Education

The Team Needs to Launch a Low-Cost Online Degree Program


My latest obsession is low-cost online degree programs.

My fascination with the idea of bending the master’s cost curve is partly professional and partly personal.

On a professional level, my work is all about online learning. Most of my online education career has been about quality. Guiding questions for my online work have been:

  • How can we create immersive, intimate, and transformative learning experiences for online students?
  • What does active and student-centered learning look like when translated from physical to the online classroom?
  • How might we apply the integrated team-based model of course design and learner support found in high-quality online programs to residential courses, particularly introductory and foundational courses?

What I have done less in my career is participate in online education initiatives that significantly lowered the costs of these programs.

Like many in the online learning community, my mantra has always been that online education is not any cheaper to create or run than residential education. The costs are different.  More instructional design and fewer buildings.

And the timing is different. Investments in online programs are front-loaded. But overall, the online degree programs that I’ve been involved in over the years have been commensurate in costs as their corresponding residential degree programs.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if we can do better?

I’ve been highly influenced by the crazy stuff they seem to be up to at Georgia Tech. And the low-cost master’s degrees at Illinois, BU, ASU, UC Boulder, and others have captured my imagination. 

Might it be possible to change the norms in higher education so that the high-cost degrees are the exception, rather than the rule?

Can the academic community take up the challenge of the high-quality/low-cost scaled degree moonshot?

Is there an online educational path to intimacy, rigor, immersion, and transformation at scale?

The other reason that I’m curious about low-cost online master’s degrees is personal. My younger daughter is a junior in college, studying to be a teacher. Eventually, she will need a master’s in education.

The idea of learning while teaching and not incurring debt while still getting the education and credential of a master’s degree is hugely appealing. I don’t know what options there are now in the scaled online degree world for my daughter, but I want to find out.

For all these reasons, I was excited to check out a recent publication from Coursera called Building Your Online Degree Program: The Definitive Guide

One of the big questions I’ve been wondering about has to do with internal resources. How many people does it take to build an online scaled degree?

Are the university resources required for a degree program that will likely have more students to make up for the lower tuition costs different than traditional degrees?

Can the same people who work with professors on non-credit / non-degree courses and certificates also work on degrees?

The Coursera publication has lots of detail, information, suggestions, and guidance for anyone curious about the mechanics of scaled online degree programs. As my institution is a new Coursera partner, I have more than a passing interest in understanding what the company has learned about building an infrastructure around scaled online learning.

The content that I found especially helpful is the section of the report titled Determine Your Resource Needs (p 11).  The staffing model that Coursera recommends to “design, develop, and launch as many as six degree courses every six months” includes:

Administrative Team

  • Program Manager
  • Student Advisor
  • Admission/Recruitment Manager
  • 0.3 Academic program director
  • 0.1 Data coordinator

Instructional Design Team

  • Instructional Designers (1-3, depending on the pace of implementation)
  • Instructional Design Assistant • Copy Editor
  • 0.5 Learning Technologist

Video Production Team

  • 0.5 Production Manager
  • 0.5 Camera Operator
  • Video Editor
  • Motion graphic editor

What do you think? Does that size of the team make sense to you in terms of building capacity to design and launch online degrees? How much does this team size differ (if at all) from traditional online programs?

I’ll be digging more into the Building Your Online Degree Program: The Definitive Guide to help me get my head around what is involved in getting a low-cost online degree program launched.

Can you recommend other resources on scoping, headcount, and investments when it comes to building and running degrees at scale?

Are you also fascinated by the idea of leveraging scaled online learning to bend the postsecondary cost curve?

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