Developing an educational program at a college or university encompasses a broad spectrum of human and technical components. Wrapped into these essentials are numerous considerations, such as: demand for the program (including immediate and projected needs); student interest and participation; physical aspects (such as classrooms, laboratories, equipment, specialty libraries, etc.); and support from faculty, school administrators, and the community—particularly businesses and business leaders. The program being developed can be an entirely new program, a modification or upgrade of an existing program, a spinoff from an existing program, or a program that bridges (i.e., interfaces) with other disciplines. Below is a discussion of key essentials that need to be addressed.
In order to establish a firm student/school relationship, each must understand and appreciate the mutual benefits derived from the association. Perhaps the best analogy would be a marketplace wherein the student is the customer who is purchasing a product (the educational program/degree) from a company (the school). The school (as the company) must be dedicated to making the education program attractive to students, maintaining their interest through to graduation, and making them thoroughly prepared to compete and function in the workplace. In short, customer satisfaction must be achieved, or the customer will take his/her business elsewhere. In this case, the dissatisfied student will choose to either drop out of the program or attend another school altogether. And, like any other business, if too many students get discouraged enough to leave the school, business will drop off, and the school won’t be able to sustain itself.
Correspondingly, for students (as the customer) to fully appreciate what they’re getting from the school, they must keep their ultimate objectives in mind: getting a quality education, earning a degree, and thoroughly preparing themselves to compete in the highly competitive job market. And, as savvy customers, they must thoroughly examine what the program and the school have to offer, making sure that both are exactly what they’re looking for.
Consistent faculty and administrative support
The success of any company depends on the people who make it tick. Serving in this capacity are the school’s faculty, administrative staff (including the president, the board of trustees, deans, financial aid director, and registrar), and all support personnel. It is vitally important that all involved with the education program understand the program’s role, component parts, overall operation, and ultimate goal.
The faculty are the link between the students and the educational concepts of the program, serving on the front line in teaching the curriculum, answering questions, counseling and encouraging students when they falter or begin having doubts, and maintaining student interest and participation. In short, they play a major role in ensuring “customer satisfaction.”
Next, the administrative staff should fully understand its role—not only in the development phase, but also during program implementation and operation. In fulfilling their roles, the president and board of trustees need a thorough understanding of all expenses involved; the deans need to know and understand the program’s curriculum; the financial aid director needs to know the financial requirements of the program, how to explain them, and how best to assist the students; the registrar needs to understand the program’s academic requirements in order to help students with their class schedules and academic affairs; and support staff should be trained to provide the best service possible to students with whom they come in contact, lending a helping hand in any way possible whenever possible.
Every program needs to establish validity so it is not taken for granted or viewed as an experiment. To achieve this goal, the program should require the students to learn and adhere to certain standards that will enhance their performance, prepare them for their chosen career field, and give the program credibility. At a minimum, the program should ensure that, by the time students graduate, they should be able to:
- Analyze and interpret the materials presented by the program curricula
- Identify, analyze, and solve problems
- Communicate effectively
- Function on multidisciplinary teams
- Apply what is learned to actual job functions and experiences
- Understand and adhere to professional and ethical standards and responsibilities
In addition, faculty members should make every effort to teach these standards, emphasize their importance, and encourage students to learn them, apply them, and place them in their arsenal of skills for future use in the workplace.
New and existing program bridging
Every new program should investigate bridging the gap between itself and other existing programs and disciplines, and it should be open to the multidisciplinary concept (i.e., interfacing with other disciplines). Usually, bridged programs have some kind of common thread among them, allowing them to intertwine academically, and allowing students to learn about and explore interdisciplinary topics and ideas.
Bridging the gap between programs requires constant collaboration between faculty and administrative personnel, especially when it comes to planning and coordinating curriculum development. In addition, making this effort creates a teamwork environment, promoting acceptance of differing viewpoints and concepts, different personalities, and different methods of problem solving.
When developing any program—especially a new one—it is important for schools to examine similar or identical programs at other schools, then choose one as a benchmark by which to develop and measure their own. Having a benchmark program will help the school streamline its own program and make it more appealing to prospective students.
Funding is another important reason for a benchmark program. One major decision for the school is whether or not to fund the program on their own and become accredited. The school should also explore funding options, compare lending institutions, and explore other aspects of financing, such as a coordinated appeal to alumni for donations. Having a benchmark program to study—one that has already gone down this road—could save time and money.
Another important essential for program development is community involvement. Those outside of the academic realm might not understand why the school wants to go through the expense of developing a new program, upgrading an existing one, or bridging one program with another. Therefore, it is important that the school reach out with a viable communications program to promote the importance of what is being done and to educate people regarding the need for the program, what it will entail, and the benefits it will have for the community—especially businesses and employers. If approached from a team effort standpoint (enlisting the understanding and support of the community), implementing the program will be much smoother and will contribute significantly to its success. Such communication could also help persuade reluctant prospective students to enroll in the program.
Benefits of the program
Along with all the other essentials discussed above, the school needs to ask itself: what benefits will the program provide? The issue needs to be addressed from the standpoints of students, faculty, administration, and the community. In other words, how will the program benefit students with their class work and prospects for employment after graduation? How will it benefit professors and instructors in presenting the curriculum to their students? How will it benefit school administrators in establishing course requirements and standards of performance? How will it benefit the community (businesses and business owners in particular) when students start entering the job market? These questions need to be asked and studied during the development process, and they should be constantly reviewed when the program is up and running. Recognizing the benefits of the program will justify the time, expense, and effort of developing it, selling it to any reluctant lenders or financial supporters, enticing students to enroll, and motivating all others involved in the “nuts and bolts” aspects of the development process.
A final word
No matter what the situation is with regard to education program development—whether it’s a totally new program, updating an existing program, or bridging related or multidisciplinary programs—detailed research and planning are a must, as well as open lines of communication between all parties involved. It is also essential to never lose sight of the primary purpose for program development: enticing students to enroll and keep them enrolled. If these essentials are met, there’s no excuse for failure.
Chris A. O’Riordan-Adjah, PhD, MS, PE, is director of engineering programs and associate professor at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois. He is a professional engineer licensed in Michigan, Florida, Illinois, and Missouri, and is an independent structural engineering contractor. Dr. O’Riordan-Adjah is a former lecturer with the civil, environmental, and construction engineering department at the University of Central Florida (UCF), and received his PhD and master’s degrees in civil and quality engineering (industrial engineering) from UCF.