Partnering to Grow Online, Adult-Focused Degree Programs

Concurrent Session 9

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

As online enrollment becomes increasingly necessary and valuable for institutional growth, universities and colleges are scrambling to secure the financial resources, time, and expertise needed for expansion. Our presentation highlights the rationale, benefits, challenges, strategies, and “lessons learned” from building online programs via collaboration with a third-party vendor – from each organization’s unique perspective. We’ll discuss:

  • the unique collaborative partnership between Gwynedd Mercy University and Synergis Education, Inc.
  • how we utilize each organizations’ strengths to design curriculum and support students and faculty 
  • how program directors, faculty, and administrators may partner with instructional design teams, whether in-house or third-party

Attendees who are considering expanding their online presence, especially those with questions regarding program scalability, limited internal resources, and migrating to an online, accelerated format, will benefit from our interactive presentation. What is your biggest challenge in expanding your online presence? Send your response or another comment/question to and we’ll cover it in our presentation. See you in Orlando!


I am the Director of Online Learning and Innovative Technology at Gwynedd Mercy University where I provide instructional technology support to faculty, particularly in the area of online learning where I continually search for new technologies that will engage the online student. I spent a number of years as a Senior Instructional Designer at Montgomery County Community College providing classroom technology support for faculty. My strong interest in Internet2 led to a MAGPI Fellowship in 2010 and nomination to MCCC’s Innovation of the Year Award for my creation of the Virtual Education Collaboration. Prior to working in academia, I spent over 20 years in the business environment as a computer programmer, business analyst and, most recently, as an Instructional Designer for Ellucian. I earned my bachelor’s degree in Business from Immaculata University and my master’s degree in Instructional Systems from Penn State, where I also earned a Web Graphics Design certificate. I received my Master's in Business Administration (MBA) at Gwynedd Mercy University. My speaking experience includes presentations at a variety of conferences including STEMtech, an international convening focused on increasing student access, success, and completion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Aaron has been innovating adult education since 2006 when he began designing English language courses for business professionals in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. He loves the entrepreneurial aspect of working in and with small organizations—each day brings a new challenge, opportunity, and learning experience. When he’s not helping partner-institutions design and deliver awesome curriculum, he enjoys relaxing with his wife and daughter, exercising, and recording rock music.

Additional Authors

CherRon has been involved in various roles in higher education: student support, instructor, academic affairs and operations, faculty development, and instructional design. She is guided by her experiences to approach projects holistically. Her holistic approach drives her to create curriculum that engages students and faculty while achieving desired learning outcomes. CherRon loves connecting with people, has a passion for helping others maximize their strengths, and is an accomplished team builder. A lifelong learner, her current focus is on learning new technology to innovative classrooms, program and project management.

Extended Abstract

Presentation Description and Goals

In 2014, Gwynedd Mercy University’s School of Graduate and Professional Studies (GPS) began revamping its degree programs to address one of the university’s strategic goals: “Be Responsive to Market Forces”. At the same time and opposite end of the country, Synergis Education, an education startup from Arizona, was beginning its mission to help universities co-design, launch, and grow market-demand degree programs delivered in ways to enhance access and efficiency. In March of that year, we formalized a collaborative partnership intended to make GPS more competitive by bringing traditional Education, Business, and Nursing programs to an online, accelerated format.

As of April 2017, enrollment has more than doubled to 1245 students earning Associate, Bachelor, and Doctoral degrees, and online enrollment has grown from 34% to 67% of total enrollment. Offerings include an accelerated, hybrid-format Doctorate in Education which grew from 0 to 177 students, an accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing which grew from 0 to 219 students, and an all-online Masters in Education which grew from 119 to 386 students.

This presentation discusses our experience co-designing, growing, and delivering these degree programs. We’ll

  • describe the unique, long-distance collaborative partnership between GPS and Synergis Education
  • highlight how we utilize each organizations’ strengths to design curriculum and support students and faculty 
  • offer insight into how program directors, faculty, and administrators may partner with instructional design teams, whether in-house or third-party

This presentation will benefit attendees who are considering expanding their online programs, especially those with questions regarding program scalability, limited internal resources, and migrating programs to an online, accelerated format. We’ll cover the following topics from each organization’s unique perspective in interactive format that allows for questions and discussion:

The Decision to Collaborate

One of the most important decisions for a university embracing online learning is whether to allocate its own resources towards the project or to request assistance from a third-party vendor. Institutions must review their labor pool and identify employees with a matching skill set that meet the need required to build and offer online programs.

  • Gwynedd Mercy University Perspective
    • Why did we decide to partner with a third-party education service provider?
    • How did we go about selecting a vendor? What considerations were most important?
    • What were our concerns going in (e.g. academic freedom, ongoing support, maintain university mission)?
  • Synergis Education Perspective
  • What resources do we have in place to assist GPS in this endeavor?
  • Are policies and procedures in place to ensure the success of the project?
  • Are we fully committed to allow for a successful collaboration?

Keys to Collaborative & Academic Success

There are many characteristics of a successful and large implementation, particularly when two separate parties are involved. Some of the key characteristics to our success have been:

Change Management

  • Preparation of university Faculty and Students
    • Student Online Readiness Course
    • Faculty Online Certification Course
    • Student and Faculty Resources Wordpress site
  • Preparation of Synergis Instructional Designers
    • Qualities to look for during the hiring process
    • Training programs


  • Clear division of responsibilities and oversight (e.g. master shell handoff, design team plays consultative role)
  • Relationship development
  • Shared resources/teamwork (SME, ID, PM, MM Designers, IT personnel)

Project Management

  • Create Development timeline
  • Development timeline planning and budgeting
  • SME Initial Meeting and consistent collaboration
  • Occasional on-site visits
  • Creation of Faculty Instructional Guide (a sample may be provided to attendees)

Scalable Program Model

  • Three modality course design
  • FIG and Master Course concept
  • Accelerated format – multiple entry points yearly


As with any large project, the challenges are real and continue. 

  • Master course shell concept – adjuncts not as familiar with course
  • Technology security – unable to share all of university’s technologies
  • Course revision process