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High quality online education – delivered in a synchronous seminar-like format by regular faculty or asynchronously, incorporating advanced interactives, sophisticated simulations, virtual laboratories, adaptive pathways, frequent formative assessments, and a great deal of constructive feedback provided by well-qualified teaching assistants – is not only extremely expensive to develop and deliver, but exceedingly rare.

A state-of-the-art asynchronous program can cost $2-4 million to produce, including faculty incentives, instructional design, educational technology development, and production costs. (Of course, the instructional assets can be re-used in a variety of programs, making these resources more cost-effective).

Too often, what passes for quality in online learning is self-paced, largely self-directed education consisting of low-quality video and digitized PowerPoint slides, coupled with a discussion board or hangout, and a small number of multiple choice and short essay exams and perhaps a term paper – without much mentoring. Or, even worse, it involves an educational “journey” in which a student interacts with a series of pre-existing websites and other online resources, while receiving “support” and “feedback” from a course mentor who lacks advanced qualifications in a particular discipline.

Too frequently, instructors must develop courses largely on their own or “teach” pre-packaged courses in which their role is reduced to that of grader, question answerer, and feedback provider. And much too often instructors quickly discover that an online course is even more draining than its face-to-face counterpart, since much of the interaction with students occurs one-on-one, with few opportunities to share advice (as one does in a face-to-face course) with students all at once.

It may or might not make sense for a campus to outsource program marketing, enrollment management services, video production, a 24/7 help desk and student services support, and even instructional design and development of digital learning tools, depending on the price. But when an institution partners with a coding academy -- giving its imprimatur to a profit-making company that designs and staffs a program and validates the learning outcomes – then the institution has ceded its core academic responsibilities. Ditto for relying on pre-packaged courses.

Matthew Rascoff is certainly correct to say that this period of digital transformation is witnessing a wide variety of developments that do not fit Kevin Carey’s “decline and fall” narrative.  He points to the emergence of: 

  • Mega online providers that target non-traditional students with a lower-cost alternative to on-campus programs or their high cost online counterparts;
  • A la carte online program service providers that charge fixed fees for discrete suites of services;
  • Low-cost online associate’s and bachelor degree and certificate programs for degree completers and low-wage corporate employees; and
  • Low-cost master’s and MicroMasters programs offered by top-tier institutions through the MOOC providers or institutions like Georgia Tech.

But let’s not fool ourselves: Many of the low-cost programs offered by the mega providers have exceedingly low graduation rates, low standards for passing courses, and an education that few regard as equivalent to that offered face-to-face by most traditional colleges and universities.

And many online master’s and certificate programs are motivated, first and foremost, by a quest for new sources of revenue and offer little transparency about learning, feedback, and employment outcomes.

There are, however, more exciting and more promising developments than those mentioned in the roundup. These include:

  • The high-quality adaptive courseware pioneered Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative and the Dana Center, which can be used in hybrid as well as fully online formats.
  • The face-to-face programs offered by organizations like PeletonU that provide at-risk students enrolled in online programs with the mentorship, in-person coaching, student services, scholarships, scaffolding, and sense of community they need to succeed. 
  • The showcase courses, like Ariel Anbar and Lev Horodyskyj’s Habitable Worlds or Steve Joordens’s or Jamie Pennebaker and Sam Gosling’s synchronous Psychology SMOCs, which set the standard for what’s possible in online courses.
  • The next generation instructional tools – like the ECoach personalized assistance tool, the M-Write automated writing to learn tool, and the analytics tools developed through the University of Michigan’s Academic Innovation initiative.

At my own institution, Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS) developed Clio, a Learning Management System overlay, to support seamless integration of simulations, video, and interactives into online and hybrid courses and collect fine-grained information about student engagement and performance. It also created UT Instapoll, a free classroom response tool, which allows students use their cellphone to respond to multiple choice, short answer, and poll questions, and which integrates with the LMS. LAITS also provided the support which allowed me to develop interactive courseware which gives students the opportunity to do history by using a wide variety of primary sources: advertisements, architecture, census registers, etymology, film clips, gravestones, historic maps and music, naming patterns, photographs, primary source texts, propaganda posters, and slave sale ads, among others.

Precisely because research universities are not profit-driven, the instructional tools and resources that they develop are guided exclusively by instructors’ priorities, the learning sciences, and student needs. These assets are learning focused and learner centric.

What research universities need to do, in my judgment, is to follow the example of Carnegie Mellon. Those institutions that have the resources and expertise to develop cutting edge instructional tools and other educational assets should share them widely and encourage faculty and staff elsewhere to adapt and remix them.  If colleges are to live up to their name and be truly collegial, then the time has come to be bold and embrace the radical slogan:  “From each according to its ability, to each according to its needs."

Steven Mintz, who directed the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning from 2012 through 2017, is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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