Is it time to expand your distance learning program?


As community colleges plan to return to more in-person classes this fall, a number of distance learning programs are exploring the possibility of expanding their online programs going forward. After all, almost all of our students – and faculty – experienced firsthand the many advantages of online learning over the past two years. 

Prior to the pandemic, online enrollments were the principal source of enrollment growth at community colleges, and it is anticipated that in the post-pandemic student demand will continue for more online class and degree options.

This article is part of a monthly series provided by the Instructional Technology Council, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Expanding your online offerings can be a big step for your program. You should review the following questions to ensure this is the right “next step” for your program:

Why do you want to expand your program?

This is the most fundamental question. How you choose to expand will be guided by the audience you expect to access/serve.

Do you have the support of your administration (including commitments to expand staffing and budget)?

It is essential to have the full support of your leadership team. The expansion of your program will require additional resources for your office and will have an impact on other areas of the campus as well, such as student services, IT, advising and others.

Is your existing program well-established – and successful?

Expansion of any program is not for the faint of heart. Your current level of success also matters. A well-established program demonstrates the experience and confidence necessary to expand – but if your program has problem areas, expansion will amplify them in ways that will undermine your success.

Has your program been offering fully online degrees for at least three to four years?

This element is another key ingredient to assess when you are thinking of expanding your program. An online degree has many moving parts – experience in offering online degrees breeds confidence – this is not the time to expand if you haven’t been in the online degree business.

Is your faculty onboard and in support of the expansion?

In any program expansion, your full-time faculty are your content experts for courses/degrees and the mentors for the part-time faculty members who will take on most of the new teaching load. Faculty support is essential to the success of your effort.

Have you developed a student services structure that properly supports a virtual student population?

It is unwise to launch an expansion of your online program in the absence of a robust, relevant and effective virtual student support. This tends to be the Achille’s Heel of most expansion efforts. Virtual students do not respond well to radio silence, bureaucratic run-around or the absence of “just-in-time” support.  You likely don’t require 24/7 support but availability in the evenings/weekends at high-volume times is essential.

Have you implemented online program standards that focus on the student and their success?

Students in a virtual degree program expect each class to operate the same. The design, timing of access, getting the text, contacting the faculty member, how exams are handled, the training of faculty, etc. are best when they are standardized. Hence the need for an approved set of standards for teaching online. 

Do you have a track record for strong student retention and completion with your current distance learning program offerings?

There is no longer any excuse for online student retention and completion to be any different from any other mode of class delivery you use on your campus. In fact, you should be able to achieve a higher level of retention/completion given the strategies for retention that have been developed and implemented for virtual instruction. Only successful programs in this regard should consider expanding (class retention and program completion of at least 85% should be your standard).

5 strategies to expand your distance learning program

Once you have reviewed and assessed your readiness for program expansion, you can explore doing so in a variety of ways:

Go beyond your immediate service area

Many community colleges operate with a defined service area. With the arrival of online learning, this traditional model struggles for relevance in the 21st Century. If you are considering this type of expansion, you will want to focus on unique degrees that may not be available in neighboring community college jurisdictions.

Reach more active adult learners

WICHE’s (Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education) “Knocking at the College Door, 10th Edition” provides nationwide data – and enrollment predictions – for K-12. Most states are forecast to lose K-12 enrollments over the next decade. The natural pivot for most community colleges is to develop a recruiting/student support program for active adult learners. Many of these potential students already have earned some college credit. By making those credits count and providing expanded support, you can capture more enrollments AND advance workforce development in your state.

Go beyond state borders, thanks to NC-SARA

National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) have opened the door to serving students beyond your state borders. Licensure degrees remain a challenge, but regular degrees can easily be offered to students who reside in other states. Membership is affordable and eliminates having to do this by yourself. This can allow offering degrees to active-duty military.

Connect with your students – and graduates – for a lifetime

Community colleges normally are not able to track students after they stop-out or graduate.  The 21st-century economy will require a great deal of career-related updating, career retooling and career migration. By using your LMS e-portfolio, you can foster a longer relationship with your students (they keep access to the e-portfolio for at least 10 years – perhaps forever – to be used for job applications but also to provide free webinars for career updating, and credit or noncredit options for career retooling or migration).

Increase access – what online learning is all about

Celebrate the great advantage of online learning – greatly improved access to higher education!

This is the important tag in support of any program expansion. Many of today’s students – traditional and adult learners – are no longer able to come to campus. Virtual learning offers the perfect solution – available to your students 24/7. This can make a real difference in student retention and completion. 

If your program is ready, this is a near-ideal time to consider expansion. Competition is steadily increasing as traditional service areas and approaches are beginning to break down. More than 14% of colleges and universities have already closed or consolidated. It is essential to consider the preconditions for success however as many attempts to launch online degree programs have failed.

About the Author

Fred Lokken
Fred Lokken is chair of the Business, History and Political Science Department – and former dean of the WebCollege – at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada. He is past chair and a board member of the Instructional Technology Council (ITC), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges. Lokken has conducted the Annual ITC National Distance Learning Survey for the past 17 years.