Low-Residency Online Education and the Demise of the Volt

What can we learn?

December 10, 2018

Are there any higher ed lessons to be learned from the demise of the Chevy Volt?

The Volt always seemed like a great idea. Combine the efficiency of a battery-powered electric vehicle for short commutes (under 50 miles), with the range-security of a gasoline internal combustion engine (420 miles).

The people who bought Volt’s loved them. The problem for GM has been that almost nobody wants to buy one, with sales never reaching 25,000 a year.  This low level of demand was even with a $7,500 tax credit, one that is about to be phased out.  Without being able to sell at scale, GM lost $8,000 to $10,000 on every vehicle.

Is there a digital learning analog to the Volt?

One worrying parallel that comes to mind is low-residency degree programs.

Both research and experience strongly point to the conclusion that low-residency online education is best.  

Combining the personal relationship building opportunities inherent in face-to-face teaching, with the time and geography shifting affordances of online learning, makes for a superb recipe for ensuring educational quality.

Indeed, anyone who has ever taught in a low-residency program - or experienced this format as a student - is likely to attest to the quality of the learning experience.

Those of us who design, teach for, and learn in low-residency online programs are likely to be as vocal in our evangelism for these programs as are Volt owners for the wonders of their electric/gas hybrids.

I love low-residency programs.  They combine the human-scale benefits of residential teaching with flexibility and freedom of online learning.  Low-residency programs have the potential to provide 100 percent of the benefits of a rigorous residential program without requiring students to quit their jobs and move to our campuses.

But what if low-residency online education carries with it the same flaws as the Volt?

Low-residency programs require only short residential stays.  Even short residential periods, however, still require that students absorb both direct costs  (travel, lodging) and opportunity costs (missed work and family time).

Given the choice of never having to spend time on campus to receive a degree, or having to devote some weeks in a one or two-year masters program, many students seem to prefer the wholly online option.

Low-residency programs are also more resource-intensive to design and deliver. Creating high-quality residential interactions requires a great deal of thought and planning. Faculty need to be compensated for the time that they spend teaching face-to-face.  Not all institutional costs for the residential programs are likely to be covered by student payments.

The extra inputs involved in creating low-residency programs means that they are usually (if not always) more expensive for students than pure online degree programs.

Low-residency programs are also more difficult to scale than fully online programs. Classroom space is finite.  Fully online programs can scale with demand, as faculty are easier to add than classrooms.

It may be that the Volt was less a victim of being an electric/gas hybrid, and more the victim of not being an SUV. American’s seem to want larger vehicles rather than sedans.  GM and Ford are busily closing down factories that produce small cars.

Perhaps we need to find the plug-in electric/gas SUV equivalent of the low-residency program.

Maybe a combined online/residential program should eschew the campus, and instead hold the face-to-face sessions in global cities and at high-end venues.

Or maybe the residential sessions should be “in-residence” in spare conference rooms at the sort of companies that graduates would like to receive job offers.

For those of us who firmly believe in the potential of low-residency education to provide premium learning experiences - and I count myself among this group - the demise of the Chevy Volt should come as a warning.

Sometimes, the approaches that we see as providing the best of both worlds (residential and online / gas and electric) feel like suboptimal compromises to those we hope to serve.

Or maybe the Volt was just ahead of its time.

In the future, all cars will be battery powered  - and some will retain a backup power system for long trips.

When this future arrives it may also be that all education is low-residency, all courses are blended, and the divide between online and residential education has finally been obliterated.

Can you draw any higher ed lessons from the impending death of the Volt?


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