3 Questions for Susan Aldridge | Learning Innovation – Inside Higher Ed

A space for conversation and debate about learning and technology.
Higher education leader, strategist and futurist.
We recently had the privilege of sharing a (virtual) stage with Susan Aldridge at the RNL 2022 Graduate and Online Innovation Summit. Some of the points that Susan made during our session on, Building Your Checklist for Transformational Growth, motivated us to want to follow up on that event with a Q&A. Susan graciously agreed to answer our questions.
Q: From 2013 to 2019, you were president of Drexel University Online. Before that, you had a long career in academic leadership, including as president of the University of Maryland Global Campus, vice chancellor at Troy University and a senior fellow at AASCU. Since retiring from Drexel, what have you been focusing your time and energies on?
A: The pandemic added to existing university challenges of revenue shortfalls, five years of declining face-to-face student enrollments and a reduction in high school graduates. In response to these challenges, my consulting work with university presidents and boards focuses on new business models, digital transformation and career-focused university/industry partnerships. My work with foreign ministers of education includes university accreditation in a virtual environment and assessing online education quality.
Philanthropists and corporations are seeking advice regarding their investments in higher education digital transformation. Over 40 speaking engagements and writing have taken up the rest of my time. It’s been extremely busy and rewarding to use 25 years of higher ed executive experience in support of higher education’s future resilience and viability.
Q: When asked to provide guidance to university leaders in planning their online education strategies, what are some of the consistent messages that you find yourself delivering? What are the common mistakes that universities make when developing their plans to grow their online programs?
A: Universities can be successful with their online program expansion, even in this competitive environment. However, if presidents expect to generate net tuition revenue (NTR) and not just more expense, they must pay as much attention to the online business model as they do to their largest donors.
University presidents and their boards approve strategic plans that include online program growth. Their definition of success is NTR. When presidents delegate online growth responsibility to the provost and walk away, provosts interpret success as launching as many programs as possible, starting with the path of least political resistance and supporting enthusiastic faculty. Programs are launched that too often are not marketable, and not only is the NTR goal not met, but costs exceed revenue.
Presidents need to provide clarity around the quantifiable goals to be accomplished, communicated with accountability metrics from the top down to the university front lines. Some universities expect NTR from online growth, however, if the online expansion goal is to improve facilities management, a different business model and set of metrics is required. If increasing student access is the goal, then a different model and financing structure are necessary. Setting the goal, communicating and creating accountability metrics are key.
Second, hiring or contracting with professionals with 10-plus years of online experience is essential, preferably reporting to the president to oversee the operational requirements, in collaboration with the provost, who manages the academic programs, faculty hiring, quality standards and professional development. Hiring or contracting for SEO and digital marketing expertise is essential to ensure results and limit wasted resources. Universities underestimate the expertise required and the cost of digital lead generation and SEO. Third, external market research must be conducted to determine viability of the online programs before the programs go through academic committees.
The cost of online depends on the number of programs offered. Launching two or three marketable, scalable, well-designed programs is much more profitable than launching 20 low-enrollment programs that add to the cost burden. Fourth, reinventing the student experience requires the elimination of barriers, improving accountability for timely decisions in key areas such as transfer credit evaluation, financial aid decisions and admission decisions—in days, not weeks or months. Every professional has a role in the students’ success, therefore, they each need to be held accountable for growth and retention.
Fifth, admission decisions need to be controlled by a few leaders. Otherwise, program directors, who don’t understand the purpose of growth, may reject complete applications from qualified students in order to appear “elite.”
Finally, the provost’s office needs to define quality, provide consistent professional development and ensure accountability for quality.
Q: The question on all of our minds is how the pandemic will change the future of higher education. What sorts of conversations do you think colleges and universities need to be having today to increase their resilience, impact and viability in the future?
A: According to RNL research (2022), over each of the last five years, face-to-face undergraduate and graduate enrollments had a net decline, while online enrollments have seen significant expansion. The pandemic further accelerated online growth. University presidents and provosts are taking advantage of the post-pandemic environment to transform their universities by building digital ecosystems.
Future-oriented universities used Higher Education Emergency Relief funds to invest in virtual infrastructure, multichannel communication systems for students (chat, videoconference, email, phone), augmented websites for self-service, extended call center hours and 24-7 tech support, and advising by phone or videoconferencing.
HEERF funds were used to hire instructional designers to improve the quality of the online courses, to move away from the remote Zoom classes. Designers built engaging, multimedia-rich, immersive classes with simulations, virtual and augmented reality, using research-based expertise on how students learn online. These investments are essential because students continue to demand more engaging, better-designed courses, and they will continue to question the value for online tuition cost and fees.
Universities will increase online offerings. AASCU and Wiley just released research on the Evolution of Online Learning at Public Universities (2022). Over 90 percent of the provosts reported increasing online growth in the next three to five years, and 72 percent support increased funding for online infrastructure. More faculty hires will be required to teach both online and face-to-face, and an increasing number of full-time faculty will only teach online. In my consulting work, private nonprofit universities are also expanding their market-driven online offerings, particularly graduate programs.
In this post-pandemic environment, CHEA and the regional accreditors need to step up. Current distance education accreditation standards are not being consistently followed or assessed. The standards need to be rigorously updated to improve the quality of the virtual learning experience and support. After 25 years of online research and experience, experts across the U.S. can advise accreditors regarding the improvements that must be made.
Longevity in delivering online courses or the number of online programs offered are no proxy for quality. Universities offer a range of quality: some online courses are best in class, and the same university may offer others that are worst in class and reputationally damaging. How many presidents and provosts have randomly selected a number of online courses from various colleges and gone through the courses? Is this a course that would excite you or engage you to learn?
Resilient universities have taken advantage of the pandemic to improve services for all students at a distance and increase access to their universities through virtual programs. Building on the university’s brand, a select number of market-driven, high-growth signature virtual programs, with exquisite design, trained faculty and exceptional student support, will enhance the university’s impact and viability in the future.
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