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Strategic Planning in e-Learning

By Alison Carr-Chellman / May 2016

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As spring descends upon us, thoughts of innovation and new ideas start to burst forth. My thoughts are carefully concentrated on strategic planning, which my current university undertakes every five years or so. Most corporations take on the task more frequently, and those of us on the front lines recognize it is being done constantly.

Most planners now agree that online learning, MOOCs, and other blended options are absolute necessities for both higher education and corporate training. Additionally more and more K-12 schools are beginning to realize, with the advent of significant penetration of online cybercharter schooling into their market, they also need to think carefully about how to strategically employ online and blended learning options for their students.

Online learning can call into question our institutions' beliefs, structures, policies, and, even more, the fundamental mission of the organization. Are we embracing online learning because it will make more money for us? Will it help us to democratize the university? Or, perhaps a less grandiose outlook, will it help make our own courses more accessible to practitioners or students we otherwise would not reach? Do we want to teach online because, as individual faculty members, we want to work with students who don't usually darken our doorways? We want to link up to new contexts and populations? Strategic planning can help us better examine these underlying values as part of our planning processes. Because online learning has so thoroughly modernized older notions of outreach, it must be carefully planned as well as integrated into priorities for each individual, who plans to engage in online learning within the organization.

While there are many ways to consider online learning within a strategic plan, I want to concentrate on being very intentional. Too often, strategic plans lean toward the general and become nearly platitudinous. My goal with such a plan, in contrast, is to identify specific things that my organization wishes to pursue with all due diligence. Because resources (both time and money) typically follow our strategic priorities, it is essential that we are thoughtful and intentional about strategic planning where online learning is concerned.

Listed are several specific steps, which I think are critical when looking at strategic planning for online learning:

  • Begin with needs assessment—you must always start by understanding what it is you hope to accomplish within any innovation. This means understanding what your organization may need.
  • Follow with a deep reflection on what you want to accomplish and how it matches with your fundamental organizational values.
  • Reflect on your own strengths.
  • Identify unique opportunities.
  • Be realistic within your resources.
  • Try to move toward something new, innovative, and "outside the box."
  • Make sure you have at least a few folks interested.

Let's look at each of these in order.

Needs Assessment

While this is an issue that tends not to have much relevance in the K-12 setting, the rest of us have to pay close attention to what is really needed. The reality is instruction of any sort—online or face to face, correspondence or radio and TV—all of it should have a thorough alignment between the needs of the learners and their ability to do the tasks asked of them at the end of instruction. Too often we skip a deep understanding of the needs, which can only be accomplished through careful observations and discussions with leaders and learners to better understand what is needed. Does the school or workplace need a different incentive program or a different work environment? There are so many reasons instruction may or may not solve the problem, and understanding that problem is critical to any instructional solution—particularly the expensive sort that online learning entails. This kind of needs assessment must also be conducted when thinking about strategic planning. What does the organization hope to accomplish? What good does the organization wish to do in the world? How does it want to be understood or perceived in years to come? These are broader organizational questions that must be asked. When focusing closely on the online space, what does the organization wants from its online learning endeavors? Does it simply wish to increase revenues? Does it desire to have a broad dissemination of learning across geographical boundaries? Why? Is there a social justice component to the overall goal of online learning in the organization? Is there some other purpose?

Deep Reflection

In an online setting, conducting strategic planning requires careful and thoughtful examination of what the goals are for the particular organization. Part of this is completed in the initial needs assessment, as you observe and inquire into the goals of the organization and its online component. But there is more to it than that. Deep reflection requires multiple people bringing multiple perspectives to the task of understanding what the online enterprise is needed for this particular organization. Mentoring and modeling organizations through this process is an important opportunity for experts in strategic planning and e-learning, where the confluence of these two fields are critical for effective reflection on the goals and intentions of online learning. After this deep reflection and with a strong needs assessment to base work on, the organization is prepared to examine its own strengths.


Here is a difficult step. Organizations tend to focus on the negative and while we are achievement oriented in the U.S., we also tend to be less than enthusiastic about self-promotion. Other cultures are even more self-deprecating and all but refuse to boast in any way. Organizations are no different; they are tentative about pointing out their strengths. But an essential step in the process of strategic planning is to have a strong understanding of your own strengths. The Change Handbook offers several good models that are positively oriented rather than "gap" oriented (in which gaps are identified as negatives). An excellent example of this is the area of "appreciative inquiry" [1]. Focusing on appreciating that which we do well as an organization is a good place to begin to highlight strengths, and then go forward with an orientation that builds on those strengths to create a strategic plan that will be highly effective for the next phases of online learning in your organization. For example, are you reaching the populations that you had hoped to when you started e-learning in your group? If so, list those populations as well as those who are still out there as possibilities. Are you finding increases in organizational efficiencies as a result of online learning opportunities for employees? Show those, even in ROI numbers. Identify and highlight those things you're doing well in e-learning as an affirmative starting point for how you can go forward.


Be cautious that these are not identified solely as "gaps" or somehow seen as bad things—things you may feel you're doing poorly in your school, college, or company. Rather, really look at this as an occasion to consider what opportunities might be out there for furthering your e-learning work. In the current environment, there are so many competitors in the online learning space, that the market may feel crowded with many yelling voices saying come study here, take this certificate, this micro credential will rock your world, this skill is going to solve your workaday problems! It is not useful, in my view, to continue to add to the already overwhelming cacophony of existing general business or education degree programs out there. You have to find something unique to your organization—something you can do better than others, something you can point to as a signature program. If you are well positioned in a particular field because of history, geography, unique features, outstanding scholars, large research centers, or the like, this will allow you to see the real opportunities that can create synergy between your organization and online learning offerings.


It is important to be realistic where resources are concerned. Money tends to be the primary concern. Time and people are typically listed as other primary resources, but human resources are a money related issue and time is money dependent. People are able to participate and are more happy to do so when incentivized by money or other perks that usually cost money. Time, as they say, is money. In this case a late launch of a new online program can be costly. Using instructional designers and other professionals, as well as highly educated faculty members, are all costly because we're buying their time. There's one other important resource and that's organizational support. If the leaders in an organization are not supportive of an innovation it simply will not advance. Thus while sufficient funds are essential, sufficient organizational support is also absolutely necessary. In addition to money, time, people, and support, a proper online program will need a strong set of people dedicated to the project; people who really want to see it through and are devoted to the lengthy process that may come with the innovation. You also need to have things in place like a good learning management system, a basic design philosophy and process, and good management. All of these are necessary and should be carefully considered within the strategic plan.


When thinking through plans for e-learning contexts, look carefully for the unique and novel contribution that your organization is well positioned to offer to the field. This is a very good place to start planning. Closely related to opportunities and strengths, is the fact that your organization will be better at doing some things than others. The strategic plan is the opportunity to focus on these novel offerings that you can bring forward. You likely have some specific strengths that could be molded into a new and different offering, which can distinguish you from others currently in similar markets. Take advantage of your strengths and opportunities with a focus on something new and different that others may not have thought of before. This approach can be spelled out in the strategic plan, so the organization can become a part of identifying and supporting a novel offering.

Core Group

Having a few early adopters, who are well-respected opinion leaders in the organization, can be a critical catalyst to action within a strategic plan. A strategic plan is best measured by the actions that follow. Those first steps have to overcome a good deal of inertia, which will tend to reify the current practices…it is hard to change. Proper administrative support can help overcome these obstacles and objections from those in the context who identity as a teacher/professor/trainer and would prefer not to have to change to a new way of teaching, a new computer interface, or a different basic value system. However, it is not possible for a leader to effectively make a change without core people who want to adopt a particular innovation. Without that core, the leader is follower-less, which is ineffective. Organizations are full of real people, and those people absolutely route around central authority when given a mandated change that they do not generally support. Therefore, for strategic plans to mean more than heavy rectangular book stops, there simply must be a core of supporters interested in creating a new future within that strategic plan.

Ultimately, it is important to focus carefully on strategic planning for the online setting. While many organizations go through the motions of strategic planning, this document can be vital life blood for online learning groups. Because things in this area are moving so fast, it can be impossible to really get ahead of things without careful, reflective planning. The opportunity to build a strong image of where you want to go as an online learning organization should be taken seriously and given time and effort to help shape the future of your organization.


[1] Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., and Stavros, J. M. The Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: For Leaders of Change, 2nd edition. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2008.

About the Author

Dr. Alison A. Carr Chellman is editor-in-chief of eLearn Magazine. She has been a professor of Instructional Systems at the Pennsylvania State University for 17 years and currently serves as the Head of the Learning and Performance Systems department. She has written more than 100 articles, books, book chapters, and papers on topics related to school change with a particular emphasis on those populations who are underserved by the current system. Her recent TED Talk, Gaming to re-engage boys in learning, has brought international attention to the issues facing boys in the current educational system and ways that digital learning media may be used to highlight the mismatch between boy culture and school culture.

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2016 Copyright held by the Owner/Author. 1535-394X/16/05-2939173


  • Wed, 18 May 2016
    Post by Rovy Branon

    I highly recommend looking at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association's (UPCEA) new Hallmarks for Online Leadership. These go into a great deal of detail about strategic planning for institutional online issues. They are open source and available at:

    New rubrics will be out in the next few months for institutions wishing to self-assess on many of the categories you mention.