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Brick-and-Mortar Institutions & Online Post-Pandemic Learning Strategies

“I think one of the interesting conversations emerging now are those at private institutions that serve and have served historically more traditional-age students, 18 to 22. Now that they moved online for the pandemic what are they going to do going forward?”

Nicholas R. Santilli, PhD, Senior Director for Learning Strategy at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP)

While the initial jump into online learning following the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic outbreak in early 2020 was rushed, educators at many traditionally brick-and-mortar learning institutions responded by rapidly adapting lesson plans to swiftly move lessons online. And although distance learning pushed teachers and students to tap into different skill sets to succeed, the move was largely embraced by the public and popularized by big tech companies as new educational opportunities.

Now that the global rollout of vaccines has begun, what does this mean for brick-and-mortar schools?

In the immediate future, uncertainty is likely to persist. There are discussions and debates within educational bodies about how best to move forward. But while some institutions are struggling to keep from shuttering, others are crafting strategies to expand and maintain online programs even after they return to “normal.”

We spoke with learning strategy expert Dr. Nicholas R. Santilli to learn about how traditional brick-and-mortar educational institutions seeking to maintain and grow revenue flows in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic are reconsidering whether to include online and distance learning models into their strategic development plans, as well as what these universities would ultimately need to achieve in order to successfully maintain these programs long-term.

Meet the Expert: Dr. Nicholas R. Santilli

Nicholas R. Santilli, PhD, serves as the senior director for learning strategy for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). In this role, he drives the development of learning content for individual practitioners and institutions looking to build the professional competencies of their faculty and staff. He is also the lead for the SCUP Planning Institute, the premier professional development program to create institutional capacity for integrated planning in higher education.

Dr. Santilli is a longtime member of SCUP, co-chairing two SCUP annual conferences; serving on the SCUP board of directors for three years (two years as chair); facilitating for the Planning Institute; overseeing the development of the Planning Institute curriculum; and working with the Planning Institute’s Facilitator Corps.

He joined the SCUP staff after a 34-year career as a faculty member and administrator in higher education, which included positions in the assessment of student learning and development, institutional effectiveness, accreditation, integrated planning, vice president for academic and student affairs, and provost.

Dr. Santilli is also a member of the peer reviewer corps for the Higher Learning Commission, the largest regional accrediting body of higher education institutions in the United States.

Q&A with Dr. Nicholas R. Santilli Over the course of the pandemic, there was definitely an uptick in the usage of online platforms for learning as traditional brick-and-mortar institutions moved to distance learning models. Do you think these coping strategies will have an impact on the presence of online education options from these educational providers moving forward?

Dr. Santilli: I think so. Some institutions may have been initially hesitant to jump into providing online educational experiences for certain reasons. For example, some institutions took a stand to avoid distance learning models based on what they believed was the kind of educational experience that they were providing for their constituents, which didn’t include a full-time online program.

That being said, everybody went online full-time or online to some degree about a year ago. And it’s very important to see what institutions are doing regarding the consequences of that.

I think one of the things that I’m seeing, one of the things that we’ve been talking to our members about and what I’ve learned from when I’ve been invited to give talks is really the main question guiding discussion now is, “What are you doing now to plan through the pandemic?”

You’ve planned for it. You’ve made the accommodations on your campus to continue operations, classes, administrative operations, the student support operations as well. Schools have facilitated the movement of things like career centers, mental health services libraries, other information technology, and resources online.

But what decisions are you making now for your institution that are going to ripple forward and set you up for success over the next 10 years and on? What is the institution going to look like in the future?

So many institutions are pivoting away from the continuity of only offering traditional in-person programs, and are planning to be able to keep online and hybrid programs going from now through strategic decision making. Some campuses and institutions are just working through the decision at this point to say, look, online isn’t so bad for us, and it might be a viable way for us to deliver our education. What will brick-and-mortar campuses need to take into consideration to ensure long-term learning programs are supported in the digital space?

Dr. Santilli: Well, first campuses need to consider what decisions strategically do you need to make now to be able to invest in long-term online opportunities. Maybe Zoom was enough for you to get through to this point. But will it continue to be enough for you if you’re going to make the strategic choice to develop online programming—and not just classes but actual degree programs?

And what kind of infrastructure then do you need to support that? How does the teacher work within it? What kind of people do you need to hire to support these programs? Do you have enough instructional designers?

So, you make these decisions about moving forward online and it ripples through what the campus infrastructure looks like in terms of support.

One big question to address is what are centers of teaching and learning doing to move the integrated media experience on campus to online?

I think that’s one of the things that we saw happening at schools is that one of the most popular people on campus last spring were the instructional designers. They massively helped people transition their courses from face-to-face to some reasonable online delivery, in addition to supporting staff.

Then, in terms of human resources, this is another critically important question to consider: Do you have enough staff to be able to launch this new program? Are you adequately staffed in these areas and especially in the support areas to help faculty build their classes? Do you have the individuals who can actually provide the faculty with services that are necessary to create a more mature online delivery of course content? And are you making decisions to really start offering not just classes, but full degrees?

There’s also infrastructure. Do you have a robust enough learning management system? Do you have enough bandwidth and all the other infrastructure aspects that are necessary?

And then schools need to rethink when you look at faculty that need to support programs like this. How will it change your hiring? They may need more faculty and other academic and student administrators that will help staff those kinds of programs as you move forward.

Making the decision to move online and find an online platform is important. But it’s critical to consider the things that are going to help an institution thrive in an online environment.

So you have all of these other considerations beyond the pure academic portion, such as your admissions programs, your retention programs, and all of those kinds of things. Because these are all important considerations to be able to provide online programs well with quality.

And also, one of the things to not lose sight of is that the regional accrediting bodies are going to want to know how you’re doing this work, delivering it within the mission of the institution and that is there a seamless curriculum that exists both online and on campus. Because the expectation by the accrediting body is that those experiences are equivalent whether you’re in online or face-to-face environments. The schools need to hit the same learning outcomes and need to demonstrate that students are learning in those online programs, and you have to generate the evidence to be able to show this.

There’s a lot to think about if you’re going to flip that switch to become more committed to online work as a learning and delivery modality for the institution.

Those are some strategic decisions that institutions need to make now regarding how they’re going to go forward with their online format. With all these aspects to consider in mind, would you say that providing long-term online degrees and programs is a popular conversation that institutions are having, or just food for thought? And what types of educational institutions are considering this move?

Dr. Santilli: I think it’s being seriously considered, by many institutions, and especially by those that are already in that space.

You have many people in different places in the online environment. There are some institutions that are there and have been there for quite some time. And there are various graduate programs that have been wholly online at some institutions so they’re already there now. For schools like them, it’s a matter of what is going to keep us competitive and distinctive?

So you have different levels of conversation going on at different schools.

I think one of the interesting conversations emerging now are those at private institutions that serve and have served historically more traditional-age students, 18 to 22. Now that they moved online for the pandemic what are they going to do going forward? Will they allow students to take their courses in hybrid formats where they take some courses face-to-face and take some courses online? That’s what a lot of institutions are doing right now.

For example, my last place of employment is right now in the high-flex mode where they have students in class and students online. They are trying to have the mixed modality right there. And what does that do for the institution in terms of faculty work? Teachers are teaching to a group of students both in the classroom face-to-face and still have an audience online.

Institutions are having to consider how do we make this work? Especially when we’re still uncertain in terms of when we can really fully bring people back on campus.

So there are these certain types of institutions that were not doing much online previously—perhaps some of those may have been private liberal arts colleges that were offering summer online courses or classes online that may have done that to capture revenue—but these were not degree programs.

At what point are you beginning conversations about whether you’re ready to really offer the bachelor of arts degree in sociology fully online or not? And what does that mean to the institution? What does this mean in terms of who they recruit faculty and staff and manage the workload? All of those kinds of things become parts of those conversations.

This is the moment to have those conversations because you know that you’re at a point in time where many people are having a similar conversation.

And how will you as an institution make those strategic decisions to be able then to invest in this direction? How will these choices set you up for success on the other side of the pandemic?

So these are things that many institutions are having conversations about to try to see how it might be viable for them to be able to diversify their business model in a reasonable and responsible way so that they can continue to operate on the other side of the pandemic. Now, what would the accreditation process for an online or hybrid program look like for these traditional brick-and-mortar schools?

Dr. Santilli: It depends. Some institutions have the approval to develop online courses and programs from their regional creditor, so it’ll be easier for them to ramp things up, whereas those institutions that are new at it will have to do some work with their state accrediting bodies to file various reports and paperwork to be able to continue down that road.

Schools will also want to consider regulations beyond state authorizations that are focused on being able to operate interstate. For example, if an institution in Ohio wants to have students from Maine in their class they would need some level of state authorization from Maine to be able to operate like that. And there are some new consortiums that make that process easier for them.

A lot of it will depend on where you are located as an institution. So there’s some paperwork and things like that to file just to be sure that institutions are operating honestly and providing a good quality product for students and provide some accountability.

And it will take some time to generate evidence, fill and complete all these things. It’s not something that you can turn on in a week, so there’s that part of it. It takes a little time to go through that process.

Then there’s also the program development part within the institution. That’s been my experience when I worked in academic affairs and developed academic programs. That is one part of the process from the beginning to the launch of a program that typically took anywhere at least a year or year-and-a-half alone, even for programs on campus.

In the process, you begin to think about what this curriculum will look like, how many credit hours does a student need to take, and all of those kinds of things. And maybe if you’re transitioning an existing on-campus program online, there is a big list on developing the course to provide it in an online or hybrid format. Depending on the institution, there may also be different online scheduling, mechanization, and methodological processes.

These are all critical components to providing a fully mature online delivery, which takes time.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.