Online Learning

How Southern New Hampshire U Develops 650-Plus Online Courses Per Year

Course development at the country's fastest growing nonprofit online educator is a major endeavor. Here's how SNHU manages the process.

In the past two years, Southern New Hampshire University has increased its online course offerings by 67 percent and more than tripled its enrollment, making it the fastest growing not-for-profit online educator in the country. Just how has SNHU managed to create so many new programs and courses and hire enough instructors to deliver them?

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Early on, administrators realized they needed a formal project management team for course development. With so many people and processes involved, recalled Kerri Bedrosian, director of eLearning project management for SNHU's College of Online and Continuing Education, "We didn't have anybody overseeing the entire process to make sure courses were ready when students needed them. We just kind of hoped they would be ready." Bedrosian presented on SNHU's course development journey this past July at the Campus Technology 2014 annual conference in Boston.

Streamlined Course Development

Now, Bedrosian characterizes SNHU's course development model as "one-to-many."

"We have an internal team that designs the course, from the outcome to the critical path for summative assessment, all the formative assessment around it, choosing the learning resource, text or e-text, discussions and lectures or overviews," she said. "All that is designed in-house and built by our production team into Blackboard, our LMS. That becomes our one course model — our master course — and we then copy that out depending on how many sections are needed for that term. The instructor receives a fully completed course. It is great for us because we can ensure a lot of consistency across our sections."

In addition to new courses in development, SNHU has about 1,000 existing courses in its catalog, which often need to be refreshed. "We have a process to decide which courses get redeveloped and refreshed every term," Bedrosian explained. "It might be because we want to get a less expensive resource or there is new technology for graphic design or other programs." SNHU will work on 27 new or completely revised programs as well as 40 concentrations launching in the next year. "That means we will have 400 new courses in the next year and 250 scheduled revisions for existing courses, which means we will have 650 projects or courses to develop," she said. "Break that down over our 11 terms and it means we have 60 projects we are launching each term."

An academic team and marketing executives decide which programs they want to launch in the next year. Then for each program, SNHU holds a two- to three-day workshop in which subject-matter experts, academic stakeholders and a launch team figure out the curriculum (including number and type of courses) for that program. Once the program is approved by the university's governing body, the project management team begins scheduling course development work.

At the same time that curriculum development work begins, course titles and descriptions are given to faculty recruiting teams, which look for instructors academically qualified and interested in teaching the sections, explained Libby Hayward, assistant e-learning project manager. Meanwhile, outcomes and assessment specialists work with the subject-matter experts to take the information approved at the program level and write outcomes for the end of the course and critical tasks for final assessments.

Meanwhile, a design phase begins. The instructional design team works with subject-matter experts to build the course and identify third-party resources such as videos, textbooks and e-texts. (SNHU has 10 instructional designers on staff as well as a network of freelance designers it can turn to as needed, Bedrosian said.) Each dean has a framework for how the design will proceed and the vehicles students will be assessed with. The courses are then approved and loaded into Blackboard. Three weeks before the courses begin, the instructors get access to the material in order to get acquainted with what they will be teaching.

Tackling Project Management

SNHU's rapid growth brought so many stakeholders into the mix that people involved in the process didn't always know where their courses were and what they should be doing next, Bedrosian recalled.

"Because we are growing so quickly we have run into some challenges," Hayward said. "One is multiple, static spreadsheets. For tracking information on projects, I have three or four Excel spreadsheets open on my desktop, and I am sure others at Southern New Hampshire would say the same thing." Without a live look into what is going on, information can be inconsistent or lost, she said, adding, "The other problem is that decisions get made via e-mail and if you are not in that e-mail chain, you might not get that information at all."

To clear up the confusion, SNHU created a curriculum team structure. Deans lead curriculum teams that include a project manager, content architect and learning resource manager. "Instead of one group doing their part and handing a project off, the team stays together and there is more cohesion, so conversations keep going," Hayward said. "Once we broke it down to these curricular teams, we had to make sure they were operating on the same framework across the entire academic team. We wanted a central repository so there is always one place where the information lives and is always correct."

The project management team looked at a variety of workflow software solutions, said Nicholas Brattan, assistant e-learning project manager. "Higher education has some unique processes and a lot of workflow software isn't particularly attuned to higher education," he noted. In addition, some solutions looked too complicated for users to learn, he said.

Ultimately the team chose a solution called Comindware, which allows for centralization of information. That's vital for a few reasons, he said: Previously, if an individual wanted to look at a project, he or she used to have to go to one place to look at learning resources, another place to look at governance information, another place to look at who was assigned to the project. "At the rate we are growing, that is not sustainable," Bratton said. "Comindware gives us a central repository where all the conversations around a project are going on. We want users to log into the system and see a list of every task they need to do for that project."

Bedrosian said the transparency of internal processes would be key to keeping up with all the growth. Both new and existing employees see an overview of the process from start to finish, he noted. "We want to let them see where a course is in the cycle so it gives them insight into where they become involved."

Plus, when creative staffers (such as multimedia teams) have visibility into what projects are developing, they can begin looking for resources earlier in the process. "As soon as we have a course specification document, they can start looking for an interactive video or simulations," Bedrosian explained. "We weren't able to do that before."

Taking After the For-Profits

Both champions and critics of Southern New Hampshire University's business model point to similarities between SNHU and for-profit institutions. Here are two sides of the for-profit coin:

"We studied the way for-profits use data to drive decision-making, streamline administrative processes, focus on customer service and more. We also invested heavily into academic quality, superb advising and student support." — SNHU President Paul LeBlanc

"Just like many of the for-profit universities, SNHU tries to maximize efficiencies and scale up everything it does to drive down costs. At SNHU, online courses are created centrally and then farmed out to a small army of adjuncts hired for as little as $2,200 per class. Those adjuncts have scant leeway in crafting the learning experience." — University of Southern California professor Gabriel Kahn in Slate magazine

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