While many of us spent 2012 writing, reading and debating about whether massive open online courses (MOOCs) will forever change American higher education, Richard Linder was quietly and methodically becoming what historians will no doubt cite as America’s first true MOOCer. For the past four years, the 21-year-old , who left his home at age 16, was cobbling together enough MOOC-like online courses to earn an associate degree for under $3,000 -- with not one of the MOOC-like courses being taught by an accredited college.
The truth is that MOOCs are just a small and largely undefined “pebble” within online education; yet this pebble has caused a ripple that has turned many campuses on their heads and nearly cost a president her own. That president, like many college presidents today, faces what could be called “The No Wake Syndrome,” whereby key institutional stakeholders demand leadership and action on a host of mission-critical issues, yet are not willing to accept the wake caused by change, albeit small, that will ensue as a result of the action.
E-learning is one such issue; one such wake.
Having helped build one of the most successful online degree programs in higher education, it is worth sharing a few thoughts and suggestions with other like-minded institutional leaders seeking to find their way in the online world, including how best to prepare their stakeholders for the wake that will undoubtedly follow.
Over the years, dozens of college presidents have asked how Drexel University built such strong and scalable online programs. The answer is simple: it’s having the will and knowing the way.
It all starts with an open and honest discussion. We’ve learned from history that when a ship is taking on water, it does little good for the captain to simply order the band to play louder; hope is not a strategy.
Future economic and political circumstances will fundamentally change the role of a college president from one of building more buildings and growing their endowment, to one as lead advocate for the fundamental transformation of the institution’s core academic product and, in doing so, taking the hit from the “wake” of change that will undoubtedly come fast and hard from defenders of the status quo (see illustration).
Suggesting, for example, that your institution may someday offer or give credit for a $15 MOOC course, when your institution’s financial model is based on much-needed tuition revenue from large enrollment, introductory courses (e.g., Psychology 101) is both fiscally suicidal and morally disingenuous. Just ask the folks at Moody’s who recently issued a negative outlook for the entire higher education sector, stating their concern for the “ potentially destabilizing trends like the rise of massive open online courses."
The fundamental question that must first be addressed (and consciously built around) is: “Why are we doing e-learning?” Is it to increase tuition revenue? Decrease costs? Create greater access? Allow greater flexibility for our students? Experiment with new pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning, so as to better educate a different generation of students? All of the above?
Without a clear and unwavering “will,” it makes little sense for a college president to discuss the “way,” because ultimately the senior no-wake proponents on campus will delay and/or sabotage any meaningful e-learning strategy.
Once the will is established, it’s time to communicate the “why” to key stakeholders from the top to the bottom of the organization, including board members, faculty, deans, students and alumni. All must understand the risks and benefits involved in advancing an e-learning strategy. By the same token, all must understand the risks of NOT advancing one.
The key to succeeding is to incentivize faculty and senior staff. Those colleagues who help should be compensated through the sharing of tuition revenue generated from online courses and/or financial support for scholarly activities, such as paid attendance at professional conferences, new lab equipment, etc.
These same individuals must be engaged in defining and ensuring the highest level of quality of the online student experience, to include course development standards, teaching expectations, proper advisement and support services. The focus, above all else, must be on student-faculty engagement, both in and outside of the course.
Related and essential to a successful and scalable online program is a measurable retention strategy. While retention figures for online students are hard to come by, it’s generally agreed that much more attention and greater accountability is needed in this area. A baseline for retention must be established (certainly no lower then the baseline for on-campus students) and a retention “dashboard” created to enable the provost to monitor all online programs.
Here we all could take a few best practices from for-profit colleges, who learned long ago that it is cheaper to retain an existing student then it is to recruit a new one; not to mention their ethical obligation and the fact some risk losing their national accreditation for failing to maintain high retention rates.
For those institutions just jumping into the e-learning sector, it requires the thoughtful use of both internal and external resources, including independent marketing research. Much like diving into an unknown swimming pool, unless you know where the deep and shallow ends are located, you risk either drowning or breaking your neck. Here the careful use of third-party vendors and consultants to properly assess your institution’s market niche is typically a good expense.
George Orwell once wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
The struggle for today's college presidents is having the courage to navigate their stakeholders away from the no-wake syndrome and toward a more personalized, technologically advanced and affordable online degree program.
Let’s hope that that Mr. Linder’s actions will serve as good reason for the struggle, as nothing less than the future of our profession, and our nation, is at stake.
Kenneth E. Hartman
Kenneth E. Hartman is a senior fellow at Edventures and the former president of Drexel eLearning at Drexel University.
A bunch of educators, several of whom I know and respect quite a bit, got together last month to write a "bill of rights" for online learners. Viewable and editable here.
They included the rights to access, privacy, openness, to create public knowledge, to "pedagogical transparency" (to understand the ways you are being taught and the value of any credentials offered), "financial transparency" (Where is my tuition money going? How will this “free course” be paid for?), to have great teachers, and to become teachers.
I can’t find myself disagreeing with anything much that they had to say, except for one screaming contradiction that brings the whole thing down.
"All too often, during such wrenching transitions, the voice of the learner gets muffled," this group wrote in their introduction.
The problem is, this group didn't include any learners. Of the 12 signatories, I count 8 Ph.D.s or Ph.D. equivalents. They didn’t reach out to any learners on public forums. They didn’t ask any learners what they wanted to put in the document. The voice of learners is absolutely silent.
Sure, we’re all lifelong and informal learners in some sense, but let’s draw a real distinction here. Let’s talk about people who don’t have a bachelor’s degree and need one or the equivalent to make a decent living and participate in society on an equal footing. I’m not asking why the group didn’t poll Udacity users in Pakistan or Colombia, or YouMedia high school students in Chicago, or middle schoolers around the globe making their way through Khan Academy math videos, and find out exactly what their concerns are and how they would prefer to have them represented in such a document. Although really, it wouldn’t have taken much time or many resources to do this kind of research. I’m asking why they wrote a “learners’ bill of rights” without including one actual learner in their little group of 12.
I’m not going to be tendentious and draw parallels with other bills of rights. I’m not going to ask about the advisability of men writing a feminist Bill of Rights on behalf of the women they care about so deeply. Or of the North writing a bill of rights for Southerners after the Civil War. Or of employers writing a bill of rights for their employees.
Suffice it to say that educators are in a historical position of no small authority over learners. And when one group of people with authority over another makes up the rights for the second group, they tend to get some things wrong.
The fact is, this isn’t a bill of rights for learners at all. It’s a set of principles to support the interests of a group of educators, who share concern for learners, blended with concern for their own group. They tip their hand in the eighth principle, “The right to have great teachers.”
“Students should expect -- indeed demand -- that the people arranging, mentoring and facilitating their learning online be financially, intellectually and pedagogically valued and supported by institutions of higher learning and by society. Teachers’ know-how and working conditions are students’ learning conditions.”
I am in favor of all who work with learners being fairly paid, and I am definitely in favor of great teachers. But I am not in favor of students being drafted onto the metaphorical or actual picket lines. Students in state four-year institutions are paying more and more of the salaries of their instructors and going into sometimes-extreme debt to do it. There’s an uncomfortable moment where the interests of the learners actually diverge from the interests of the career academics, and it should be discussed openly.
But enough. The authors intended this to be a living document, and I respect that there’s time to revise and collect comments from the hundreds of thousands of online learners out there. It’s not going to be that difficult.
When I first found out about this bill of rights, I posted it to OpenStudy, the online learning community. I got this response from an undergraduate computer science major within 45 minutes, which reads in part:
“you deserve education BASED ON WHAT YOU WANT TO DO IN LIFE..
Teach kids real world problems, and have them enjoy it…
Teachers/professors who care. In my time I have met a lot of wonderful professors, mentors, teachers, coaches, and a ton of HORRIBLE ones…
The job market sucks, and with students being taught the same thing, and not really learning what they wish it's hard to distinguish someone from the rest of the pack. If we want to succeed we need to produce students who enjoy learning, and have the tools to learn what THEY WANT TO LEARN."
Another wrote: "The rights I want in the ever-growing digital era are not anything different than what I would want outside of it. We have to expand these rights to be applicable into the digital world."
That’s a good start. Now there’s time to come up with a set of amendments -- a real learners’ bill of rights.
As another step in the overhaul of its core curriculum, Lynn University will require every first-year student to purchase an iPad mini, and will use iTunes U as a content delivery method for those courses.