Sunday, August 4, 2013

Don't Forget About Regional Brand!

Lots of schools are developing online programs to increase revenue, notably through increased enrollments, or perhaps to protect against falling enrollments in the future. While there are projections of modest increases in enrollments in institutions of higher education in the near future ( ), they "do not take into account such factors as the cost of a college education, the economic value of an education, and the impact of distance learning due to technological changes". These are such important factors that I think their exclusion from analysis makes projections rife with uncertainty, because the rules are changing.

Usually, when a university offers an online course (e.g., a MOOC) or a much more comprehensive online program (e.g., Vanderbilt's School of Nursing MS programs: the emphasis is on reaching students across the World, and because travel and part-time residency can be expensive in terms of time and money, allowing students to be solely online, never having to travel to Vanderbilt (or whatever university we happen to be talking about) is important, particularly for older adults, in contrast to 18-22 year olds, who want to continue their education, but can't take time away from work and/or family.

In addition to revenue, online programs can spread and reinforce a university's brand worldwide, entering the university's name into interpersonal discussions around the World, perhaps attracting some students to attend the school in person, in addition to attracting others online.

In all this attention to reaching the World though, we shouldn't forget about the importance of regional brand and other attractions of our institutions to OUR region (I'm reminded of the movie "Rudy", the scene where Coach Dan Devine of Notre Dame tells his football players before a home game with Georgia Tech that "No one, and I mean no one, comes into OUR house and pushes us around." :-).

I wish I had the data to answer the question "how many older adults who are going through online programs would like to attend formal classes in person from time to time?" I wonder about this question because I wonder whether we are overlooking an important population in all this focus on online education -- older adults living within 120 miles (or so) of our university. These are people who may want to take a degree program ONLINE MOST OF THE TIME (because of work and family), but who are close enough that they can and do aspire to attend in person at least from time to time, to meet the professor and their student colleagues! Indeed, some may have grown up wanting to attend our school; they may want their children to attend our school.

I also wonder whether, at some point, as more and more institutions develop online programs that we won't hit saturation points. Our rankings as a university and rankings of our programs will distinguish us among other online programs to be sure, but it will be our region and the possibility of face-to-face interactions from time to time, that may also distinguish us to regional online students, in our lesser known programs if nothing else.

Moreover, there is much in oped pieces of late about the danger that lesser-known schools face as a result of the rush into online education by many leading institutions. I would extend this to concern for lesser known programs within well-known schools. But I also imagine that the regional affiliation of a small, lesser known school can be a strength, even in the institution's design of online programs. The trick to exploiting regional affiliation, I think, is to design online programs that are intended to be online most of the time, but that allow students to participate in person from time to time, perhaps with in-person attendance happening if and when the student wants (because the online component is synched with an on-campus offering), or requiring (or allowing) students to meet with the professor as a group during selected times of varying duration. This latter condition, of having predominantly online students attend in person at selected times, is built into some programs, but even in these cases, can these programs be further refined to be explicitly concerned with the regional online student? I think so.

There is lots to investigate before concluding that we can leverage high-quality regional brand (deserved, I hope!) to attract regional students to online programs. How good does the brand need to be and how much the desire to participate face-to-face from time to time, before tipping scales towards a predominantly online program at a regional institution, over a globally better known program? Even if institutions aspire to move beyond regional affiliations, they can still embrace those affiliations -- those affections that those in their region hold for them, and certainly I would expect that smaller schools should seek strength in region. An irony may be, however, that only schools with some (inter)national reputation will be able to exploit regional brand in the manor that I am considering -- schools without reputation at a larger geographic scale than their immediate region may have insufficient draw within their region; but they may nonetheless be able to have appeal for other niche populations -- this larger idea of consciously looking for your institution's niche populations was an interesting point by Arthur Kirk, President of Saint Leo's, a pioneer in online education. In the case of Saint Leo's, niche populations include students of the Catholic faith and students in the military, but my thoughts about region grew as a special case of his imperative to identify special populations.

Its probably no accident that "Rudy" came to mind earlier, a story about a young man in love with Notre Dame -- he grew up loving it! "Dreams make life tolerable" is another well-known "Rudy" quote, and we can design programs that allow the possibility of on-campus experiences, certainly a dream for some, in an otherwise online framework.