Strategies for Creating a High Quality Scalable Online Program

Concurrent Session 1
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Brief Abstract

It can be challenging to create a scalable online program that provides a high-quality learning experience, incorporates best practices for course design, and fosters teaching excellence.  This session describes our journey creating a popular online academic program.  Tips for course design, faculty development and staffing strategies will be discussed.

Sponsored By


Rachna Heizer, J.D., is the Coordinator, Human Resource Development Curriculum and Instruction for University Studies at Texas Tech University. She has been an instructor with Texas Tech since 2011 but has nearly a decade of both online and live teaching. While at Texas Tech, she has developed courses in Employment Law and Diversity, Employee and Labor Relations, and Diversity and Cultural Competency. Her work includes redeveloping courses such as Human Relations and Training and Development. She also teaches Introduction to Human Resources, Leadership, and Compensation and Benefits. Prior to her position at Texas Tech, she was an assistant professor at George Mason University. Ms. Heizer is a lawyer with a background in employment law, disability rights, and corporate law. She earned both her undergraduate degree and her law degree from the University of California at Berkeley. Prior to her academic life, Ms. Heizer was the President Blaye Solutions Management, a consulting firm that offered ADA/EEOC Compliance Training and management consulting. She received both her Bachelor of Arts in Political Economy and her Juris Doctor from the University of California at Berkeley. Research/Interests: Ms. Heizer’s areas of interest include employment and labor law, diversity management and cultural competency, disability rights, organizational development and distance learning. She also co-authored conference presentations on online education and virtual leadership presented at the 2016 Teaching Professor Technology Conference and the Women’s Leadership Conference. Her work with disability advocacy and her employment law expertise led her to realize that many organizational diversity and ADA programs are not designed to sufficiently meet the needs of those with behavioral or mental health disabilities. She has presented as an expert on ADA/EEOC and at numerous conferences and spoken on podcasts, radio, and television shows about ability-focused full inclusion of people with disabilities in education, workforce, society, and politics as part of the norm of human experience. She trains educational organizations on “Strengths-Based Education for Students with Disabilities,” workplace organizations on “Neurodiversity: Cultural Competency and Workplace Accommodations for People with Behavioral Disabilities,” and political organizations on “Disability Inclusion across Political Movements.” Rachna has presented at the Netroots Nation Conference, the Network Nova Women’s Summit, the National Education Association, the NAACP Juvenile Justice symposium, The RISE district conference and the Fairfax County Special Education Conference, spoken on the radio, podcasts and local TV shows. Ms. Heizer’s pro bono work includes disability policy and advocacy. Ms. Heizer is an appointed member on the Board of Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services and the Fairfax County School Board’s Advisory Committee for Students with Disabilities. She also volunteers with autism related charities.

Additional Authors

Dr. Andrea McCourt is the Program Director for the Human Resource Development academic program through University Studies. Dr. McCourt has an Online Teaching Certificate with an emphasis in Online Management from the Online Learning Consortium. During her time at Texas Tech, Dr. McCourt has also coordinated the campus access program for students with disabilities, worked as a teaching consultant/learning assessment specialist in the Teaching, Learning, and Professional Development Center, and served as an Associate Director in the Office of Planning and Assessment. She has a BS in Elementary Education from Eastern New Mexico University and earned her Masters degree in Higher Education with an emphasis in Student Affairs and a doctorate in Human Development and Family Studies from Texas Tech University. Please include Rachna Heizer as a presenter if this is accepted. The system would not allow me to add her even though she is registered with OLC. Thank you.

Extended Abstract

We began our program development journey the fall of 2011, creating from scratch an innovative online academic program in the human resource development discipline.  This process involved curriculum development, establishing departmental standards and guidelines, creating consistent online course design, as well as hiring and mentoring faculty and support staff for the program.  From the beginning, we aimed to create a set of classes with complimentary course content that thoroughly addressed the most important aspects of the discipline. 

There were, of course, challenges along the way.  Our program is located at a traditional brick and mortar university, with the requisite issues of standing up a non-traditional program at a traditional institution.  As with many new programs, funding was uncertain for a while.  We were determined to develop a consistent and high quality online program but no such model existed at our traditional university. During this session, we will discuss how we addressed these problems along the way.

The initial concern was the desire to ensure consistency in our course offerings. As we designed the curriculum, we decided it would be helpful to have a “template” of sorts for all of our online classes.  We did not want the classes to feel repetitive or boring, but we thought that having some design similarities and a consistent “look to our online classrooms” would help students navigate the all the classes more easily.  This template involves simple things like locating links in the same place in the online classroom, using a similar syllabus template, and using a departmental logo on the homepage so that students would immediately know they had reached to correct classroom.

We realized maintaining central control over course development was integral to the quality of our program. Due to the high number of adjunct faculty in the program, we decided to develop courses at the departmental (rather than instructor) level.  This allowed us to make sure that each class covered the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities for that specific topic, while also building on the knowledge from one course to another to create a comprehensive program.  We also ensured that each class was developed using sounds instructional design theories and principles.  This had the added benefit of making sure that there isn’t a lot of curriculum overlap between classes.

Consistency can also be an important part of course navigation and success for students.  In order to increase consistency across all courses we created tools like an online calendar, a syllabus template, and the same departmental policies (e.g., late policies, etc.) for all classes. This way, students knew exactly what to expect from our program.

As with many new programs, we had a limited number of full-time faculty lines.  As such, a high percentage of classes were (and still are) taught by adjunct faculty.  Having courses developed at the departmental level helps our faculty to focus their time on teaching and interacting with students, which has been highly beneficial for everyone.  It also allows to hire people for their knowledge about the discipline rather than looking for people with HR knowledge who could also develop a quality online course.  This was very beneficial in recruiting and retaining quality online faculty.

High quality programming requires instructors who are proficient educators and experts in their field. A consistent experience for all students in our program also requires all instructors are trained on department policies and expectations. Providing training for instructors is seminal to creating this experience but can be challenging with adjunct faculty, many of whom are remote. We harness our knowledge of technology and online training methodology to create onboarding and training for new faculty. Our training includes requirements that new faculty learn the navigate our learning management system, a faculty development training conducted via Skype to explain expectations, policies and procedures, and other sessions offered on campus and at a distance.  This helps reach all of our faculty.  In addition we initiated a mentoring system where experienced faculty in our program mentor new faculty and are available to answer questions. Yearly evaluations with a chance for self-evaluation and follow up provide faculty with the feedback needed to improve.

As we have developed and grown our program from 100 students in 2011 to over 1000 in 2017, we have developed a template for creating an online program. Having a large number of adjunct faculty who can easily teach additional courses based on enrollment needs is key component of our scalable model.  This template can be applied to many disciplines and programs, with room to grow.

High levels of central course development and control requires a significant investment in administrative and support staff.  During our presentation, we will discuss the different roles our administrators and support staff play in our program. 

The model that we developed could easily be applied to other disciplines and could certainly transfer to other institutions.

We will involve our audience in the discussion through:

1.      Think-pair-share activities during the presentation;

2.      Small group brainstorming sessions on finding campus partners; and

3.      Jigsaw learning activity on how to meet different challenges facing online programs.

Our goal is for session attendees to be able to:

1.      Identify strategies for building and growing online programs;

2.      Develop a list of possible campus partners to help promote your program;

3.      Create policies and standards for your online program;

4.      Describe the staffing needs of an online program; and

5.      Construct a high-quality, scalable online program.