Chief executives / executive directors

Tips for college leaders to make online programs work

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.

The Will

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.

The Way

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.

Final Thought

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.

Author/s: 
Kenneth E. Hartman
Author's email: 
kenhartman@kenhartman.com

Kenneth E. Hartman is a senior fellow at Edventures and the former president of Drexel eLearning at Drexel University.

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The case against college is old and flawed (essay)

Maybe going to college is not such a great idea. Two years ago the entrepreneur Peter Thiel put up money that paid outstanding high school students to pursue paths and projects away from a college campus. Now, a flurry of articles report about bright, enthusiastic high school students who consciously reject going to college. The latest example is Alex Williams’s “The Old College Try? No Way!” in The New York Times that includes a caption proclaiming that for high achievers, “College is for suckers!” This “case against college” may be heretical to our higher education orthodoxy.  But it is not new.

From 1870 to 1890, enrollments at most colleges declined even though the national population grew.  College presidents were perplexed about the loss of appeal “going to college” held for young Americans. The School of Hard Knocks trumped the College of Liberal Arts if you were an inventor or an investor. Ambitious young Americans wanted to get on with their pursuits and profits. They saw four years of college as lost time and wasted opportunity.

Even the learned professions of medicine and law seldom required a college education – or even a high school diploma. And, for most 18-year-olds whose parents were farmers or shopkeepers, you had to stay home to help with the family business. Tuition was not an obstacle because it was incredibly cheap – seldom more than $100 per year. When college presidents made desperate offers to attract students by lowering tuition and waiving entrance examinations, there were few takers and lots of empty classroom seats. College officials failed to understand that for most American families the loss of a child’s earnings was a more important consideration than even no tuition charge in making a decisive case against college.

But that was then and this is now. The current advocates for the case against college may be correct in pointing out that a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs did not need a college degree to be successful.  What this ignores is that the overall strength of American higher education in the 20th century has been less spectacular yet important -- namely, to educate for civil society and expertise.

It was true not only for preparing young people for law and medicine, but also pharmacy, engineering, physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, teaching, social work, clergy, nursing, accounting, forestry, public health and other professionals – and at the same time helping to educate them to be concerned, informed citizens -- that would lead and staff new organizations in the public and private sector and as concerned, informed citizens.

Let’s reconsider Steven Jobs’s memorable 2005 Stanford commencement speech as Exhibit A in the case against college. First, Jobs did not opt not to go to college. He went to Reed College and dropped out – a very different life choice than not going to college at all. Second, even after dropping out, he stayed close to the Reed College campus – its students, faculty, resources and opportunities – all to his educational and vocational gain. Third, his explanation for dropping out – disorientation and uncertainty – probably were signs that a liberal education was prompting him to consider and confront complex questions of purpose and place. Perhaps Reed College was “doing its job” for Jobs? 

Above all, doesn’t it seem strange and conveniently safe that Steven Jobs gave his inspirational talk to Stanford graduates who momentarily would receive their coveted Stanford degrees?  I wager that most in that audience were delighted with Jobs’s message urging them to pursue their dreams – and equally delighted that they were buoyed by the experience, friendships, faculty and learning  -- and degree -- on all counts that going to college had made opportune. The Steven Jobs inspirational talk would have been more compelling as a “case against college” had he chosen to deliver it to 16-year-olds at, e.g., Oakland Tech. But he didn’t – and for good reason.

Whether in 1880 or 2012, the historical message is that there are good reasons to go -- or not to go -- to college.  And, given the diversity of American higher education, the choices are complicated by the options of where to go – such as two-year vocational vs. four-year liberal arts college or small campus versus large flagship state university --  and what to study, and for what end – an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, or perhaps prelude to an advanced degree. We also have in the United States a long tradition of some professions such as performing arts and major league baseball where one need not first have a college education. The spate of current articles do not make the case against college – they make a case, or several cases, depending on an individual’s situation and goals. A maxim of societal behavior is that strident advocacy makes a point and at the same time fosters alternative and counter points. 

In sum, the fervent articles denigrating college unwittingly make indirect and direct cases of numerous good reasons to go to college. Why, of course, the exceptional genius does not need the delay of required courses. Partying by 20-year-olds is going to take place at sports bars quite apart from being enrolled in college. In fact, most accounts of Silicon Valley successful entrepreneurs suggests that unabashed partying is par for their course.  So, why begrudge that or dismiss that as a nuisance and distraction linked exclusively to undergraduate life?

But even an icon such as Mark Zuckerberg did gain from going to Harvard by finding the name and inspiration for “Facebook” – not from Philosophy 101 but from the booklets distributed during freshman orientation week. How to calculate the net worth of that informal collegiate experience? And for the multitude of bright, talented committed high school graduates who were not selected for Peter Thiel’s highly selective program, might not there be a thoughtful choice about college that just might provide some good learning and opportunities? 

The net result is that we do not have “The Case” against college – but the more subtle, provocative question of many cases for and against going to college as befits a complex, diverse and credentialed American society.  Maybe going to college is not such a great idea.  Maybe not going to college is not such a great idea.

John Thelin is a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky.  He is author of A History of American Higher Education, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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