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It is easy to get depressed if you work in higher ed.

A partial list of the challenges that we face would include:

  • Public disinvestment
  • Demographic headwinds
  • Cost disease
  • Adjunctification
  • EdTech over-promise / under-delivery
  • Student debt
  • Low 6-year completion rates
  • Caste system
  • The stupid things that people say about academic libraries

Anyway, the list goes on and on. What would you add?

The one area where higher ed malaise seems largely absent is in the world of online learning.

At least that is what I found after hanging out for a few days in DC at the UPCEA powered SOLA+R (Summit for Online Leadership and Administration + Roundtable).  

I can’t remember when I’ve been with a group of 400+ positive higher ed people.

Why were the online learning leaders who gathered at SOLA+R so upbeat?

My theory is that, like most everything else in higher ed, the answer comes down to money.

Online education has a business model.

Unlike so much of higher education that depends on indirect revenues to support the operations, online education has always been directly financed.

Online learning programs are created, grow, or cease operations based on their ability to attract enough tuition paying students. 

Unlike other areas of the academy, online programs can be killed. If they are not economically viable they will not last.

This may sound no different from much of higher ed that is directly tuition dependent. The difference, I think, is that online education is growing quickly. The pie is getting bigger. And this growing pie makes growth stories stand out more prominently then examples of retrenchment and retraction. (Plus, all the growth is taking place at non-profits).

This is not to say that the online learning leaders who came to SOLA+R were free of worry. My favorite question to ask colleagues is “what is keep you up at night?”. 

Some of the answers that I heard at SOLA+R included:

“My institution is expecting me to return $X million dollars to support residential operations.”

“We are desperately trying to find instructional designers.”

“Our challenge is making the leap from how we design our online courses - designs based on data and aligned with learning science and done in a team environment with faculty and instructional designers - to our residential teaching.”

“The competition for our online specialized master’s programs from other non-profit institutions is getting incredibly intense”.

“It is still rare for leaders of online learning divisions to make the leap into institution wide academic leadership positions.”

All of which is to say that online learning leaders are not uncritical or complacent. They have lots of challenges.

What seemed different about SOLA+R is the feeling that this is a group whose work is closer to the beginning then the end.

This is a group of higher ed professionals who believe in their own agency to drive change.

When was the last time that you felt really good about the future of higher ed?

Is online education the happiest place to work in higher ed?

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