New year, new (online) U – five questions to ask about your online education portfolio

University leaders are building on the learning of the past two years to reset their online offer. Ant Bagshaw and Andrea Burrows set out the big questions

Ant Bagshaw is Partnerships Director at OES UK


Andrea Burrows is Managing Director of OES UK

Fully online teaching, learning and assessment – and its flexible or hybrid versions – has been necessary for all institutions in the face of the pandemic. But deploying stop-gap measures isn’t the same as establishing a strategic approach to online education.

As the boundaries blur between online delivery and on campus, and as increasing stackability of credentials means more pathways into programmes, there are many choices available to a university for how to present what it offers to the world.

From our discussions across the UK and internationally, we know that many leaders plan to use 2022 as the time to (re)set their online education portfolios and strategies. They are aiming to build on what they’ve learned in the last two years in the context of the plethora of opportunities available to their institutions. And in the context of a competitive global market with rapid changes in demand, technologies and expectations.

Sector leaders should be looking ahead to identify, and then implement, the online education strategies which will set them on the right course for the next few years. As each institution each has its own corporate strategies and areas of focus, that differentiation should be no less true in online education. We offer some questions to help you tease out how you might navigate the many options available.

What do you want to achieve with online education?

Fully online programmes offer institutions access to new markets by providing opportunities for students who might not be able to attend face-to-face. They can also open up access to otherwise under-served groups. For some universities, the priority may be to grow in particular disciplines with courses that really flourish. Or your focus may be more on social mission through a targeted offer.

You’ll likely need to weigh up the relative merits – the benefits and the costs – of investing in postgraduate versus undergraduate programmes, or domestic versus international markets.

How will online education help build your reputation?

An online portfolio can help to shape what an institution is known for. That could be through building micro-credentials which are relevant to a local industry partner, or flagship programmes which speak to a university’s research strengths. Your online portfolio will be your showcase for the world to see.

With this in mind, you should consider which audiences – such as new groups of students, or businesses, or the public sector – that you want to target. Given the reach of online education marketplaces, you should also think about what could be achieved through these channels as well as your traditional marketing routes.

How can your online offer align with on campus?

Online delivery can support flexibility for all students. The introduction of lecture capture – in many universities some years ago – has transformed how students can access a part of their education. It’s time to consider what could be possible with greater flexibility of when and how students access material or engage with peers and academics. But this could be disruptive for staff and students as well as bringing benefits.

Increasingly, universities are ensuring that they assess what education delivered online can mean for the whole portfolio, not just fully online programmes. For example, it could be that an industry-focused online offer helps you better meet on campus students’ needs and demonstrate skills relevant to the workplace.

What should you do on your own, and what with others?

Universities have choices when it comes to building capability and capacity in-house or partnering selectively. In working with partners, some institutions choose the online programme management (OPM) approach to take advantage of external expertise and investment to establish a strong market position. Others prefer the unbundled OPX approach for selected support across one or more dimensions of delivery.

Making the right choices means knowing what resources you have to deliver your strategy on time, and on budget. It’s worth testing what the market can offer to see where and how there is alignment with what the university wants to achieve.

How can you best deliver on your strategy?

Whether you decide to launch a big online portfolio, target a niche area, build full programmes, or develop stackable credentials, you need to have the confidence that colleagues will support the implementation of the strategy. That means ensuring that you have told the story about how and why the university has decided to take a particular direction. It also requires aligning incentives – including workload allocations – within the university so that colleagues feel confident that they will be recognised for developing online courses.

When working with partners, you should ensure that they share your mission and are aligned to your goals. You’ll also need to make sure that you cover off all the detailed work like making sure your pedagogical approach aligns with the needs of online learners, and that you have the structures to support staff and students in new models, such as the help that students studying across multiple time zones might need.

While many institutions have already started to develop their online education portfolios, we see major opportunities for innovation in ways which reflect institutions’ diverse missions. With so much change, particularly the permeability between on campus and online, it is a great time to develop the strategy which works for your institution now. And the strategy which means you’re not left behind as others make progress.

The universities which are most successful in their online portfolios keep the needs of students front-and-centre. They have clarity about what they want to achieve through their portfolios and approaches, and they’ve decided where and how what they offer as online and hybrid programmes aligns with on campus delivery. They’ve also done the hard work of listening to, and engaging with, colleagues and students to ensure that the changes which come from new approaches recognise stakeholders’ needs. If you haven’t yet worked out your online education strategy, 2022 could be a great year to start.

This article is published in association with OES. 

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