How to Go From Classroom Based to Online Delivery in Eighteen Months or Less: A Case Study in Online

Online education andtraining has exploded across universities and corporations in theUnited States. In 1993, the Peterson's guide to U.S. collegesreported only 93 "cyberschools." This number had risen 4 years laterto 762![1] Says management guru, Peter Drucker, "Universitieswon't survive. The future is outside the traditional campus, outsidethe traditional classroom. Distance learning is coming onfast."[2]

How d'es a university gofrom having no online courses to launching a complete onlinebachelor's degree in eighteen months or less? This paper describesthe experience of one large, private university in designing andlaunching an online undergraduate program using full time faculty andan existing course of studies. The university is described briefly,after which the degree program to be delivered online is explained.Then, the actual sequence of events from program concept to programlaunch is discussed. While the entire process took 18 months, theauthors believe that a fast-track development cycle could becompleted in 12 months. The article concludes with recommendationsdesigned to help other schools considering online programdevelopment.

NSU and the Bachelors ofProfessional Management Program

Nova SoutheasternUniversity (NSU) has a long history of distance education in the moretraditional form, i.e., off-site, classroom-based instruction.Originally designed to focus on the educational needs of workingprofessionals, NSU is currently the largest private institution inthe State of Florida. Chartered in 1965 as Nova University, theinstitution merged with Southeastern University of the HealthSciences in 1965 and became Nova Southeastern University.Headquartered in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, NSU has physical classes inmore than 20 states and several foreign countries. Over the years,the emphasis on distance education has remained constant, butcurrently the format is changing so that many programs now augmentclassroom-based instruction with electronically mediated pedagogythat includes online classes, audio bridges and compressed video.Still other programs are offered 100% online.

"Universities won't survive. The future is outside the traditional campus, outside the traditional classroom. Distance learning is coming on fast."

The authors are facultymembers and administrators in the Farquhar Center for UndergraduateStudies at NSU. Specifically, they manage six undergraduate businessmajors which account for 1,800 students. The majority of thesestudents attend the Bachelors of Professional Management Program(BPM), which is an upper-level completion program consisting of 66credits offered in a lockstep format to a cohort of students who takeall courses together. The typical student enters the BPM program withan associates degree and takes 27-33 months to complete his or herdegree. The BPM program has been offered in a classroom setting allover the State of Florida, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Panama, Louisianaand Israel for the past 20 years.

Currently there are morethan 1,200 students taking classes in more than 60 cohorts ofstudents at corporate and community locations. The BPM off-campusprogram is controlled by full-time faculty and consists of identicalcourses and exit competencies as those offered on-campus. The programis not a continuing education curriculum but an exact duplicate ofwhat students would take were they to attend the main campusfacility.

The Decision to GoOnline

The decision to go onlinewas driven by marketing considerations. Undeniably, NSU is widelyrecognized as a distance education pioneer. Equally undeniable is thefact that the definition of "distance education" is changing. Toremain competitive, it may no longer be enough to offer classes at astudent's workplace. More elusive pockets of students must beconsidered, e.g., those not in the workplace, those who workdifferent shifts and those residing in locations where there is notthe critical mass necessary to sponsor a local site. Likewise,traditional classes may not be for business people who travel andcannot commit to a standard schedule of courses. Increasingly,professionals who work out of a virtual office are expecting avirtual classroom to complement their lifestyles.

It was because of thesetrends that the Director of the BPM Program decided to champion a BPMOnline format to be launched in the fall of 1998. More importantly,the faculty and administration quickly endorsed this idea and decidedto move forward in order to enjoy the competitive advantage of beingone of the first undergraduate programs to be offered entirelyonline. The first step in the launch strategy was to do a pilot testto see how online delivery would work.

The BPM off-campus program is controlled by full-time faculty and consists of identical courses and exit competencies as those offered on-campus.

The PilotProgram

The BPM Online program hadan up-front advantage, i.e., the Center for Computers and InformationSciences had several years of successful history in delivering 100%Web-based masters and doctoral programs and were willing to mentorour faculty. We therefore short-circuited all the debate over whatformat of online instruction to use and immediately settled on aWeb-based, asynchronous mode with the one notable exception of anoptional, real-time chat room component. We were convinced at thestart that Web-based education puts students at the center of thelearning process and encourages research, exploration andindependence on the part of the student. It also requires faculty tocompletely rethink the teaching/learning process and the structuringof their courseware. In the late spring of 1997, we were ready tochoose our pilot group of faculty. Figure 1 shows the actualdevelopmental timetable and the month-by-month activities.

To qualify for the pilotgroup, faculty had to be experts in the subject matter, agree todevelop the Web-based course over the summer of 1997 and teach it ona trial basis during the fall, incorporate a pre-test and post-testinto their course materials and agree simultaneously to teach thesame course in a classroom-based mode so that comparisons could bemade. Faculty were paid for development and provided with technicalsupport. Most did not have any experience with Web pages or Web-basedinstruction. To better assess the time and effort needed to convert acourse to the online format, the Director joined the pilot team anddeveloped a course under the same time constraints and requirementsas everyone else. This allowed her to cham-pion the project to theundergraduate faculty and to higher administration as well as to makemarketing decisions and to better understand budgetingconsiderations.

In actuality six courseswere developed between May and August. The courses developed includedfreshman and senior courses, quantitative and qualitative courses.The results achieved are directly related to the good will anddedication of the faculty. (Noteworthy is the fact that each facultymember developed his or her own Web pages with technical support.This is quite different than giving the course materials to atechnical person and letting that person develop the Web site. Theresulting Web sites were varied in appearance, but the faculty feltconsiderable ownership as well as the ability to modify their owncourses at will.) Each course was developed by the end of the summerand all six courses were delivered to a pilot group of existingstudents in the fall of 1997. Comparison classroom-based courses werealso taught by the pilot faculty.

"The resulting coursesvaried quite a bit one from the other. All had an online syllabus andextensive learning competencies detailed by week of study. Allrequired the same textbook as on-ground courses. Some had extensivelecture notes; others had minimal lecture notes. Some used a realtime chat room for lab sessions and homework discussions. All used abulletin board to supplement e-mail communication. Some used thebulletin board as the primary method for group communications anddiscussion of assignments. Significantly, everyone found developmentmore time-consuming than expected."[3]

The results of thedevelopment project were excellent. All six courses were developedand delivered as scheduled. Students and faculty alike wereenthusiastic; retention was high. Each faculty member volunteered toteach further online sections. Comparisons between the online coursesand classroom-based courses were conducted and in the aggregateonline students did at least as well as "on-ground"students.

In January of 1998, basedon the enthusiasm of Team 1, a second team consisting of nine fulltime faculty members was recruited. Faculty were enticed by the ideaof "getting in on the ground floor" of this new program andestablishing primary ownership for a specific course. Like Team 1,they were provided training and an overload stipend to reorganizetheir courses into an online format. Interestingly, since we wereunable to find a full time faculty member willing to teach a requiredwriting course online, we had to recruit our first adjunct to theproject. Since that person lives at considerable distance from maincampus, it required considerable determination to integrate her intothe team.

While Team 2 developedtheir courses over the next trimester, most Team 1 members honedtheir online skills by teaching yet another online section toexisting students. By then, Team 1 faculty were all ready and willingto start the first BPM Online Cluster, but marketing and recruitingwere lagging far behind at this point. In retrospect, so muchattention was put into faculty development that administrativeprocesses which needed to be done simultaneously were ignored. Noadministrative personnel had been assigned (the program was beingdriven by the authors who had many other simultaneous duties); thetechnical support was being spearheaded by a secretarial employee whoherself was a doctoral student in an online program and had extremelygood technical skills; and no marketing responsibility or budget hadbeen allocated.

Our original goal was tolaunch the first BPM online cohort in August of 1998. By May of 1998,many things remained to be done. More than half of the 22 BPM courseswere developed and Team 2 was set to pilot their courses during thesummer months. Yet, not the first BPM Online student had beenrecruited nor did we have the print material nor Web site to recruitthese students. At that point all interested parties, including anaccounting professor who had been acting as the academic team leader,began meeting on a weekly basis and "making it happen." Muchvolunteer and after-hours work went into this project. The coredevelopmental group took it as a personal challenge to get thisprogram started. At no time did the university insist this program beinitiated; instead, the excitement and persistence of thedevelopmental team stirred up grass roots support, which led topersonal enthusiasm and commitment of all involved. The secretarialemployee mentioned above, for example, received a small stipend towork evenings and weekends to develop an attractive Web site tosupport the program.

By June, the Web site wasfunctional and included an online brochure, application materials andthe fall schedule. Actual recruitment of students began during thevery busy summer months when all BPM recruiters were busy trying toassure their fall "on-ground" goals were met. Online recruitingproved to be an elusive concept; a new type of strategy had to bedesigned to reach the traveling, mature, independent learner who alsohad computer skills. This strategy is one which is just now evolvingas not many university recruiters have any experience in thisniche.

In July of 1998, with thebeginning of the new fiscal year, a major breakthrough occurred whenthe secretarial employee was promoted to Online Program Coordinatorand released from all other duties. At the same time a modestmarketing budget for the online program was allocated. The officialprogram start was postponed from August to October, althoughindividual online classes were ongoing. The first and each subsequentcluster will consist of 15-18 online students who have a facultymentor and an online advisor who stay with them throughout theprogram. Students attend for 11 terms, taking two courses during each8 week term for 5 terms a year. Online classes go on vacation duringthe latter half of summer. While it is too early to predict timing,we anticipate that in less than two years we will have the criticalmass needed to transit from the lockstep cluster format to one inwhich all courses will be offered online each semester.

The program is not a continuing education curriculum but an exact duplicate of what students would take were they to attend the main campus facility.

As the authors look backover the last year and a half, we are quite proud of the work thathas been accomplished given the modest resources at our disposal andthe fact that nobody stopped doing anything else they were doing&emdash; this was all extra work. The authors feel that it would bepossible to develop this program in as little as 12 months as shownin Figure 2 if the following assumptions are in place. First, theuniversity would have to make an up front decision to start theonline program. In the current case, the commitment was to run apilot project and see what happened from there. Secondly, resourcesin the form of administrative and marketing personnel and budgetwould have to be allocated at the beginning of the developmentalperiod.

Note that in Figure 2, aproject leader is chosen as the first step. This person should havereleased time and university support to concentrate on making thisprogram work. This may or may not be the same person who ultimatelybecomes program coordinator, but someone needs to have the time andenergy to spearhead the program from the beginning. The lack of aProgram Coordinator until a year into the project was our singlebiggest weakness.

With reflection, theauthors are glad that we took the longer route. Going online is a bigstep for traditional faculty. Kurt Lewin's 3 steps of change werevery much in evidence, i.e., unfreezing old behavior (believing thatface-to-face teaching was the only valid method), introducing newbehavior (learning how to go from the teacher-centered environment ofthe classroom to the learner-centered environment of the virtualclassroom), and refreezing new behavior (teaching the online classes,analyzing results and then teaching them again).[4] The 18months gave faculty time to get comfortable with the new pedagogy yetwas a short enough time period to keep enthusiasm intense. It alsoallowed time to do internal public relations within the universityand build awareness of the new online program. In the current case,this time was especially necessary given the fact that everyoneinvolved had a full plate of other responsibilities.

Recommendations forOthers Wanting to Develop Online Programs

In addition to the pointsalready mentioned, the authors would like to suggest the followingguidelines to those considering making the commitment to goingonline:

  1. Decide up front if your goal is to simply put some courses online or to design an entire online program. If the former, the resources needed are much less. If you are not sure whether your faculty or administration or even your technical system will support an online program, start by developing a few courses and offering them to current students.
  2. Use an existing course of studies, hopefully one that you have had much success with so that you are not doing curriculum development and learning how to teach online at the same time.
  3. Identify enthusiastic faculty champions right away. Faculty support is the most important element; you cannot succeed without it. We recommend that you choose only full-time faculty at the outset; bringing in outsiders will forever diminish the status of the program to "continuing education."
  4. Allocate the financial resources to pay your faculty developers. Online development is very time consuming, and although you are providing new, marketable skills to the faculty participants, there is an opportunity cost to them.
  5. Treat your developers as a team; hold frequent meetings. They need to share ideas and help each other stay focused. There is much frustration during the learning curve. Reinforce their work and recognize their accomplishments at every opportunity.
  6. Make sure that technical support is readily available to faculty and students. This includes having the right software and hardware provided to faculty and, most importantly, having technical people ready to help the faculty whenever they may need it. Build in this same level of technical support for students when the classes begin.
  7. Do whatever you can to assure that your university has an adequate online library. Students taking online classes are doing so for the freedom from logistical boundaries. NSU's online library services, for example, provide students immediate access to a wide variety of full-text journals as well as e-mail, fax and regular mail access to everything else.

We recommend that you choose only full-time faculty at the outset; bringing in outsiders will forever diminish the status of the program to "continuing education."


Distance education is in atime of transition from a delivery system based on classroomeducation at off-campus centers and locations to one of mixeddelivery systems with a heavy emphasis on electronic instruction.Schools that depend on an adult student body are obliged to at leastconsider adding online course offerings to their repertoire.Transiting to online delivery is complicated, time consuming andprofessionally challenging. At the same time, it provides an excitingopportunity for faculty to learn new skills and to completelyreexamine the way they teach their courses. The results can begratifying for faculty while at the same time providing newopportunities for as yet under-served segments of the adult educationmarket.

Jane Whitney Gibson is a Professor of Management at Nova SoutheasternUniversity, where she holds the position of Director of Business andAdministrative Studies in the Farquhar Center for UndergraduateStudies. Author of three textbooks in communications and supervision,Gibson is an active member of the IEEE Professional CommunicationSociety, the Southern Management Association, the Association forBusiness Communication and the Academy of Management where she hasserved as national chair of the Management History Division. Sheserves on several editorial boards and is the Book Review Editor ofThe Journal of Leadership Studies.


Jorge M. Herrera is alecturer at Nova Southeastern University where he holds the positionof Assistant Director for Academic Programs in the Business andAdministrative Studies Department of the Farquhar Center forUndergraduate Studies. In addition to his administrative duties,Herrera teaches management and economics and serves as a member ofthe Executive Committee of the Management History Division of theAcademy of Management. In this latter capacity, he serves as Editorfor Historically Speaking: The Newsletter of the Management HistoryDivision.



  1. Gubernick, Lisa and Ebeling, Ashlea (1997), "I Got My Degree Through E-Mail," Forbes, June, pp. 84-92.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Gibson, Jane Whitney and Herrera, Jorge (1998), "A Pilot Study to Set Up an Asynchronous Web-based Distance Learning Program in Undergraduate Business," Proceedings of the 7th Annual Lifelong Learning Conference, Convergence. NU.EDU., April, pp. 1-5.
  4. Lewin, Kurt (1951), Field Theory in Social Science, New York, NY: Harper & Row.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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