Behind the Learning Experience

Introduction:  Behind Learning Experiences in Higher Education

In order to create effective, seamless learning experiences (or even halfway competent ones), a coherent infrastructure is necessary.  There are many examples of what support of the learning experience looks like, and how learning experiences are created and maintained.  The differences between these are largely dependent upon the type of institution and the size of the online program.

Here, we’re going to take a look at multiple dimensions behind the learning experience including academic and wraparound support, faculty support, program development, instructional design and development, the eLearning environment (or ecosystem), regulations (including state authorization, accreditation and Title IV), and partnerships and innovation.

Elements revolving around the learning experience including faculty support, program development, instructional design and development, eLearning environment, regulations, partnerships and innovation.

Each of these components play a critical role in creating and supporting the learning experience; that learning experience is the core of a high-quality education online, or even in a brick-and-mortar environment.  These components are highly interconnected—for example, the model of course design and development often contributes to how faculty support is conducted.  The course design and development either places certain requirements on the eLearning environment that are accommodated, or the course design and development is limited based on the eLearning environment available.  Regulations are most closely watched (and in some cases most likely to be adhered to) in online programs that have many enrollments versus smaller programs.  The types of learning models that can be embraced by institutions (like Competency-Based Education or CBE) are in many cases culturally determined; more innovative and progressive institutions are more likely to experiment with emerging models of education.

Let’s start this explanation by discussing program development.

Program Development

If you would like to review general information about program development, you can find that at the bottom of the page here:

There are many facets to program development and the roles and processes differ across types of institutions, ranging from traditional curriculum approval processes to more streamlined and centralized program development options designed to facilitate the time-to-market for new programs.  In both cases, the process is typically driven by the “academic side” of the house, with approvals being led through individual programs or colleges > curriculum committees > academic affairs/provost approval and in some cases to a Board of Regents, Supervisors, or system-wide approval, which in some cases is tied to legislative requirements, like it is in Louisiana.  Though program development may be well-defined at institutions with large online programs, in many cases it is not codified.  A study by UPCEA and Helix Education in 2016 found that:

“many universities have no formal process for new program development, and instead rely on intuition-based factors to make such decisions. This informal decision-making process is mismatched with the top two data-driven outcomes of program development: revenue and job market demand” (UPCEA, 2018).

In the article Overcoming Barriers to New Program Development, authors Tracy Schoolcraft and Christina Sax note five common barriers:

  1. Length of the process; need for acceleration for programs with “non-traditional students, niche programs for specialized audiences, rapidly emerging workplace needs or transient workplace program needs, graduate certificates” (para 4., 2016).
  2. Need for utilizing data to conduct market needs analysis and develop clear business plans.
  3. Need for faculty incentivization to participate the in the process.
  4. Insufficient internal expertise, requiring adaptive, flexible program development teams.
  5. Cultural challenges; solutions proposed are to create revenue sharing incentives, or even “run new programs fully offload with the intention to move them onload with potentially new supporting faculty lines and resources once they have proven sustainable” (para 14, 2016).

Read this article from Joshua Kim on 10 Ways to Fail When Creating an Online Program.  It is an excellent analysis of elements that need to go into the process of creating an online program.  If there’s any issues with the link, find a backup copy of that article here.

There are multiple things to consider in any program development process.  Key to these are:

  • Learner need and market demand
  • Institutional strength areas and differentiation
  • Learning model format (traditional, CBE, etc.)
  • Length of learning experiences (4 weeks, 7 weeks, 16 weeks, etc.)
  • Regulations (accreditation, DOE, RSI and participation as applied to instructional design and delivery)
  • Technology infrastructure – can it support the type of program
  • Number of credits, degree, certificate, micro-cert, etc.

The example below from UPCEA describes big-bucket components that go into the process:

UPCEA program development model

Many areas are typically involved in the program development process.  They include faculty and academic departments, online learning units, academic governance, regulatory staff, the registrar, bursar, financial aid and others.  Not only does the program need to be developed, but the technical systems need to be updated, or information will need to be inputted, for course codes and descriptions, catalogue information, pricing, financial aid, Pell Grants, and others.