plethora of streaming video through most academic libraries that this is unnecessary. Faculty may need to record screen casts, but now the trend is towards keeping these videos short, usually around five minutes. The days of dedicated rooms with video recording are largely gone, except for one in the teaching and learning center to create these brief videos. Instead, most online content now consists of a streaming video or two each week, peer-reviewed articles, and some digital resources.
  18. Do create a venue to recognize outstanding online instruction. I strongly recommend creating teaching awards for online instructors, to recognize those faculty who have achieved excellence. These examples matter. If you are a dean, ask to meet with some of the best online faculty in your units, perhaps at a brown bag lunch. Such attention highlights and values this work.
  19. Your faculty may surprise you. Competitions for funding for departments and individual faculty will allow you to identify your potential allies. There is nothing that works like success. Start from where you are, and try not to listen to people who say that there is no support for online instruction. Remember, you should give hybrid classes equal attention as online ones. The two modalities must be thought of together, and the best tool to create an online program is to have faculty who are already teaching in a hybrid format. If you give online classes and programs funding, attention and value, they will quickly grow.
  20. Encourage faculty to think about new approaches to pedagogy, such as Universal Design and the Negotiated Syllabus. Provide travel funds for faculty to travel to pedagogy conferences to present on their work putting classes or programs online. Encourage them to publish in this area.
  21. If your World Languages faculty refuse put languages online to meet the BA requirement, can you partner with a local community college to do so, and have a transfer agreement for that coursework?
  22. Give rewards to units that put degrees online. Mention their achievements publicly. This is especially important for deans to do at department chair meetings.
  23. The best way to draw departments into online instruction is to foster a sense of competition. Do as my university did, and create an internal grant program to place programs online. This well-managed effort was so successful that it went through two rounds, and ultimately had a transformative impact in many departments. One of the grant programs strengths’ was that it was comprehensive. For example, if a department won a grant to put a program online, the library received funds to order resources and support this work. Faculty even had a dedicated library partner, who in my experience took this role seriously. Faculty were also assigned dedicated instructional designers, which made all the difference.
  24. If you want to deepen department’s commitment to online education, set aside a certain number of hires for online instruction. Have departments compete for these positions, based on how it will enable them to create online tracks in their departments. Publicly state that you will prioritize units with online tracks when making decisions about faculty hires.
  25. The library needs to have a librarian dedicated to online learning. The bane of teaching online is the broken link. This librarian needs to build a relationship with the instructional designers in the Center for Teaching or learning, or wherever online support is located on campus. Online resources -such as e-books- need to prioritized in purchases. So does streaming video, which is critical to having online degrees. The President must convey to the head librarian that online learning is a top priority. The head librarian’s letter of offer should say that they must demonstrate sustained and successful support for online learning.
  26. The Office of Institutional Research needs to create an annual report -with detailed metrics- regarding BOTH online and hybrid instruction at your university.
  27. University Marketing needs to have a plan to market new online programs.
  28. Update your university P&T guidelines to say that faculty who teach hybrid and online courses will receive particular credit and recognition for their work. If a tenured faculty member is coming up for promotion, this will encourage them to dedicate time to online course development. This step will also provide reassurance to junior faculty who may have senior colleagues who are skeptical about online instruction.
  29. Don’t try to do this too quickly. The best way to grow a quality program is through time. But to do that successfully, you’ll need a strategic plan.
  30. It’s not too late. There is always someone further behind than you. If you have a strategic plan, you are already doing well.
  31. Realistically, given the current difficult state of higher education in the United States, every university board should be having a separate conversation with their president to ask them about their strategic plan for online education. All new presidential hires need to be able to demonstrate a clear sense of vision in this area, or they aren’t a good hire. Without true leadership from boards, universities will struggle to make the scale of changes that are required at the pace that is necessary.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

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