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Business Officer Magazine

Growing Online

As more institutions explore offering online degrees, those with some history say that you must know and serve your niche.

By Karla Hignite

Indications are that all types and sizes of higher education institutions are taking note of this growth and recognizing the importance of online education to long-term strategies. Whether their institutions offer full degree programs or individual courses, many leaders agree that Web-based options can not only fulfill the tech-savvy expectations of on-campus populations but can also enhance access, tap new markets, and increase enrollments without adding infrastructure. Yet, the question of which segments to target and how best to serve your base do not have single-size-fits-all solutions. For those entering the online learning arena, the particular approach may vary dramatically based on mission and audience. 

NVCC: Expanding Capacity

Northern Virginia Community College has been in the distance learning market since 1975, evolving with the technologies and tools of the day—from video and text study guides to electronic bulletin boards and Web-based tools once the Internet became prevalent, says Steven Sachs, vice president for instructional and information technology. Distance learning at NVCC is managed through its Extended Learning Institute, which works independently with the faculty of all six campuses to develop courses.

The college currently offers 11 degrees that can be completed fully online. Approximately 195 NVCC faculty members teach more than 320 different courses. Online courses are available to all students, regardless of campus affiliation. Enrollments are credited to the campus of the faculty member who teaches the particular course. Over time, this has resulted in more faculty hires for those campuses and departments that are heavily invested in online course development, says Monica Sasscer, associate vice president for instructional technology, who has responsibility for the institute.

According to Sasscer, approximately 5,000 students account for between 8,000 and 10,000 online course registrations per semester. That represents about 10 percent of the college’s total course registrations. “By those numbers, we are essentially larger than our medical education campus, about the same size as our smallest comprehensive campus, and larger than some of the smaller colleges within the state’s community college system,” notes Sasscer. By all indications, the college’s percentage of online registrations will continue pushing upward. NVCC’s distance learning program has been growing steadily between 8 percent and 12 percent per year, says Sachs.

Since its earliest days, NVCC’s distance learning program has primarily served those students unable to attend classes on campus—whether full-time workers, stay-at-home parents, or members of the military, says Sachs. More recently, schedule and classroom capacity issues have become a driving force for the exponential growth of Web-based offerings to meet enrollment targets and serve a wider market. One population that has shown noticeable growth is teachers who need to maintain their certifications or add disciplines. “For them, distance learning is much more convenient,” says Sasscer, who notes a huge uptick of summer online enrollments from this group.

Mercy’s Mission of Accessibility

Online learning at Mercy College, with five New York City area campuses, got its start in the early 1990s with a hardware grant providing the server for a basic system. From an initial five courses, the program today serves approximately 1,500 Mercy students who account for about 2,700 online course registrations per semester. While most students take a mix of online and on-campus courses, some are enrolled in 1 of 30 degree programs that are offered fully online.

Mercy College serves primarily a commuter population of working adult learners, with about 60 percent of its 10,000 enrolled students pursuing undergraduate degrees. While the college originally started offering distance education for student convenience for those with job and family obligations, leaders quickly saw how the model fit the college’s larger mission of accessibility. “Online learning dovetails beautifully with access to higher education,” says Michael Sperling, provost and vice president for academic affairs. Mercy’s diverse student population—roughly one-third each African American, Hispanic, and Caucasian—includes many who are the first generation in their families to gain such access.

From the start, faculty have been on board and centrally involved in course development—one of the contributing factors of success for Mercy, says John DiElsi, dean of online learning. He is one of five staff members dedicated to the college’s distance learning program. While the institution has not hired faculty specifically to teach via the Internet, DiElsi notes that as these programs and courses have taken off, program chairs have started considering online teaching experience as a qualification for hiring new faculty.

Mercy’s distance learning program is not a standalone profit center, explains Richard Waksman, vice president for finance and administration. Tuition revenues continue to flow through existing academic divisions. In the coming years, the college will seek to expand degree options to groups having difficulty pursuing a degree, including military personnel and those in remote geographic locations. “We also want to improve the quality of our courses and make them more interactive,” says DiElsi. His vision includes exploring opportunities for synchronous learning, such as real-time videoconferencing on participants’ desktops.

Drexel’s Subsidiary Approach

Drexel University’s online model is unique within the ranks of traditional higher education, bringing an entrepreneurial edge to distance learning. In 1996, Drexel, Philadelphia, initiated its online offerings with a master’s degree in information science. Capitalizing on the positive results of that program, the university launched Drexel eLearning, Inc. (DeL)—the brainchild of Drexel’s president—as a separate for-profit subsidiary in 2001. Its primary mission is to meet the needs of potential adult online learners, particularly those age 35 and older, says Kenneth Hartman, DeL’s director of academic affairs. “Our job is to get those who are not able to come to Drexel’s campus to enroll in a program online.”

Individuals can choose from more than 50 master’s, bachelor’s, and certificate programs, which they can complete online. Enrollments of adult learners have grown from 540 in FY03 to more than 7,500 in FY06. In student surveys that DeL staff conduct each year, 90 percent of respondents say that if it were not for an online option, they would not attend, says Hartman. “That is as true for those within five miles of campus as it is for those 50 miles [away] or more. Adult learners are looking for convenience and flexibility.”

DeL’s attention to the adult learner market includes employee continuing education. The company currently has 150 corporate partnerships, including its largest contract to provide a five-course leadership development program to 200 Lockheed Martin employees each year. More recently, DeL staff are exploring options to partner with other higher education institutions. A number of colleges and universities that have learned of Drexel’s results have sought DeL’s help to develop and market their programs, says Hartman.

Most of Drexel’s distance learning offerings are also available on campus, using the same professors and curricula. Conversely, on-campus students also benefit from the opportunity to take some courses online. In fact, the university has set a goal to eventually deliver electronically at least 10 percent of the course content for every student. Currently, about 3,000 of Drexel’s approximately 20,000 undergraduates (14,000 FTEs) are taking courses online.

All revenues are shared between DeL and the corresponding university department in which the faculty develop and teach the courses. New markets of online learners are a plus for deans, for whom it might otherwise mean hiring new faculty and growing programs at a time when traditional higher education enrollments in general are approaching a standstill or even declining in some markets. Some of Drexel’s deans have already reaped the rewards of their online focus. The nursing school has built a series of simulation labs funded largely by revenues from Web-based nursing courses, says Thomas Elzey, Drexel’s senior vice president, treasurer, and chief financial officer.

Brand Building

A key part of the DeL brand is that all courses are taught by Drexel faculty, says Elzey, who also serves as treasurer of DeL’s board. “When a student takes any online course delivered at Drexel, the experience and knowledge of our faculty and the academic depth that makes Drexel excellent are behind that course content. We are very conscious of maintaining the quality of Drexel degrees and content,” says Elzey. “At the same time, we recognize that there is a for-profit market, and we know how it does business. For us to approach online learning as we have, by developing a for-profit entity, is itself a response to the market.”

Another response to a growing, competitive market, of course, is outreach effort. “Because this is an Internet-based product, we rely on traditional Internet marketing strategies to find students,” says Hartman, who has witnessed the cost of acquiring students increase significantly during the past three years. The bump in costs is in part due to the price of keywords, which are selected and purchased as a way to ensure that Web searches bring potential students to DeL’s site. The charge for keywords “has quadrupled in recent years,” says Hartman. Consequently, DeL employs a full-time Web optimizer to help in keyword and other marketing strategies to ensure that Drexel maintains its top position in Web searches.

And, by establishing a subsidiary that operates with business acumen, staff can move quickly to take advantage of emerging markets, says Elzey. Recently DeL faced a major six-figure decision relating to its search engine keyword strategy. “In a traditional university setting, that decision process could take months,” says Hartman. “We were able to act quickly to make a business case for moving forward.”

While many higher education institutions currently offering online education may not be as focused as Drexel on targeting new populations, the importance of marketing is not lost on those institutions seeking to expand or better serve current student populations. Marketing in general, for example, is only now becoming a focus for NVCC, says Sasscer. “As a community college, there has always been an understanding that we were there for the community, and the community knew to seek us out.” It’s a new world now, admits Sasscer. Word of mouth by satisfied students has proven most helpful for gaining increased enrollments for distance learning. Other pushes are being made within the military community, and the Extended Learning Institute’s counselors are initiating outreach efforts with area high schools. Among the markets NVCC would like to intentionally pursue are (1) adult learners who already have degrees but may be looking to retool or change careers and (2) the increasing influx of new Americans to Northern Virginia, says Sasscer. “Those are harder groups to reach without expending a lot of resources; and as a public entity, we grapple with how many dollars we can use for those purposes.”

Costs in Context

Potentially hefty marketing costs aside, something that many people within the online education business agree on is that distance learning operational costs in general are no longer a valid reason to sit on the sidelines. On the other hand, technology costs associated with distance education have become much less of an obstacle, says NVCC’s Sachs. “Today, we have more course management system accounts for our regular classroom users than for our distance learning accounts. As campuses in general catch up to using the Web, the argument that technology for online learning is more expensive is no longer valid, because we’re now all using the same infrastructure.”

For some, shared services also translate to greater cost efficiencies. “We have seen diminishing costs over the past 10 years, in general, in terms of supporting online students,” says Mercy’s Sperling. “As institutions move to more of an e-business orientation, it’s much easier to offer all students the same access to basic services, whether they are on campus or online.”

One key concept of distance learning that often gets missed is capital avoidance, says Sachs. “We would have to build a minimum of two additional campuses to absorb our online enrollments. Too often, construction costs, maintenance, and other facility demands aren’t factored in to what you save with online learning options.”

To be sure, there are costs associated with offering distance education, even if an institution doesn’t expand beyond its current student population. Sasscer notes that instructional design is probably the biggest area of investment for NVCC, both in terms of developing courses and preparing faculty to teach in this very different learning format. Nine of the institute’s 30 staff members are instructional designers. Similarly, DeL’s 40 full-time staff includes three instructional designers who support faculty to ensure that instruction materials are consistent and that courses are in keeping with good pedagogical principles, says Hartman.

Easing Worries and Workload

E-learning programs may also require changes in policies, including support for faculty, says Sasscer. “Are you going to buy faculty laptops or pay for their connectivity at home so they are available to students more hours of the day?” In addition to strong instructional design, Sasscer believes faculty and student services and support represent another area that should never be shortchanged.

Faculty need support not only in course content development but also in managing workload, says Sachs. “In a classroom, you don’t let students occupy the entire time with questions. You can help faculty set similar communication rules in an online setting,” says Sachs. Today’s course management systems show vast improvement for allowing faculty and students to better manage communication with individuals and with groups, says Sachs. Even so, users are bound to run into occasional glitches.

System Shortfalls

From its earliest days of offering distance learning, Northern Virginia Community College has taken pride in the fact that continuous enrollment has been a hallmark of its program, says Steven Sachs, vice president for instructional and information technology. However, while in theory a student could start an online course any day of any week, the college’s current enrollment management system doesn’t support such an open-ended cycle. “We’ve had to move to a more fixed enrollment,” says Sachs. Even so, students have the opportunity to start a course at three different times during a term. Those requirements may loosen up again with the implementation of a new system on the horizon that will allow more flexibility, says Sachs.

John DiElsi is also awaiting a better administrative system that will allow Mercy College to collect the data needed to track its online progress. “One problem we have encountered is that we haven’t always been able to track which enrollments are online,” says DiElsi, Mercy’s dean of online learning. Since the mid-1990s the college has had a special designation for online courses, but as blended and hybrid courses have emerged, so has the question of how to best reflect these in course listings and track them for enrollment purposes. Another difficulty: In years prior, distance learning was considered a separate campus. “When students filled out their applications, they had to choose a campus. If they chose Dobbs Ferry, but later decided to take online courses, they continued to show up as a Dobbs Ferry student,” explains DiElsi.

Even more basic has been classifying an online student. The general definition Mercy College employs is a student who takes at least half of his or her courses online. The college is in the process of implementing a new administrative system that should allow better tracking of students and courses to know who is taking courses online and graduating from Web-based degree programs and in what time frame, says DiElsi. “Those are important things to know when planning where to put additional resources.”

At Mercy College, a designated staff member is available by phone until 11 p.m. for faculty who have technical problems with their courses. The college also has a helpdesk and is moving toward 24/7 support to serve the needs of all students and a growing online learning population. Similarly, NVCC has a hotline for online students, along with advisors and counselors who support online students exclusively. DeL offers 24/7 tech support for students. “A university may do a wonderful job of serving students during the day,” says Hartman, “but most adult learners start after 5 p.m. and expect a level of customer service comparable to what they receive when they call Land’s End,” says Hartman.

Among its other tools and services, DeL developed a podcast series ( offering advice and tips to online students. All NVCC students who register for online courses are strongly encouraged to take an orientation that outlines the differences between online and traditional learning and what students need beyond the required technology access. Mercy College students must complete a tutorial and quiz to determine if online learning is right for them. “Based on what they score in five different categories, students and faculty know from the start what areas in particular they may be weak in,” says DiElsi. “That also alerts our online learning staff to intervene as needed to suggest how students can better budget their time, for instance.” One of DiElsi’s staff members is a dedicated online student advisor trained to address students’ specific questions about their majors.

While distance learners may at times require specialized assistance, one sign that online learning is taking hold as a segment of the mainstream is evident in how some institutions distinguish—or don’t—between online and on-campus students. “Whenever we think about adding services, we don’t think about doing so for onsite students only,” says DiElsi. In one example, Mercy’s student learning center is available to all students who may be having difficulty with a particular course, including those delivered electronically. The line between online and on-campus is growing fuzzy—as it is in the areas of course design and class composition—owing largely to the rise of hybrid and blended courses.

The Blend of Both Worlds

Mercy College offers courses that are purely Web-based as well as a mix of courses that in some way combine onsite and online content and participation. The definitions of what constitutes a hybrid or a blended course vary, and the terms are often interchangeable. At Mercy College, a blended course is an on-campus course for which students have the option to attend and participate online. In those instances, on-campus and online students might work together on a class project, says DiElsi. He considers that a plus. “This gives students a glimpse into how their world will increasingly operate in the future in terms of collaboration among those who may not physically be in the same location—whether a few miles away or [separated by] whole states or countries,” says DiElsi. Mercy College is currently negotiating with an institution in Ireland to offer courses jointly as a way to provide students different cultural points of view.

By comparison, what Mercy considers a typical hybrid approach may have students gathering once per week in class and once online. That can carry a big benefit for administration as well, helping to alleviate the crunch on classroom space—especially during premium or peak times, says Waksman. Fewer students on campus at the same time can also free up scarce parking spaces, adds Sasscer. DiElsi notes that more faculty are warming to the idea of hybrid and blended courses as they learn how they can use digital delivery in a way that frees up precious classroom time for critical thinking and discussion.

As with any new teaching methodology, some faculty may require more coaxing than others to test out online instruction. “What we have found is that most faculty who try this end up wanting to teach more courses online,” says Sachs. “And these are not only young faculty. Some of our most innovative faculty are our most seasoned faculty.” A handful of NVCC faculty now teach their full course load via the Internet. An added plus for some instructors is that they can continue to teach a course or two online after they retire from full-time service, take other jobs, or make a geographic move, says Sasscer. “The cost of living in our area combined with our commitment to a diverse faculty make it increasingly difficult to recruit enough adjunct or even full-time faculty. Something I see as a possibility for us in the future is to share faculty with other institutions,” says Sachs.

Is Online Always Right On?

E-Learning Examples  
  • In addition to free access to its annual report on the state of online learning in higher education,The Sloan Consortium ( maintains a catalog of online courses and degree programs on its Web site. Among other resources available is a new site ( bringing together educators and administrators involved with blended and hybrid learning.
  • The American Distance Education Consortium, ( is a nonprofit consortium composed of universities and land grant colleges developed to promote economical distance education programs and services to diverse audiences.
  • Other nonprofit organizations focused on issues and trends within the K-12 and higher education distance learning markets are the United States Distance Learning Association ( and the North American Council for Online Learning (

For many institutions, says Sachs, the debate about whether to enter the online learning arena changes at some point from “Should we?” to “How do we do this?” Because of NVCC’s early foray into distance learning, the evolution to online education was never seriously contested. The decision didn’t come, however, without some very real growing pains and discussions about what model would best serve the institution and its students, says Sachs. For institutions inclined to jump in because others are doing so, he offers this caution: “There is a real danger in thinking you can absorb this totally with the infrastructure and staffing that you currently have, without carefully planning for supporting students at a distance.”

Once an institution establishes the infrastructure, it can conceivably add thousands more students, but even then, how to expand your market is not always evident or easy, says Mercy’s Waksman. “While there is tremendous economic potential for offering your degrees online, you still have to figure out your strategic niche.”

DeL’s Hartman agrees. While the online learning market is growing rapidly, institutions should look before they leap. “You need to identify whether you have the resources and expertise—along with the markets—to make it worthwhile,” advises Hartman. A core question is: To what extent does the market want your program? “You may have an outstanding business program in your community, but does anyone outside your footprint know about it? In terms of the regional or national reputation of the program, people may not want to buy it online,” says Hartman. “Higher education in general is a difficult industry to market because so much is based on purchasing a perception, and that can be hard to quantify.”

Regardless of the potential for reaching new markets electronically, something institutions can’t ignore is the learning preferences of a generation that has grown up online, says Hartman. While the assumption is that most tech-savvy 18-year-olds still want a traditional on-campus experience, they clearly expect new approaches to learning.

Teaching Your Base

“From the outset of our distance learning programs,” says Sachs, “half of our students taking distance courses were also taking classes on campus during the same semester.” That statistic hasn’t changed measurably over the years, regardless of the size of the institution or the technologies used, notes Sachs. “Some like to use the distance courses to fill in when they can’t find time for a face-to-face course or to finish a degree if they move or become employed,” adds Sasscer.

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Waksman agrees that the ability to complete a degree more quickly may also entice some traditional on-campus students to take at least some courses online. “We have always tried to focus on what we can do to add convenience for our market, whether offering classes on Saturdays, at nights, or online.” Electronic content delivery can also be beneficial as an alternative strategy for emergency or as-needed circumstances, says DiElsi. For example, Mercy College offers a program in occupational therapy that meets every other weekend. “We sometimes have weather patterns that prevent students from attending. In such instances, if you can determine how you can deliver material alternatively online, students won’t miss out due to schedule conflicts or bad weather,” says DiElsi.

Preparing for the day when, for whatever circumstances, students can’t come to your course on campus is yet another reason to pursue digital delivery, argues Hartman. He isn’t convinced that higher education institutions are moving forward fast enough. Yet, he also understands that, for some institutions, it may never make sense to develop the internal expertise to launch or maintain an online component. Outsourcing will increasingly become a viable option for some, notes Hartman.

Regardless of the model chosen, foremost in priority is getting faculty to embrace a distance-learning mission and to believe in its quality and legitimacy, says Hartman. One way to do so is to maintain the same admission and academic standards for online offerings as for on-campus programs. “Ultimately,” he says, “if online learning is to succeed for an institution, its academic deans and directors must be vocally supportive.”

Targeting the Rest

That sentiment is strongly reinforced by the Sloan survey. It notes that for continued rapid growth in online education, chief academic officers—those planning their institution’s future educational offerings—must perceive online learning as important. While that battle is not yet won, the survey reveals steady progress: The proportion of chief academic officers to agree that online education is critical to their institution’s long-term strategy has risen from 48.8 percent in agreement in the 2003 study to 58.4 percent for the 2006 study. More (72.6 percent) agree that online education can reach students not served by traditional face-to-face programs. That potential to support the unserved and underserved may keep online programs and enrollments multiplying in the years ahead.

KARLA HIGNITE, principal of KH Communication, Tacoma, Washington, is senior editor of Business Officer.