Online: Trending Now

Unique biweekly insights and news review
from Ray Schroeder, Senior Fellow at UPCEA

Planning in a Time of Change

Online: Trending Now #136

How can we effectively plan for our online programs in this environment? 

This is an unprecedented time in higher education. We are facing rapid change in nearly all facets of our programs. Federal and state support is diminishing; employers in many fields are turning entry-level jobs over to artificial intelligence rather than our recent graduates; the long-standing geographic preference is evaporating as competition for well-qualified and highly-motivated students is higher than ever with rapidly expanding numbers of blended and online programs; massive new collaborative competitors for degrees are here with edX and Coursera delivering brand-name online masters, micro-masters and promising baccalaureates at scale; and our own tools of teaching are integrating still-developing technologies including artificial intelligence, VR, AR, and more technologies and combinations that we have not yet even imagined.

All of these factors combine to create an unstable environment in which change is the rule, not the exception. In years gone by, when faced with any one of these basic factors in our field, we would re-group and draw up a new five-year strategic plan to make the adjustments needed to climb back to the top. But, now many administrators in our field are simultaneously facing uncertain or declining funding; a whole new environment of student recruitment competition from powerful new competitors; changing employment markets with changing expectations for our new graduates; and an expensive new tool base for delivering learning opportunities to our students.

This is daunting, indeed. The old strategic planning process that could be completed by a committee of a dozen faculty and administrators (and one student), is what we would have done in the past, resulting in a one or two page document of: Where are we now? Where do we want to be? How will we fund it? What are the metrics to which we aspire? Too often the plan was written to feed the fleeting preferences of the current president or chancellor and the governing boards. It carried overly-optimistic visions. It carried a self-proclaimed expiration date of five years. The old process does not fully capture the needs of today.  How many plans drafted in 2012 anticipated the changes of at-scale competition, machine learning, six years of annual declines in college enrollment nationally, and the continuing decline in state support of higher education. Are they fully relevant today?

Success for the future in our field will be driven by insight and agility. And, the insight calls for something different than a politically-driving strategic plan. It should be an honest assessment of capabilities and an insightful vision of both inputs and outputs (student registrations and employer demands). More than ever we need to monitor the changing economy and employers’ changing needs, especially in light of artificial intelligence economically replacing employees.  And, we need to keep in mind the “60 year learner” concept that continuous learning will be in demand to enable adults to adjust the changing career environment.

I don’t believe there is one planning method to fit all institutions today. But, there are some common characteristics that we all will be well-served by including.

  • Know yourselves very well – your strengths and weaknesses (data analytics can be very helpful in quantifying these), your capabilities and potential
  • Find ways to be agile – prepare to change/add programs on a dime (interdisciplinary approaches facilitate this)
  • Include perspectives in planning from all levels inside and outside the institution through an inclusive Delphi research approach
  • Consider a strategic compass approach with an emphasis on directions rather than outcomes that are years away and will likely need to be changed year-by-year to reflect the changing environment in this dynamic age

It appears that we will be on a roller coaster ride in the coming years. Those institutions and programs that will not derail and crash are those that closely follow and anticipate the trends and technologies; those that know their “audiences” (students and prospective students) well; and those that leverage enduring strengths in their programs.

Have you begun planning in an active, agile way? Are you prepared to transition old programs into new ones? Have you created your compass, and do you update it annually?

Of course, I will continue to track the developments in MOOCs, emerging trends, technologies, pedagogies and practices in continuing and professional higher education and share them with you through Professional, Continuing and Online Education Update blog by UPCEA. You can have the updates sent directly to your email each morning  – no advertising, no spam!


Ray Schroeder
National Council for Online Education

A man (Ray Schroeder) is dressed in a suit with a blue tie and wearing glasses.

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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