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Top 10 Countdown / Sustainable Success

A veteran distance learning director’s formula for online programs that really work.

Karen GerstenKaren Gersten is associate dean of the Evelyn T. Stone University College at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she initiated Roosevelt’s fully online distance education program, RUOnline (, and also serves as the program’s director. In Gersten’s 20 years in higher education as a faculty member, university administrator, and director of distance learning, she has seen technology become an important part of her own work and an increasingly key element of university life. Whether it’s evaluating course management systems, budgeting for distance learning, or working on strategic planning, Gersten sets her sights firmly on student learning as the core value of all successful distance learning programs. Gersten, along with Laura Evans, dean of the Evelyn T. Stone University College, will present a half-day workshop on strategic planning for distance learning, next month at Syllabus2005.

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Reality check: How well d'es your online program align with the institutional mission?

  • Focus on the institution’s mission, vision, and short- and long-term strategic planning.
  • Ask where distance education fits in your institution’s overall mission.

Know your short- and long-term program goals.

  • Which populations will the program serve, now and in the future?
  • What’s planned for online development: courses, certificates, degree programs?
  • What are the revenue generation, enrollment, and retention goals?

What are your institution’s strengths?

  • Distance learning is increasingly competitive; parlay institutional strengths into the online environment.
  • Reputation counts, so leverage things for which the institution is known.

Don’t ignore institutional challenges!

  • Is the infrastructure sufficiently robust to support distance education?
  • Evaluate services for remote students—don’t make assumptions.

Identify market potential.

  • Evaluate current programs in terms of appropriateness to the online environment.
  • What are the opportunities for attracting new student populations?

What organizational changes are required to achieve success?

  • Do current policies relate as well to distance learning as they do to on-campus issues?
  • New distance learning initiatives require a major paradigm shift. Consider institutional readiness for major change over a short period of time.

Make a comprehensive and realistic implementation plan that includes human resources.

  • Determine resources that have to be reallocated to support distance education.
  • Give people specific responsibilities and adjust their current workload.
  • Leadership support and reward for involvement in distance learning is essential for success.

Determine quality assurance measures.

  • Who is responsible for the academic integrity of distance education courses and programs?
  • Who is responsible for the design, maintenance, and support of distance education?
  • Have you established a clear authority and voice for distance education programs?

Be realistic in developing a financial plan and budget model.

  • Will the program be institution-funded, externally funded, or self-sustaining?
  • Are the financial expectations realistic, given the cost of technology?

Always remember that the core value is teaching, not technology.

  • Student learning must always be at the heart of your plan.
  • Use the technologies that enhance student learning and are accessible to all intended student populations.
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