Friday, May 15, 2009


If you are willing to accept what I've written about changes coming to branch campuses, then what should you do to make sure that your campus thrives? Timing is important here, as part of a strategy to respond to emerging competition.

So, let's start with a target year, in which I believe most adult learners, at least, will be choosing online and blended programs over traditional, campus-based programs. That year will be 2014, five years from now. How do I know that? Well, I don't, to be honest. Christensen mentions 2014 as a tipping point for online education, but in a different context. I've seen other references to that approximate time, and it simply feels about right to me.

The most important reason to choose 2014 is that it is far enough away to allow responsive institutions to make adjustments, but it is close enough to (I hope) raise anxiety, if you aren't engaging, yet. A good friend, with good judgment, said to me recently that he believes online education will be the dominant mode of delivery for adult learners in about 10 years. I think that is definitely much too far out. If you agree with my friend, please let me know. I want to come after your students!

I have also heard a number of people say things like, "We just aren't ready, yet. We can't afford to develop the classes, our faculty are resistant, and our audience prefers traditional classes." I understand that reaction, and most of it may even be valid, but it could indicate that your campus is going to be in trouble, by 2014.

To me, 2014 suggests that there is still time to start development of courses and programs in a strategic way. If you aren't active, yet, it will take you two or three years to get things rolling. A lot of institutions are ahead of you, but a lot aren't. The days of just putting something out there and generating lots of revenue are over, anyway. The "second wave" is coming, which will be much more niche oriented, focusing on high quality services, using technology in ways that are engaging and highly supportive, and making use of new business models that are keyed to this disruptive environment.

If you wait two or three years, then start development, you will be out of luck. Other providers will be in your market, and if they are providing the right programs and services, at an attractive price, there is no reason for students to switch. Most recruiting will occur by word of mouth and other low-cost marketing strategies, making it difficult for you to attract attention, especially from current nonconsumers.

Here is my advice: If you are just getting started in the development of online and blended programs, then create a team that will get up every day thinking about the audiences, programs and services that need to be developed. Study other institutions, to consider how they are approaching things. Spend a lot of time on the Internet, just looking at sites, mining them for ideas.

Continue being a cheerleader for your existing programs. Institutions don't necessarily need a lot of money to make this transition, but I strongly advise reinvesting any new revenue from outreach or branch programs in the further development of those programs. Further, you need a revenue sharing model that provides incentives for academic units to participate. If you can keep some staff focused on taking care of your current students, and on prospective students who resemble them, then you will be giving yourself time to develop the new programs and services that will attract nonconsumers.

Make sure you and all the other people involved in new program development are concentrating on nonconsumers. It isn't the students you currently serve and understand that are key. It is the students who are going to competitors or not enrolling at all that are the long-term target. As part of this focus, make sure you understand which programs cause the ears of nonconsumers to perk up, as well as which services they find valuable and how they want to engage with you (through email, IM, telephone hot line, etc.).

I'm expecting services to be even more important in the future, because you have to be very cost conscious and prepared to pass reduced costs on to students. No stadiums, no library, no health center, no student union, if your target audience isn't interested. If your existing students value these things, then that's great, but for the new audiences, you are seeking to be competitive on cost. These folks are much less likely to believe that your program is better than someone else's because it costs more. On the other hand, if your program is a better fit for their interests, and your services have a reputation for excellence, then they probably will pay at least a little more than competitors charge.

Finally, rethink geography. Branches often have a defined service area for their traditional programs. With online and blended programs, however, distance is less of a barrier. If most commuter students see 30 miles as approaching the limit of how far they will drive, 50 or 100 miles is no big deal for courses that meet on a limited number of occasions, during the term. One might think that fully online programs have no geographic limitations, but in my opinion that probably does depend on brand recognition and the uniqueness of your program. It may be difficult, for example, to differentiate your online AA degree from someone else's, when so many are available, at comparable prices.