November/December 1999 // Case Studies
Leading the Pack:
From an On-Campus Program to Internet-Based Delivery
by Mary Anne F. Nixon and Beth Leftwich
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Mary Anne F. Nixon and Beth Leftwich "Leading the Pack:
From an On-Campus Program to Internet-Based Delivery" The Technology Source, November/December 1999. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

How does an educational institution go about making a successful transformation from a traditional on-campus graduate program to an Internet-based program? At Western Carolina University, we approached the preliminary steps of this process in three ways:

  • Researching current literature on computers in education, distance learning/education, teaching and technology, and educational pedagogy.
  • Informally contacting colleagues at our institution and at others who are experienced in distance learning activities. We benefited from the help of those who had pioneered the process. The University of Montana provided valuable information and held a workshop for WCU personnel involved and interested in distance education.
  • Attending conferences designed to assist in the transition process. These conferences were useful for establishing contacts as well as for the information exchanged at formal workshop sessions.

We then identified five steps necessary to help us make this transition within Western Carolina University culture: our mission and goals, building a team, structuring the program, implementing the program, and continuing to evaluate and refine the online offerings.

Step One: How We Determined Our Mission and Goals

The enrollment in our on-campus Master of Project Management (MPM) degree program, offered by the College of Business, had been low compared to other master's-level business programs. This was due in part to a prohibitive one-year, on-campus commitment required for the degree. Many prospective MPM students are full-time employees in business or industry, have family obligations, or live a substantial commuting distance from the WCU campus and could not relocate. We wanted to reach these prospective students, and we wanted to respond to the global, rapidly increasing demand for project management education. Thus, our major objective was to transition the one-year, on-campus MPM degree program into an asynchronously delivered, comprehensive, fully accredited, customer-centered, and real-world based Internet program.

We defined goals for the online program that supported the vision and mission of our institution, performing a market analysis during this step of the process. The results of this analysis confirmed a significant demand for a part-time MPM graduate degree program and identified specific student needs: our prospective student-customers wanted a degree program with a curriculum closely related to their real-world project work, and they needed instruction accessible "anytime, anywhere" in segments that would allow them to pursue quality learning while maintaining their professional and family responsibilities.

Step Two: How We Built A Team

The initial MPM Distance Education team was appointed by the administration to support the design and implementation of the transition. The team consisted of faculty currently teaching in the on-campus program and administrators and staff from the College of Business, the offices of Continuing Education and Summer School, the Graduate School, the Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and the Library. Team members prioritized effective communication and worked to provide ongoing support for each other throughout the program development and implementation.

Step Three: How We Structured the Program

Three functional structures within WCU—administrative, technical, and curricular—were essential to the support and implementation of the project:

  • Administrative Component. The WCU administration provided collaborative support to the program by "greasing" the wheels of funding and other project needs. The administration also coordinated activities across unit and departmental lines, controlled academic standards, controlled budgets, created incentives, and eliminated barriers for faculty participation (by determining teaching loads and areas of responsibility). A steering committee with representatives from most of the administrative units named in Step Two above continues to work as a problem-solving, decision-making body for the project and as a catalyst for getting the job done right and on time.
  • Technical Support Component. Accessing technology has been a big challenge in implementing the program. Technology must be up-to-date, and faculty and students must be comfortable using it for learning to take place. Our most important decision in this area was selecting appropriate computer tools for teaching and learning. The program design called for national and international accessibility, restricting us to universally compatible technologies. To solve these issues, the faculty member with a background in both the subject matter of the degree program itself and in education (co-author of this paper) visualized her ideal "virtual classroom" and described the tools she would use for communication, information dissemination, and information access.
  • Curriculum Component. In order to transform the existing degree program into an Internet-based program, the project committee focused on:
    1. Faculty Collaboration Within Disciplines (Theory): The MPM teaching faculty worked with other faculty in their respective disciplines to review and update lists of competencies needed for program graduates. In this manner, the entire College of Business faculty could contribute input into the design and the content of a major shift in instructional delivery. The MPM teaching faculty, the Associate Dean of the College of Business, and a curriculum specialist analyzed the knowledge elements within these competencies and supplied additional learning elements. Routine program updates will not completely revamp the curriculum; the focus of this one-time analysis, however, was to revise the entire curriculum and to design an environment conducive to online learning.
    2. Program Discipline (Practical Application): The MPM teaching faculty then analyzed the course content in relationship to project management practices and added missing knowledge elements. The needs of business and industry reflected in our market analysis were further validated against the content of "A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge" (PMBOK), which was written by practitioners and published by the Project Management Institute.
    3. Conformance With Accreditation And Certification: The content elements were further reviewed by the MPM faculty and the Associate Dean of the College of Business to ensure continued compliance with the accreditation standards of the International Association of Management Education (AACSB) and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). This centered around monitoring program currency, relevance, and continuous improvement. Since some agencies also required notification and approval prior to making major changes in a degree program, it was extremely important to remain in contact with them to maintain strong relationships.
    4. Sequencing and Formatting: The teaching faculty and the Associate Dean, with instructional design help from the Curriculum Specialist, determined the undergraduate prerequisites for success in the program and formatted the major courses into six, six-hour, multi-disciplined courses. The courses were placed into sequence to foster the skills and knowledge that a project manager would need in the life cycle of a real-world project.

Step Four: How We Implemented the Program

The program is now in its fourth full semester (fall 1999); online pre-requisite courses are being delivered for members of the second cohort. We have learned five important lessons along the way:

  • Life happens. Computer crashes and viruses do interrupt instruction; one student's computer was even ruined by a lightening bolt. Generally, students have responded to such emergencies by supporting their peers and using telephone conferencing, faxes, and other modes of communication to contact each other and to notify professors of delays.
  • Flexibility is key. The instructors have learned to maintain quality of instruction while retaining flexibility. They have found, for example, that students in virtual classrooms produce higher-quality work when they have one big project due every two weeks rather than small weekly assignments. They have therefore adjusted their assignment deadlines to better suit student performance.
  • Constant and timely communication is crucial. In using e-mail, we have found that it is extremely important to acknowledge receipt of a message and to respond promptly, even when students do not request an answer. For students, just feeling "heard" has demonstrably improved performance and comfort with being a "virtual student." Our students are all full-time employees and appreciate timely responses, feedback, and input from teammates and professors.
  • Delivery: Why is the consistent format a quality standard? We recognized from the beginning that students need to be comfortable with the way that the virtual classroom looks and operates. Professors use a lesson template to provide mini-lectures, assignments, learning objectives, student activities, evaluation methods, and hyperlinks to library and Internet resources. The template allows for a consistent format across classes, which is a a critical quality standard in our curriculum and courses. This template makes students comfortable in the virtual classroom; they know where to look for assignments and the evaluation methods, where to post work products, where to interact with teammates. The learning process can then progress beyond technical and logistical problems into content analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
  • Students want to meet . . . why? Since all of our first cohort students lived in North Carolina and Georgia, some of them planned a "meet the person behind the picture" party to add social interaction to the academic context. They automatically gravitated to teammates, knowing that they would remain teammates throughout their program.

Step Five: How We Have Continuously Evaluated and Refined

The most important step in development has involved consciously analyzing our experiences. In a real-world project, the project manager can become absorbed in putting out "fires" without determining the root cause of the crisis and making changes to avoid future problems. Our Internet-based team must continuously monitor the program and the customer relationship to identify what works and what does not, explore alternatives, standardize those things that work, and change those that do not. We have found that some faculty members are more comfortable with developing online courses than their colleagues and that the same computer tools are used with ease by some and with difficulty by others.

The proprietary software used by the program provides multiple places and tools for faculty and student use. We have selected the software which has worked best for both our students and faculty: the online lesson assignment section and the classroom area (which contains forums and threaded e-mail). We have also used on-line quiz tools and the professors' office sites, but usually only at the beginning and the end of the courses.

Our student teams have not found the chat function user-friendly so they have ventured out of the virtual classroom to locate software more responsive to their needs. For example, one student team has used a program that notifies team members of important requests for chat-time as soon as they log onto the Internet. They have found this easier than logging onto the on-line classroom for synchronous discussions. The key for us has been to remain open to student suggestions and to be flexible in planning and implementing course delivery.


The time investment required to develop the first course was high (over 1,000 hours); however, development of subsequent courses has been faster and easier. As we work, we continue to respond to student suggestions and incorporate them into instructional design processes and teaching techniques. For example, one professor changed from a one-week assignment time frame to a two-week assignment time frame. This has provided students with a longer lead-time to plan and coordinate their study activities. We know that we must focus on the goals, anticipate changes, and proceed forward to accomplish the mission and goals of the project.

The first cohort in this new program is in the fourth of six semesters and the second cohort began in the fall of 1999. Some of these new students completed pre-requisite courses online during the summer 1999 session. Also, an international dimension is currently under negotiation: another international institution may soon integrate some of our online classes, taught by WCU professors, into its heretofore traditional program.

Western Carolina University, as a whole, is increasing the use of computer technology in many areas. Since the fall of 1998, WCU has required all entering freshmen to have and use a computer. Beginning in the fall of 1999, all freshmen will be taught how to build academic Web page portfolios and publish them on the Internet. Although no other full degree programs are offered at this time, the University's Faculty Center staff have worked with over 250 faculty members in developing instructional approaches, integrating computer technology, and building course Web pages. Some faculty use the same proprietary software as the MPM program to provide instructional activities in virtual classrooms: accounting, nursing, elementary education, educational leadership, and adult education/community college education courses. WCU took a risk in offering a degree program completely through online coursework. Leading the pack as one of the first North Carolina schools to use "cutting edge" instructional technology has been and continues to be challenging. One of the rewards lies in our students' abilities to develop and use real-world computer and communication skills as they accomplish their educational goals.

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