Critical Success Factors

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See also Benchmarking

These critical success factors are for virtual campuses in universities and colleges. It is likely that the factors for virtual schools will be slightly different.


In the Re.ViCa project a critical success factor is defined as follows:

A critical success factor is a factor whose presence is necessary for an organisation to fulfil its mission - in other words, if it is not present then its absence will cause organisational and/or mission failure.

The majority of work on this in e-learning has been oriented either to large-scale failures, usually of consortium models focussed on distance learning, or on "hygiene" and KPI type success factors not critical success factors

Thus Re.ViCa has to produce a new synthesis.

A natural starting point is to start from a base of general theory and fuse the large-scale critical success factors with evidence from the benchmarking and quality arenas, concentrating on criteria that are critical not just useful ones.

The Wikipedia entry on critical success factor indicates that one should look in the following areas:

  1. Money factors: positive cash flow, revenue growth, and profit margins.
  2. Acquiring new customers and/or distributors - your future.
  3. Customer satisfaction - how happy are they?
  4. Quality - how good is your product and service?
  5. Product or service development - what's new that will increase business with existing customers and attract new ones?
  6. Intellectual capital - increasing what you know that's profitable.
  7. Strategic relationships - new sources of business, products and outside revenue.
  8. Employee attraction and retention - your ability to do extend your reach.
  9. Sustainability - your personal ability to keep it all going

These have to be turned from management-speak into concepts understandable by and acceptable to higher education providers.


There have been many projects which have been looking for CSFs.

Initial scoping

In this project we first carried out desktop research and learned from other projects (for an overview and download of the reports and literature, see the project website) and came to a list of 99 CSFs.

First International Advisory Commitee meeting

In spring 2008 the first International Advisory Committee Meeting took place at the EDEN Annual Conference in Lisbon, Portugal. In this meeting the experts worked in teams on this list, bringing it back to 29 essential factors. This 29 CSFs for large e-learning initiatives are labeled into three categories. First we distinguish factors that are mainly on an organizational level, these are more often strategy-and management issues. The second level is the work floor level, dealing with issues that immediately effect the daily performance of people working in this e-learning initiative. The third and last level is the service level. This involves factors that somehow have an influence on (internal or external) clients of the e-learning initiative.

Second International Advisory Commitee meeting

In a second meeting, at the ONLINE EDUCA Annual Conference in Berlin, December 2008, we let the International Advisory Committee (N= 17) vote on the 29 CSFs, using an electronic voting system in which they could give an opinion about the factors whether they must be kept or removed from the list. The categories to answer on were:

  1. must be removed
  2. should be removed
  3. no view
  4. should be kept
  5. must be kept

After each voting there was the possibility to have an discussion on that criterion. The data collection resulted in a quantitative part (the voting) and an qualitative part (the discussion).

Third International Advisory Commitee meeting

A considerable amount of work has been done in preparation for the IAC meeting at the ICDE Conference, Maastricht, June 2009.

First, a close look was taken at all the feedback from IAC.

Second, four related schemes were analysed or re-analysed.

  1. MegaTrends is the main study on large-scale virtual campuses done before Re.ViCa. Its final list of factors is quite short. It has several lessons for us.
  2. PBP-VC is the main study on consortia-based virtual campuses done before Re.ViCa. It has a strong focus on quality issues and on good practice for managing consortia but among the details there are a few lessons for CSFs in the consortial area.
  3. UNIQUe is a scheme for quality/accreditation in e-learning developed by a consortium involving EuroPACE. In some ways it is parallel to E-xcellence though possibly more oriented to on-campus and blended uses of e-learning. Despite many of the criteria being more focussed on quality, there are some lessons to be learned, including on rewriting certain Critical Success Factors.
  4. E-xcellence is a scheme of benchmarking/quality for e-learning developed in 2005-2006 by a consortium led by EADTU. It is often felt to still be most relevant to distance teaching organisations. It has earlier been taken into consideration for our CSF work but this work was rechecked.

Third, related activity on benchmarking/quality of e-learning in the UK had generated some comments on criterion wording and some new criteria, which were taken into consideration.

These pieces of work led to 19 criteria (potential CSFs) that got more serious attention - of which 8 were potential new criteria altogether. In particular there were three criteria to do with collaboration that needed more detailed attention – drawing on the experience of PBP-VC.

Acting on earlier feedback and intense debate on whether some Critical Success Factors were indeed critical for all types of Virtual Campus, it was finally decided to split the list of Critical Success Factors into two parts:

  1. a list of 17 Critical Success Factors relevant to success of e-learning in all types of Virtual Campus.
  2. a list of 14 Key Success Factors - these are Critical Success Factors relevant to success of e-learning in one or more subsets (categories) of Virtual Campus - such as private for-profit providers, consortia, etc.

It should be remembered that the Critical Success Factors are drawn from a much larger scheme of benchmarking/quality for e-learning, which makes it easy to promote or demote Critical Success Factors and Key Success Factors as further case study and country report information becomes available. For more details on the underlying scheme see Pick&Mix.

Critical Success Factors table

This is taken from the page Critical Success Factors draft final version. See also Key Success Factors.

table of Critical Success Factors
Code Factor name Critical Success Factor (level 5 statement)
R4 Usability All systems usable, with internal evidence to back this up.
R6 e-Learning Strategy Regularly updated e-Learning Strategy, integrated with Learning and Teaching Strategy and all related strategies (e.g. Distance Learning, if relevant).
R7 Decisions on Projects Effective decision-making for e-learning projects across the whole institution, including variations when justified.
R10 Training All staff trained in VLE use, appropriate to job type - and retrained when needed.
R12 Costs A fit for purpose costing system is used in all departments for costs of e-learning.
R13 Planning Annually Integrated annual planning process for e-learning integrated with overall course planning.
R16 Technical Support to Staff All staff engaged in the e-learning process have "nearby" fast-response technical support.
R19 Decisions on Programmes There is effective decision-making for e-learning programmes across the whole institution, including variations when justified.
R22 Leadership in e-Learning The capability of leaders to make decisions regarding e-learning is fully developed at departmental and institutional level.
R29 Management Style The overall institutional management style is appropriate to manage its mix of educational and business activities
R35 Relationship Management Upwards The institution has effective processes designed to achieve high formal and informal credibility with relevant government and public agencies overseeing it.
R53 Reliability The e-learning system is as reliable as the main systems students and staff are used to from their wider experience as students and citizens,
R58 Market Research Market research done centrally and in or on behalf of all departments, and aware of e-learning aspects; updated annually or prior to major programme planning.
R60 Security A system where security breaches are known not to occur yet which allows staff and students to carry out their authorised duties easily and efficiently.
R91 Student Understanding of System Students have good understanding of the rules governing assignment submission, feedback, plagiarism, costs, attendance, etc and always act on them.
R92 Student Help Desk Help Desk is deemed as best practice.
R94 Student Satisfaction Frequent (ideally annual) Student Satisfaction survey which explicitly addresses the main e-learning issues of relevance to students.

Earlier versions

Those interested in the evolution of the CSFs can look at:

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