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By Christopher Markham

Delivering online education is difficult and complex, as the conversation among experts in the field has evolved to refer to online learning itself as having traditional and nontraditional modalities. The evolving approach to online learning, in both theory and practice, often collides with the philosophies and personalities of faculty and academic leaders on the ground, and necessitates the development of thoughtful strategy and collaboration within the institution.  

Over the course of my career, I’ve been fortunate to lead and collaborate in the planning and launch of fully formed online learning programs at multiple institutions, spanning 6 states in both public and private environments. This hands-on and highly collaborative experience has afforded and informed my perspective on key areas of focus, particularly the necessity for all schools to approach their online learning needs with unabashed honesty to cultural challenges and courage to make decisions promoting necessary organizational change. 

1. Strong Leadership is Key
Institutional culture may be dictated at the top, but it is controlled at the bottom. While at Georgia Military College (GMC), we faced intense scrutiny from faculty and academic leadership in the early stages of the online campus startup. They were looking for any cracks in our commitment to the idea of a fully formed online campus. The decision to remain resolute, end to end, was critical to our success and our professional response to the scrutiny. It’s essential for leadership to listen to all stakeholders involved – to address criticism candidly, publicly, and respond with confidence. This approach provided overwhelming success in GMC’s online campus startup administratively, and also helped to develop partners and evangelists among even those who had been skeptical, some of whom became the most ardent champions of the online campus.

2. Trust the Process, Not the Shortcut to Change
A detailed process map following the student lifecycle and a pro forma model for revenue based on headcount (to include expenses), informed by an honest reckoning of how your institution currently does business, are vital to building a successful online campus. When you understand the challenges your institution currently faces, you’ll be able to lay out a process your team can execute to reach your goals.  At SUNY Empire State College, our institution served as the incubator for SUNY Online, a consortium of online learning shared among 64 separate institutions of higher education. Through collective effort and agreement to establish a student lifecycle that could accommodate each and all institutional business processes, technologies, and academic programs, we were able to build a fully formed and marketed online campus from the ground up, in the largest comprehensive system in the world at SUNY.

3. Investment vs. Cost Center ⎼ the Value in IT
Technology value-add exists along the entire student lifecycle. Technology, or rather digital literacy and fluency, is best leveraged when each functional administrative office, such as registration, advising, financial aid, enrollment management, and more, adopt the tools provided. Technology strategy should map to, and be informed by, the institutional mission and vision, as opposed to driving it. For these reasons, technology leadership should not only have a seat at the executive table, but also know how to translate tech strategy into the principles of digital literacy and fluency that add value to strategy. In collaborating closely with leadership and functional offices, technology teams can also accelerate buy in and adoption for the online campus by illustrating the added value that technology can bring to bear for students and staff along the student lifecycle.

Turning Insights into Action

If you’re ready to position your institution for successful online education, you may be interested in Edge’s Online Program Readiness Assessment (OPRA). OPRA is a comprehensive evaluation that equips two-and-four-year institutions with a roadmap for sustainable, institution-owned online learning programs. 

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About The Author

Christopher Markham is Vice President for Information Technology and Economic Advancement at Edge. He has overseen the development of successful online programming for both public and private institutions, including SUNY Empire State College and Georgia Military College.  Chris has 20 years of IT leadership experience in higher education. Currently serving in the United States Army Reserves.