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A quick quiz:

Which of the following are valid reasons to support online college courses?

a. Geographic distance

b. Flexible scheduling

c. Physical challenges navigating a campus

d. Experimenting with new pedagogies

e. They’re cheaper to produce

f. All of the above, except e.

The answer is f. I used to think it was e, but it’s f. 

I bring this up because I think it’s at the heart of the range of responses to Kevin Carey’s recent piece about online program management (OPM) companies operating under the umbrellas of elite universities.  Carey and I were both mortified to see how much some very respected places are willing to outsource what most of us would consider their reason for being, and at the profit margins these sub rosa for-profits are reaping.  I even tweeted out an endorsement of Carey’s piece, thinking it obvious that the scandal was the diversion of resources and the outsourcing of a core academic function. Carey’s article should prompt much deeper scrutiny of such arrangements.

I stand by all of that, but after reading the various responses to it, realize that I glossed over a key point.  Carey assumes that the scandal isn’t really the outsourcing; it’s the perversion of what could have been a cost-saving technology into a cash cow. 

On that, we disagree.  I don’t disagree that some places are using it as a cash cow, though I’d point out that many occupational graduate programs had been used that way long before OPM’s came along.  The disagreement is on a more fundamental point. Online teaching isn’t really cheaper.

I should qualify that.  Good online courses -- of the sort that most of us would be willing to accept as equivalent to traditional classes -- are not cheaper.  MOOCs can be, but their attrition rate is typically well over 90 percent; if our classes had attrition rates that high, we’d be closed down.  (Just this week, I saw that Udacity is laying off 20 percent of its staff. That’s not a sign of success.)

That’s because successful online classes, especially at the freshman and sophomore levels, require a great deal of instructor/student interaction.  A set of pre-recorded videos with a discussion board may scale cheaply, but it won’t get results at anything close to an acceptable level. Getting good results requires keeping the class sizes comparable with classroom courses.  Professors need to be able to grade papers, respond to student queries, adapt instructional materials, and maintain accessibility far beyond what they would for a classroom course. That’s called “labor.”

Labor is the single largest cost item in our operating budget, by a healthy margin.  Online courses don’t change that.

The fixed costs are different.  Classroom courses require classrooms; online courses require IT support.  A college or university starting from scratch with a purely online model might be able to avoid much of the cost of building maintenance, parking lots, and the like.  But an existing college that already has those things, and adds online classes over time, doesn’t really save on capital. If anything, it adds IT costs to the fixed costs of existing physical plant.  If we have more empty classrooms at night because evening students have migrated to online classes, that doesn’t do much to reduce facility costs. We may be able to avoid building the next building, and there’s a savings in that, but that’s only relevant when enrollments are growing.  When they’re declining, you wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) build anyway.

And that’s without covering the costs of the LMS, instructional designers, and faculty training, among other things.

Community colleges are in a different game, in many ways, than the elite graduate programs Carey profiles.  But ideas like “tech makes teaching cheaper” cross sectors, and get cited by legislators (in varying degrees of good faith) as justifications for continued cuts.  That’s a mistake with terrible consequences for the most economically fragile students.

At this level, we shouldn’t be looking for ways to cut costs even more.  That’s the drive that led to such heavy reliance on adjuncts. At this level, we don’t have a spending problem; we have a revenue problem.  That makes any prospective reliance on OPM’s even more objectionable, of course; on that, I’m in full agreement. Given how little we have, we shouldn’t divert a chunk of it to an OPM to do what we should have been doing in the first place.  But we should do online classes the right way, to serve the students who need them to negotiate work and family obligations. And that costs money.

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