I recently visited with a representative from the University of Illinois’s Enterprise Risk Management unit. The philosophy of the risk unit is that the people closest to a risk are best equipped to identify and propose plans to manage the risk. In my case, I put a focus on the online learning program.
In our field, we have a wide array of risks -- technological infrastructure within and outside the university, including bandwidth, physical interruptions due to hurricane, tornado, earthquake or related natural disasters; policy and regulatory at the state and federal levels; accessibility shortcomings; global malware challenges; online, in-class verbal sexist, gender-preference, racist and analogous abuse; academic integrity issues; competitive risks in meeting game-changing new models of degree and certificate offerings; and maintaining our reputation as leaders in the field. These are the things we think about when we wake up in the middle of the night. These are the what-if challenges that are always in the back of our minds.
We have long been aware of the natural disasters that disrupt classes and campus life. In this area, online learning is on both sides of the threat. Much more resistant to many of the weather and earthquake challenges, online can mitigate the effects that close face-to-face classes. Just a few weeks ago, online learning came to the rescue in the bitterly cold polar vortex as faculty members moved classes online.
Enforcing the thin line between free expression and hateful, threatening speech is a daily challenge for instructors in many classes that address political, social and cultural issues. Fortunately, online learning is generally resistant to the deadly plague of campus shootings that our schools and universities suffer. But that may not always be the case; we must be vigilant to cases of hate that are expressed in our discussion boards. These could extend into physical confrontations in the worst of circumstances.
Federal policies are in flux. The 2017 federal audit finding against Western Governors University would have required the payback of more than $700 million in federal student aid. Now the feds say they will not have to repay. The long-standing policy of required “regular and substantive” interaction among students and faculty in online classes is under further review. Other significant changes in accreditation and U.S. Department of Education rules have been proposed. Will we soon have an environment where competitors may outsource most of their instruction? The instability in compliance rules makes it difficult to plan. Meanwhile, keeping up with the flood of media used by faculty members makes it difficult to maintain accessibility compliance across the curriculum.
Global malware threats and direct cyberattacks -- both by nations and by nonaffiliated criminals -- present an ever-present danger to our field. The announcement by Russia that they will stop the internet for a day while they reconfigure their connections to go through one central government point gives me pause. This will enable the net in that country to continue to operate even if the rest of the world goes down. I ponder those implications daily.
Academic integrity concerns continue to grow as AI technologies can now research and even write reports and articles. We are forced to ask, “Did a computer using AI write this?” Our best teaching and learning practices will have to adapt.
“At-scale” degrees continue to proliferate. Georgia Tech now claims the largest online M.S. in computer science program, with nearly 10,000 students. As the number of these programs expand, enrollments at “traditional” online programs are on a plateau. The competitive marketplace is more competitive than ever before.
It seems that we are too often plugging holes and making temporary fixes for these problems. What risks have we missed? What are the larger solutions to the ones we have identified? How can we protect our students from these threats to assure that their learning will move forward smoothly and uninterrupted? These are questions that we all should ask as we assess risks -- even as we lie awake at 2:30 a.m.