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UVa: MOOCs, Revenue, Enrollment, and Blended Learning
September 13, 2012 - 9:10pm

Did you read Andrew Rice's terrific article in the NYT, Anatomy of a Campus Coup, about the failed attempt to oust President Sullivan from the University of Virginia?

This well-reported article places the nasty fight between UVa's board and what ended up being UVA's academic community (in which Sullivan is well respected) within the context of the larger economic pressures facing higher ed. 

The UVa story is complex, but it basically boils down to some members of the Board of Visitors engineering the firing of Sullivan as president because she was not pushing UVa to change quickly enough in the face of new opportunities around online education.  

Rice writes that:

[Dragas, who led UVa's board]….justified the board’s drastic action by arguing that Virginia was falling behind competitors, like Harvard and Stanford, especially in the development of online courses, a potentially transformative innovation……." “Higher education is one of the last sectors of the economy to undergo this kind of systemic restructuring,” Dragas says. She and other board members emphasized, however, that online education was merely a proxy for a deeper concern about the pace of change in higher education.

What remains puzzling to me in the whole UVa presidential firing and re-instatement saga is how UVa jumped directly from a traditional residential classroom model all the way to embracing massively open online courses (MOOCs). 

The article makes clear that UVa, like the rest of higher ed, is struggling to find new funding methods in the face of drastic cuts in state support and rapid cost increases. The idea of raising revenues by increasing enrollment was considered and rejected by UVa's leadership.

"In a farewell letter in 2010, Casteen [UVa's previous president] suggested that the university might need to increase its revenues not only by raising tuition but also by expanding enrollment — a heretical proposal at a school defined by its relatively cozy atmosphere….Sullivan herself rejected the option of increasing revenue by greatly expanding the student body. “The alumni and student body believe there is huge value in the relatively small size,” Sullivan said. So instead, she economized and retrenched.

Was there been any discussion at UVa about the potential of blended learning to significantly increase enrollment without damaging the school's "cozy atmosphere"?

Both research and experience supports the conclusion that moving towards a more blended model of learning, one in which in-class time is supplemented by online learning, can retain (and often increase) course quality while freeing up classroom and lab space to accommodate more students.  

The economics of higher education are challenging, as we have very high fixed labor (faculty and administrator salaries) and capital (buildings, classrooms, labs) costs.   High fixed cost industries, like higher education or health care, must find ways to increase productivity.  This means serving more students or patients without building new classrooms or hospital beds.  

Increasing the student body at UVa by moving some of the instructional time to asynchronous online platforms would free up the classroom and lab space to teach more courses, without the need to increase class size.  It is class size, the ratio to students-to-faculty in a course, that most determines how intimate a campus feels.   

The argument is that if the benefits of blended learning had really been understood at UVa, and if President Sullivan or the board had been able to articulate these benefits, then this divisive leadership fight might have been avoided.

Online learning is a wonderful development (it is how I make my living), but online learning is most valuable when it is understood as a mechanism that can improve the quality and productivity of all of our courses.  

The increase in student enrollment that blended learning makes possible offers our best opportunity to raise revenues, decrease tuition (as the marginal cost for each additional student drops), and improve quality.   

Has your campus also skipped the hard discussions and investments necessary to bring both blended learning and increased enrollments to your institution, and jumped right to the whole MOOC debate?


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