Lynn University’s tablet initiative is spreading online -- that is, its distance education programs will from next fall be delivered through tablets and at notably low prices.
The university’s Board of Trustees approved the plans on Oct. 22 -- two years to the day after President Obama and Mitt Romney clashed over foreign policy issues at Lynn’s Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center, an event that prompted Lynn to upgrade its IT infrastructure. The go-ahead for the revamped program highlights the breakneck pace at which Lynn has hurled itself into a tablet-centric future.
Since its moment in the national spotlight, Lynn has replaced textbooks with Apple’s iPads and iBooks, adopted iTunes U as its learning management system and built its own attendance and gradebook app. Its revamped distance education programs, launching next fall with seven degree options, will extend the tablet revolution to Lynn’s online students at a fraction of what the programs used to cost.
Fully online students will pay as little as $35,400 for a degree -- only a little more than a year's tuition at Lynn for education in person. For that price, Lynn will ship the students an iPad mini, which they will use to access the digital course content; file assignments; and interact with classmates.
Gregg Cox, vice president for academic affairs, said Lynn’s governance structure has enabled the university to pursue the tablet initiative. Lynn does not offer tenure, and most faculty members hold one-year contracts.
“We created an entire 60-credit core curriculum in one year,” Cox said. “That’s just unheard-of in higher education. Our faculty -- they’re not fractured, if you will. They’re not hung up on their departments, they’re not up in their ivory towers -- they’re here for the common good, which luckily is teaching students.”
The university now offers more than 500 courses in about 20 undergraduate programs through iTunes U -- Apple’s course management software -- involving about 100 faculty members, Cox said. Some of those courses will be converted to serve the distance education programs, condensed from 15 weeks to a more intensive 8 weeks. A university spokeswoman said faculty so far have produced 24 iBooks -- digital textbook replacements -- with another 10 in the works.
Lynn’s distance education programs, which launched in 1999, will remain traditional for one more semester. The students taking fully online courses today, most of whom are located in Florida, will be given the option to switch to the tablet version next fall, after which university president Kevin M. Ross said he expects enrollments could “easily double” from the current 250.
“Beyond that, the sky’s the limit,” Ross said. “We’re no longer place-bound.”
Ross declined to share specific growth targets, but Cox said he could see a future where students in distance education programs outnumber those on campus. The university has about 2,000 students in total today.
“If you look at the current demographics... the large pool is those adult students that have some credits but need to come back to school and earn those degrees,” Cox said. “For many of them, online programs are the best way for them to achieve their goals. As we bring to market our program, my suspicion is we probably will see eventually a lot more online students than face-to-face students.”
Residential students this academic year pay $32,800 in tuition alone, meaning fully online students will be able to earn a four-year degree for less than residential students pay for four years of room and board (which this year costs $10,900). In comparison, most other institutions charge the same in tuition no matter how the education is delivered, offering only savings on fees to fully online students. But despite the savings potential, Cox and Ross said they believe the two forms of delivery appeal to different types of students, meaning one hopefully won’t cannibalize the other’s enrollment.
“I think many institutions have priced their [online] credit hour the same as their on-ground," Ross said. "That doesn’t necessarily make sense for us.... They should cost what they cost. Why should we be charging significantly more than it costs?”
Cox pointed to the University of Florida, which hopes to attract first-time-in-college students to UF Online, its online education arm. Out of about 1,000 students, UF Online has been able to recruit 22 students who fall in the traditional 18-to-22 demographic. The numbers suggest those students would rather physically attend another institution in Florida than go to college online, Cox said.
“In some ways you may think that we are sort of working against ourselves, but I think the traditional undergraduate day student is not looking for an online degree,” Cox said. “That’s why they’re here.”
Ross said he believed Lynn’s faculty can handle its distance education enrollment doubling, but added that the university is making plans for further growth. A faculty committee is formulating a proposal for a full-time online faculty position, Cox said, and although those instructors would face slightly different expectations -- likely a heavier teaching load, could be located anywhere -- pay and benefits will be equal to those for faculty teaching face-to-face courses. Lynn may also hire more adjunct faculty located in South Florida.
“My philosophy is and really always has been [that] I’ve got this great group of faculty here who have gone through a tremendous amount of training in the last year and a half, and so my first choice is to use them,” Cox said. “If the numbers grow and we need more faculty, then we’ll bring them in.”
Lynn has already piloted tablets in distance education in its online M.B.A. program. The most challenging part of that pilot didn’t prove to be technical support, said Christian G. Boniforti, the university's chief information officer, but “things that IT folks aren’t familiar with, like mailing and working with FedEx and other partners.” Some of the roughly 100 iPads the university sent out arrived at students’ old addresses, for example.
On the positive side, forcing all students to use the same device means the support process is somewhat simplified, Boniforti said. Troubleshooting a single tablet can be much easier than having to deal with a number of different browsers and whether they are updated, not supported, or bogged down by malware, he said.
Apple’s latest major mobile software update, iOS 8, also introduced a handful of features Lynn is considering using in its programs, Boniforti said. Apps can now more easily talk to one another, meaning that as an instructor adds a due date to an assignment, iTunes U automatically creates a calendar notification. The latest iPad minis also come with Touch ID, a fingerprint sensor, which the university may use to prevent academic fraud.
“Down the road, it would be pretty neat right as I take an exam that I would have to fingerprint every 10-15 minutes to make sure I’m actually interacting with the exam,” Boniforti said.
Since the courses only last for eight weeks, a broken tablet potentially means missing a large part of the course. Lynn aims to have replacement units in students’ hands within two days of their flagging an issue, Boniforti said. The students’ data are stored in the cloud and can be restored to the new devices.
So far the number of tablets that have been repaired or replaced because of careless use has been “minuscule,” Boniforti said. “I would imagine that if an 18-year-old is responsible and motivated and makes sure that the device is working and in good shape, I would hope that that transfers to the adult population.”