Internal Barriers to Online Expansion

At a time when online education is seen as both a boon for cash-strapped colleges and universities and a crucial piece of the nation’s access and completion goals, institutions that are being sluggish about growing their online programs have no one to blame but themselves.

November 12, 2010

At a time when online education is seen as both a boon for cash-strapped colleges and universities and a crucial piece of the nation’s access and completion goals, institutions that are being sluggish about growing their online programs have no one to blame but themselves.

That is one of several findings of the Campus Computing Project and the second annual Managing Online Education study, a survey of 183 nonprofit, mostly public two- and four-year colleges that offer online programs, conducted by the Campus Computing Project and the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications.

“If you think about barriers to expansion, people in the past have said they’re contained -- that other people won’t let them do it, when in fact the data show that the barriers are internal,” said Kenneth C. Green, director of the Campus Computing Project.

They can’t blame accreditors, which only 16 percent of respondents said hindered their online ambitions; they can’t blame state regulators, who hampered just 17 percent of the colleges, nor federal student aid restrictions, which foiled 22 percent. Employer bias against online degrees and certificates appears mostly to have eroded into myth, with just 13 percent of colleges reporting that as a barrier. And despite the fact that nearly 75 percent of colleges cited resistance from their own faculty members as an impediment to online expansion, only 26 percent said union contracts stood in the way.

The biggest factors holding back the expansion of online programs at the 183 responding colleges? Lack of instructors and support personnel (61 percent) and budget cuts (56 percent). In a presumably related pattern, 67 percent reported having growth plans fettered by “[s]tudent demand for online courses which exceeds capacity to provide these courses.”

In other words, the pace at which colleges expand their online arms now depends largely on internal politics and how much money administrators can wrangle from their depleted coffers. And if there is opposition, the call is likely to be coming from inside the house.

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Many institutions see online expansion as a good way to increase tuition revenue in light of reduced giving, shrunken endowments, and stingy statehouses. But while online expansion might be less tedious and expensive than buying real estate and building dorms and classrooms, the infrastructure to "scale" online education well is still expensive, said Green, who also blogs for Inside Higher Ed. Given the state of institutional budgets, many colleges will be unable to invest as much this year to expand their online offerings as they might like to, even if they recognize the profit potential.

Online programs will still keep growing; 96 percent of respondents said they expected their institutions would expand their Web-based offerings over the next three years. The question is how quickly. Growth appears to be slowing slightly: over the last three years, 27 percent of colleges saw their online programs grow by 20 percent or more; only 13 percent predict that level of growth over the next three years.

Disabled Students Left Behind?

As online education continues to grow, assurances that online courses will be accessible to disabled students remain dubious. Only a quarter of the institutions surveyed put compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other rules promoting equity for handicapped students in the hands of a central office; the rest either had no campus policy for compliance (18 percent) or ceded responsibility for accommodating those students to individual faculty members (34 percent) or academic units (23 percent).

The fact that the colleges’ accessibility obligations are so rarely the dominion of a central administrative office might not inspire much confidence that disabled students are being cared for in online programs, said Green. “There’s a lot of 'ad-hockery' about ADA compliance,” he said. “And ad-hockery makes you vulnerable.”

Online courses have posed accessibility problems for years. "The vast majority of postsecondary institutions in the U.S. are targets for a complaint or litigation in regards to their almost total disregard for meeting the requirements for accessibility in their technology mediated programs and services,” wrote Ron Stewart, a technical adviser to the advocacy group AHEAD: Association on Higher Education and Disability, in an e-mail on Thursday. “Based on my own professional experience in working with many institutions it would be my estimate that over 80 percent of the software and technology-mediated systems used on today’s campuses present profound access challenges.”

The National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind sued Arizona State University over a pilot program designed to assess the educational uses of Amazon’s Kindle DX, leading the U.S. Justice Department to shut down Kindle pilots at three other institutions.

No one has sued a college over an online program yet, but the Justice Department has hinted in recent months that it will be scrutinizing the accessibility of online education in the near future.

Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, said that even the minority of institutions in the new survey that put ADA compliance in the hands of a central office might not be effectively protecting equal access for disabled students.

“My understanding is that even where universities have a central office to deal with ADA compliance, that office is not always consulted or given the authority to review policies and programs for accessibility. In other words, university policies and procedures don't put the office in the loop when new technologies and initiatives are discussed,” Danielsen wrote. “…Faculty members usually do their best to accommodate disabled students, but unfortunately this leads to inconsistent results.”

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