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Is Online Education a Jobs Engine?

Drawing parallels to one economist’s unorthodox view of e-commerce.

July 24, 2017
 
 

I like nothing better than getting things wrong. When we are wrong, we learn something.

So I interested to read a NYTimes piece on 7/10/17 on e-commerce, the tech sector, and job creation.

For a while now I’ve thought that the growth of online shopping is killing retail jobs, and that this trend would inevitably result in overall job losses as less the role of sales people and cashiers is eliminated.

But maybe I’ve been wrong.

And if online shopping is really a jobs engine, couldn’t online learning also be a job creator for educators?

The Times article summarizes research from Michael Mandel, chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute, that makes the case that online shopping has created more jobs than it has displaced in bricks-and-mortar retail stores.

According to Mandel, in the decade between 2007 to 2017 the e-commerce industry created 397,000 jobs in the United States. This compares to loss of 76,000 jobs in the traditional retail industry. Even better, the jobs created in e-commerce fulfillment - such as warehouse jobs - pay on average 30 percent more than retail positions.

The article is quick to point out that Mandel’s findings are controversial. It is difficult to assign job creation directly to the growth of e-commerce, as it is not always clear what tasks employees of Amazon or Google or other tech companies are assigned. Nor is it certain that warehouse job creation will not plateau, as productivity around online shipping grows as the sector grows, and as warehouses themselves become more automated.

Might online education be operating in some similar ways as online shopping?

How many good jobs in education have been created by the growth in online learning?

From 2002 to 2014 the number of students who took at least one online course rose from 1.6 million to 5.8 million. The bulk of all online learning programs are concentrated in non-profit institutions, accounting for over 2 million of the total 2.8 million enrolled in online only programs. From 2012 to 2014 the percentage of 4-year schools offering online degree programs rose from 46 percent to 59 percent.

Has anyone counted the number of jobs, and what types of jobs, that the growth in online education has created?

Conventional wisdom would hold that online learning has the potential to displace full-time residential faculty with contingent online instructors. But is this really true? 

Many schools that I know of draw their online faculty from the same pool of full-time and tenure-track/tenured faculty as their residential programs - as well as from the same pool of part-time and adjunct faculty teaching in-person.  If anything, I’ve seen online learning offer more opportunities for teaching gigs for all higher ed teachers.

Has anyone been able to count the number of instructional design and other non-faculty educator jobs that have been created by the growth of online education?  Quality online programs require a team approach to course development.  Faculty (subject matter experts) are paired with experts in learning design and technology.

The indirect impact of online learning on higher education employment may also be under-appreciated.  I’d like to see some national level data on the revenue impact of online programs on the budgets of non-profit institutions.  How much cross-subsidization of residential programs is occurring from online units?  How many higher ed jobs have been saved or created by profitable online units?

Where would one start in unpacking the higher education employment impact of online education?

Can we interest Michael Mandel and the Progressive Policy Institute in taking up this question?

Is this a question that WCET, OLC, EDUCAUSE, or the National Council for Online Education could answer?

When have you been wrong lately?

 

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