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Like many early-career researchers, Justin Ortagus is typically drawn to quantitative studies that -- at least in theory -- are likely to produce unambiguous, sharply defined results. So his studies about online education have tended to focus on quantifiable issues such as whether cuts in state funding lead to increases in online enrollment (on balance, yes) or whether enrolling online in their first year of college helps or hurts students' long-term academic prospects (modestly helps).

His new study offers no such clarity, which will surprise no one once they hear the topic: the intersection of cost and quality in online education. “‘Like Having a Tiger by the Tail’: A Qualitative Analysis of the Provision of Online Education in Higher Education,” published in Teachers College Record, examines (and tries to make sense of) the complicated and often conflicting perspectives of 22 administrators, professors and instructional designers at three research universities with significant online offerings.

The goal of Ortagus and his co-author, R. Tyler Derreth, associate director of SOURCE at Johns Hopkins University and a faculty member at Hopkins's Bloomberg School of Public Health, was to interrogate how those involved in online programs seek to balance financial and quality considerations.

That required participants in the survey to explain (to themselves and to the researchers) how they assess the finances and quality of online education.

The former was relatively easy; "nearly every participant referenced the potential of online education as an alternative revenue source for the university," and several said they envisioned revenue from online offerings subsidizing on-campus programs. One cited a foremost rule: "Thou shalt not cannibalize or impact any opportunities or poach any of the enrollments from existing on-campus programs."

(The "tiger by the tail" of the paper's title came from a quotation from an online program coordinator citing a trustee's assertion -- which not everyone shares -- that online education is "like having a tiger by the tail -- it's an area of profit and enormous growth. You'd better not let it go.")

The Quality Conundrum

Defining quality was much more difficult -- and varied.

Respondents frequently defined quality by comparing online to face-to-face courses, often bristling at the commonly proffered belief that online courses are worse. One associate provost interviewed asserted that online courses receive much more scrutiny than do their in-person peers, Ortagus said.

"For our online courses, we have weekly learning outcomes that we are strictly adhering to, and we have instructional principles -- our videos need to be 10 to 12 minutes long. We optimize student learning and engagement in these ways," Ortagus quoted the associate provost as saying.

"We don’t offer this same level of scrutiny to our face-to-face courses. Why is it OK to have a 400-person lecture hall?"

Other survey participants described judging online programs by a set of indicators, such as student outcomes (student feedback, retention, labor market outcomes), the centrality of the faculty role and assessments of how the courses were designed.

Ortagus said he was struck (but perhaps not surprised) by how closely tied respondents' views of "quality" were to their job -- which he termed "perspective-bound quality."

“I would speak with instructional designers, and for them it was all about how the course was designed, and how much engagement was built in to the course,” Ortagus said. “I’d ask them about the importance of who is engaging with the student -- the professor -- and they would say, ‘Yes, that matters, but it’s really about the design.’”

Professors, in turn, tended to focus their definitions of quality entirely on the strength of the instruction -- difficult as that was to describe.

The administrators responsible for managing online programs weren't necessarily any clearer in their answers. "I would talk to senior leaders whose entire job scope is online, and they would sometimes offer conflicting, confounding and inconsistent definitions of quality," Ortagus said. "Defining quality was by far the most frustrating aspect of this work."

Striking a Balance

While most of the researchers' subjects struggled to define quality, Ortagus said, to a person they asserted that quality considerations could not be separated from financial considerations -- and they are intertwined in ways that have significant implications for colleges' online strategy.

"Online education requires administrators to provide substantial financial investments to develop online courses and exclusively online programs; however, net revenues generated through online education may not be available until after several iterations of the online offerings," the study states. And while "the cost structure of online education is associated with economies of scale and suggests that the financial advantage of online instruction will be most prevalent at extremely large enrollment levels, high enrollment numbers may come at the expense of quality and student-centered pedagogies."

In other words, online education -- done right -- is expensive, in terms of building or buying software, designing and creating courses, and training instructors, among other things. And because it can take significant time to recoup that up-front investment, "you have to be in it for the long run if financial considerations are critical to why you launched online programs in the first place," Ortagus said in an interview. And if colleges build programs that aren't of high quality, their students won't succeed -- and ultimately the programs won't, either.

To try to impose some structure around the potentially befuddling conversation around cost and quality, Ortagus and Derreth developed a model that seeks to help "tell a coherent story" around how institutions that want to be seen as "quality" providers of online learning should think about the balance between quality and finances.

The gist of it, Ortagus says, is that even if institutions (as most do) start online programs with the goal of improving their financial situation in one way or another (starting on the left side of the model, below), they will ultimately fail unless they put the quality of those programs at the center of their strategy.

"If you get revenue from tuition, you need to be reinvesting in the program if you want to have stability and success with online degree programs," he said.

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