Leading the Transition from the Traditional Classroom To a Distance Learning Environment


Everyone knows the rulesin higher education are changing. Today's university is no longerrestricted to a specific time or place. An institution must applytoday's technology to its curriculum and programs to meet thecustomer's needs, to compete with other institutions and possiblyeven to survive. How d'es one make a successful transformation from atraditional on-campus graduate program to one that is universallyaccessible? Save yourself time and effort: find out what others aredoing &emdash; what worked for them and what did not &emdash; anddecide what may work for your program. This paper describes howWestern Carolina University met this challenge and the lessons welearned. Our process contains the following four steps:

  • Evaluate your current mission, customer needs and program to determine your goals;
  • Form a cross-disciplinary team;
  • Develop a program structure; and
  • Implement continuous improvement techniques.

Step One

Evaluate your currentmission, customer needs and program. What are they now, what are thenew needs and demands? Based on this information, what are yourgoals?

The Mission: In order toensure constancy of purpose with the university and college missionstatements, the Master's of Project Management (MPM) program facultyre-examined those mission statements and developed a new missionstatement for the program. The new mission statement will serve asour guide throughout the current program transformation and in futuredecision-making processes as the program is continuously evaluatedand tailored to meet customer needs.

Customer Needs: The demandfor Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from theinternationally recognized Project Management Institute (PMI) isglobal and rapidly increasing. The PMP certification forprogram/project managers is mandated by various organizationsworldwide including the U.S. Department of Defense and the Departmentof Energy. A survey was conducted to determine theeducational/training needs of business and industry. The resultsindicated that many industries have hired consultants and invested inother training mechanisms to deliver the necessary information fortheir employees to successfully complete the PMP exam.

While many institutionsoffer "certification" at the end of their course work, our surveyindicated the market participants would prefer a complete graduatedegree as a result of their efforts rather than partial credit towarda graduate degree or a certificate of training. As a result of ourmarket survey, the major goal was to transition the current on-campusMaster's of Project Management degree program into an asynchronouslydelivered, comprehensive, fully accredited, customer-centered andcurriculum-driven program for delivery over the World WideWeb.

The Program: The currenttraditional classroom graduate program is based in Western CarolinaUniversity's College of Business, which is fully accredited by theInternational Association of Management Education, AACSB. It was thefirst Project Management Institute (PMI) accredited degree program inthe United States offered in a fully accredited institution. TheCollege of Business has offered an on-campus MPM degree since themid-1980s; however, enrollment in this program has been relativelylow compared to other Master's-level business programs at theuniversity. This is due in part to the fact that a prospectivestudent wishing to pursue this specialized degree &emdash; whichrequires a one calendar year, on-campus commitment &emdash; usuallyhas been a full-time employee in business or industry, has familyobligations and lives outside of a reasonable commuting distance fromthe WCU campus.

Step Two

Develop across-disciplinary team. Due to the public demand for this type ofgraduate degree, the MPM degree program was selected to be the firstuniversity-supported Internet distance learning effort. Across-disciplinary team consisting of administrators, faculty andsupport staff was assembled to support the design and implementationof this transition. In addition to the faculty, the Associate Deanand the Director of Graduate Studies from the College of Business,the initial members of this team included administrators and stafffrom Continuing Education and Summer School, the Faculty Center andthe Library. Here are their roles:

  • The faculty members are currently teaching in the on-campus program and are all full-time faculty members in Western Carolina University's College of Business. They hold a Ph.D., JD, and/or other terminal degrees, are specialists in their fields, are committed to the success and survival of the program, and currently research and publish in their various discipline areas.
  • The Dean of the College of Business supports and rewards faculty efforts.
  • The Associate Dean has computer technology expertise and control of curriculum issues and scheduling.
  • The Director of Graduate Programs in the College of Business is in charge of all graduate programs within the college.
  • The WCU Chancellor determined that administrative and fiscal responsibility for the program would reside in the office of the Dean of Continuing Education and Summer School (CESS). CESS provides support personnel for the MPM transition program &emdash; an administrative assistant, a computer technician/Webmaster and one full-time (20 hours per week) MPM graduate student.
  • The Faculty Center representatives include two associate directors, the curriculum development specialist and a media technician.
  • The Library designated a representative to act as the "personal librarian" to those involved in the program.

Even though these are thekey players in the direct creation of the new Internet-MPM, there areadditional university personnel and administrative offices that areconcurrently working to market and support the program. They includethe following: Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs; Dean of theGraduate School; the University Admissions Office; the UniversityRegistrar; the Bookstore; the Public Information Office; and theComputer Center.

Step Three

Develop a programstructure (responsibilities, activities and timelines). There arethree components in this step: the administrative, the technical andthe curriculum functions. Each has unique processes within it;however, all processes are interdependent and concurrent in nature.Leaders emerged in each of these three components to accomplishspecific tasks, while an overarching leadership group was formallydesignated with the "big picture" responsibilities of projectpublicity, general project oversight and integration.

Administrative Component:Ideally, the university or top administrative unit will providecoordination and support of this steering committee composed ofrepresentatives from the other four organizations involved. Thedecision-making framework by which the project was developed andlaunched involved such issues as:

  • Formal curriculum modification and leadership approval within the proper governance procedures at the college, the university, the general administration of the university system and the accrediting agencies (SACS and AACSB);
  • Faculty scheduling and work load leveling, including faculty course release or stipends for course development and determination of teaching compensation methods;
  • Designation of lead faculty member(s) to act as liaison with other faculty members;
  • Curriculum quality control processes to ensure proper level of teaching and learning activities, namely the establishment of continuous improvement mechanisms to meet AACSB reaffirmation standards;
  • Project schedule development with a method of maintaining open lines of communication/status reporting to all team members;
  • Technical support issues (from within and/or outside of the college) such as training, on-going support, level of that support, and hardware/software requirements determination and acquisition;
  • Graduate assistant support allocation; and
  • Formalization of relationships with other university support areas (admissions, graduate school, public information, computer center and bookstore).

The challenge of theadministrative units is to provide support to the program by workingas the administrative "grease" to the wheels for breaking down thefunding barriers and other bureaucratic procedures that inevitablymust be addressed. This support enabled the faculty to envision andcreate a totally new concept in the way the existing program would bedesigned and delivered.

Technical SupportComponent: From the very beginning, the faculty members were toldthat technology would not be the "tail that wagged the dog." Facultymembers, the discipline experts, were encouraged to design an idealcourse curriculum using the Web environment as a "release" from theboundaries of the restrictive classroom walls. They were told toincorporate any and everything Web technology enables &emdash;e-mail, video clips, chatting, bulletin boards, Internet researchprojects, linkage to curriculum-specific Web sites and more. As thecurriculum development process was taking place, the technology groupwas to supplement, advise and/or suggest revisions to make theclasses "happen" as envisioned by the faculty.

The technology link mustbe a strong link; otherwise the project will suffer setbacks andpossible failure. The breakdown of the technology "vehicle" by whichthe curriculum is to be delivered will force faculty back into atraditional classroom delivery mode or a faculty/student informatione-mail exchange. Simple knowledge of computer technology is notenough to successfully engineer the technical needs of a project ofthis magnitude. In addition to the spirit of technology support,there must be an internal management process by which the technologyteam operates during the development of and in the on-going processof supporting the program as it evolves.

In reality, as experiencedin most projects, the technology has been the biggest challenge.Technology issues of critical importance have been:

  • Proactive and up-to-date expertise in the field with direct focus on the project;
  • Highly self-motivated and results-oriented personnel dedicated to making the project successful;
  • Open, direct, on-going and timely communication with other units;
  • Focus on customer needs, those of the student from business/industry and those of the faculty;
  • Level of support during development;
  • On-going technical support;
  • Software and hardware specifications;
  • Library access to reserve materials and the general collection;
  • Student instruction on use of the classroom software; and
  • Faculty training on use of classroom software.

Curriculum Component: Inorder to transform the existing degree program into an Internet-MPMprogram, the following steps were taken. First, the faculty validatedthe program's mission and goals for consistency with the mission ofthe university and the college of business. The prospective customershad been surveyed to determine interest in a program of this type,the amount of time they perceived they would have to devote topursuing a degree, the type of support their current employers wouldprovide and the desired duration of a course of study.

The faculty teaching theMPM program worked with other faculty in their respective departmentsto develop lists of competencies needed for graduates of thisprogram. During a four-day retreat, the faculty, associate dean andcurriculum specialist then analyzed the knowledge elements within theexisting program, supplied additional learning elements and proceededto create an Internet-MPM program with prerequisites based on thefollowing factors:

  • Business and industry needs;
  • Real-world experiences combined with theory;
  • PMI's Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (Guide to PMBOK, 1996), one source upon which the PMP certification examination is based;
  • Knowledge elements within the disciplines encompassed by the degree; and
  • Curriculum integrity in the transformation from the traditional classroom setting to Web-based delivery in order to meet/exceed PMI, AACSB and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) accreditation standards.

The first step inredesigning the curriculum was to establish the mission and goals ofthe entire program. Without a well-defined concept of exactly wherethe program is to go, any other curriculum development efforts wouldhave been without direction, overlapping in content or totallymisdirected in focus. As we defined and finalized our mission, wewere performing a market analysis, the results of which supported ourbelief that there was a demand for this type of program and thatfurther identified the characteristics of our perspectivecustomer-students. With these results in hand, we refined ourpreliminary mission and goal statements to correspond with thefindings of the market analysis.

After completing thistask, the faculty analyzed their discipline areas pertaining to thefield of project management and listed all the knowledge elementsthat should be included in an MPM program. This was done only afterconsulting with other faculty members teaching within eachdiscipline. Consultation within each discipline was necessary toensure completeness within each subject area and to obtain supportand buy-in from the faculty members at the college level. Thesecontent elements were reviewed to assure compliance withaccreditation standards required by the AACSB-InternationalAssociation of Management Education and Southern Association ofColleges and Schools (SACS). The needs of business and industry asreflected by the market analysis were further validated and checkedfor completeness against the content of the Project Management Bodyof Knowledge (PMBOK), which was written by practitioners.

After determining theknowledge elements, the undergraduate prerequisites, knowledge andcontent requirements necessary for success in the program weredetermined. In a three-day retreat, the prerequisite content areaswere sequenced and formatted into three two-semester hour graduatecourses: Legal and Ethical Issues (2 credit hours); IntroductoryStatistics and Micr'economics (2 credit hours); and Tools ofFinancial Management (2 credit hours).

The degree programelements were formatted into six, six-hour multi-disciplined coursesthat reflect the skills and knowledge that would be encountered inthe lifecycle of a real-world project as that project progressesthrough its normal lifecycle. An integrated project activity wasdesigned to connect all six semesters of study. These coursesculminate in a capstone course project which, to be completedsuccessfully, will require mastery of all knowledge areas containedin the preceding courses. In addition to tailoring the content, thescheduling and delivery methods were designed to meet the needs ofthe part-time student who desired to: maintain full-time employment;complete a degree program in a reasonable period of time; obtainprofessional PMI certification; and pursue the degree without anon-campus study requirement.

The first course to beconverted to an online course was to be used with its existingcontent. The most current course outline was literally taken apartand analyzed learning objective by learning objective. In reality,the broad learning objectives did not address all of the specificlearning activities that had been taking place in the traditionalcourse. Additional objectives were added after the determination thatthe learning activities were necessary and valid. A valuable lessonwas learned in this process: if the on-campus course is incomplete inits documented structure, the transition will reveal omissions andinconsistencies.

In planning for coursedevelopment, the curriculum specialist also worked with the firstfaculty member in designing a format that would provide the programwith a "standardized" look. This format includes thefollowing:

  • Course objectives, measurable and in-line with curriculum knowledge elements;
  • Objective assessment, measurable and in relationship to objectives;
  • On-campus activities, ensuring that the university can substantiate "equity" in on-campus and distance learning activities for contact hour integrity and accreditation purposes; and
  • Distance learning activities (translated from the on-campus activities), one of the most difficult at first because this process required a total mind transformation from traditional classroom teaching methods to distance learning teaching methods.

Much like the real projectworld, no single project activity must be totally completed beforeanother activity can begin. The first faculty member began to convertan existing course to fit the new curriculum and Internet deliverymethods prior to the completion of the total curriculum redesignprocess. This faculty member was given the opportunity to teach thefirst course in the sequence of MPM degree courses in France in thesummer of 1997. This presented the ideal possibility to "alpha" testa distant learning course across continents and time zones. She wasalso scheduled to teach the same course in the fall semester on theWCU campus, thus providing an ideal "beta" testing opportunity beforethe program was publicly offered. Time constraints for conducting asequenced alpha and beta testing procedure required the early startof this activity.

With students on campus inboth test periods, the ability to use the "fall-back" methods of thetraditional classroom would ensure that their learning process wasnot jeopardized as the technology was tested:

  • Class "staff" meetings with the professor rather than posted lecturettes;
  • Individual team debriefing rather than posting work product to a presentation area;
  • Team members geographically co-located rather than the use of chat rooms to compare individually prepared assignments with those of team members;
  • Campus e-mail to communicate rather than posting information on an internal WebCT course bulletin board; and
  • Paper resources rather than accessing assignments and supporting library reserves.

The alpha testing inFrance demonstrated that without the correct computer hardware andsoftware the students and faculty became frustrated and expended toomuch energy making the technology work. Moreover, the faculty memberand the technical staff must work together to ensure that studentassignments are "do-able" technically. Finally, a Distant LearningStudent Success and Survival Guide must be provided to assiststudents in the transition from a traditional paper copy/highlightinglearning method to a method of reading and studying a journal articleon the computer screen. Alpha students wanted to print out copies ofeverything on the computer in order to read, underline or highlightimportant portions, and then put those copies in a notebook. In atrue Internet course, students may have their own printers and facethe same temptation. The dependence on hard copies undercuts theunderlying concept of being able to "surf" the limitless resources ofcyberspace to find appropriate information, read, analyze, take notesas necessary, synthesize that information and apply it to the problemat hand. The Survival Guide should also cover basic operationalprocedures for the software program(s) students will be using as partof the course, and encourage students to maintain open channels ofcommunication with team members (classmates) and theprofessor.

The beta experience wasconducted on the WCU campus in the fall of 1998. It quickly becameapparent that further organization and revision needed to be made. Inaddition to making and clarifying the changes in curriculum andoperations identified in the alpha test above, the beta test revealedthe following needs:

  • Clearly delineate the updating and maintenance responsibilities of the team members involved;
  • Clearly communicate the type of support being offered by the technical staff;
  • Establish schedule milestones and prominently display them, and take steps to ensure that all team members understand the official nature of the timeline; and
  • Supervise, monitor and communicate with those whose performance indicates the necessity of additional assistance or a reminder of the time schedule and deliverables.

Step Four

Implement continuousimprovement techniques. In order to provide our customers with thequality they expect, we have built in processes for continuousimprovement. We have tracked the "lessons-learned" and startedstandardizing the processes that work, changing those that did notwork and formalizing processes where none existed. For example, theCollege of Business needed to take complete possession and control ofthe content and quality of the program. A Director of the MPM programwas appointed to coordinate efforts of all MPM facultymembers.

The first processdeveloped for getting faculty materials, assignments, lessons, etc.into the classroom involved the faculty member sending updates to theWeb administrator and the administrator uploading them to theclassroom. This process was too cumbersome and time-consuming. Theprocess now includes teaching the professor to upload and manage hisor her own classroom. This way, professors can make changes any time,anywhere, as it should be.

Research and developmenthas become a process in itself. If a faculty member identifies theneed for an electronic tool that is not currently available in thestandard classroom, then the faculty is responsible for requestingthe tool from R&D. The R&D person in turn researches the tooland reports the findings to the steering committee for consideration.The committee elects to include the tool if the new tool is feasibleand supportable.

A new course developmentprocess was started after the alpha test. The curriculum specialistis the leader of this team. She assembles the group to meet with eachfaculty member upon startup of the course development. The facultymember works with the specialist on the process of course developmentand receives support from the team on a "just-in-time" trainingbasis.

The complexities of aproject of this size have been challenging, yet rewarding. As wecontinue to build and modify, we learn. Borrowing and incorporatinginstructional design processes and techniques from the educationaldiscipline contributed to our successes far more than most universityfaculty anticipated. And, ironically, the secret of our success inthis project thus far has been the incorporation of the very projectmanagement skills this program is designed to teach!

 Mary Anne F. Nixon,JD, PMP, CPCM is the "first faculty member" mentioned in thisarticle. She is currently in the process of developing a secondcourse to be offered in the spring of 1999. She began her career as apublic school educator, and has served as executive director of theCarolina Colloquy for University Teaching, and as the director of theCollege of Business Program in Jamaica.

E-mail: [email protected]

Beth Rodgers Leftwich, M.Ed is the curriculum specialist mentioned inthis article. She is currently an Ed.D. student in Rural EducationalLeadership. Prior to joining the WCU staff, she worked 16 years inthe community college system in educational support areas and inplanning and research for institutional effectiveness.

E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.