The New York Times Company plans to continue its slow advance into the realm of higher education this fall. It announced today that it is teaming up with the University of Southern California to offer continuing education programs to try to tap a growing market of adults looking to pick up new skills.
What do Chemistry 101 or Introduction to European History have in common with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince or the latest singles from Green Day or 50 Cent?
They're all bestsellers in their domains. Education experts often wonder whether bestseller status among college courses might provide lessons about educational markets and planning, just as popularity shapes entertainment and cultural products. Such speculation has grown with the advent of online education. Some argue that by making the most popular courses virtual, colleges can slash costs, helping to pay for low enrollment courses.
The alternative has been to raise revenues for low-enrollment courses by adding enrollment. This "add seats" approach has become more attractive in the new world of online education. Which alternative makes more sense for colleges considering online versions of some courses?
Cost-cutting advocates suggest that great efficiencies may result from delivering online a small set of popular undergraduate courses. Courses such as Chemistry 101 or Introduction to European History would have large enrollments and "basic" curricula. These popular courses illustrate the "80-20 rule" -- 20 percent of a resource typically generates 80 percent of the possible benefits. Popular courses may not even constitute 20 percent of the catalogue's contents, yet they often represent 80 percent of enrollments. If that 80 percent can be served through automated, virtual means, that should release tremendous savings, offsetting the cost of courses that don't lend themselves as easily or cheaply to virtual delivery.
Sales data on books and music tracks cast marketing and planning issues in a new light. Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, describes a new phenomenon first noticed in Web-based retailing of pop culture products such as books and songs: Very low-volume sales -- typically associated with backlist items -- can add up over time to stupendously large total sales. Anderson calls these large totals the "Long Tail." In Internet marketing and flexible warehousing, Anderson says, the Long Tail results in aggregate possible sales that can rival or surpass the total sales of popular items. The more books or songs available for purchase, the bigger the market opportunity.
A conventional marketer might carve out space for known or likely bestsellers and concentrate on selling those units -- the 80-20 rule. Selling the 80 percent of products that appeal to the slimmest markets simply costs too much. But the virtual marketplace makes it possible to reduce overhead drastically. For the low marginal cost of adding non-bestsellers, a business can make major gains from trickle-like sales of an enormous, traditionally neglected body of products. Call it massive multiple-niche marketing.
In higher education, the Long Tail view suggests that an 80-20 rule overplays the importance and benefits of moving online the 20 percent of classes that draw the highest volume. If we can find effective, high quality ways to make bestseller courses virtual, there are good reasons to do so. But there is also a broad and deep market for all those smaller classes-not in the individual instances but in the aggregate. We know this because so many of those courses are offered by colleges and universities, and so many such classrooms are reasonably well populated. Surprisingly, the Long Tail perspective suggests that, with Web-based delivery, potential exists for great expansion in specialized subject areas, as long as the costs of instruction (course delivery) resemble or improve on current rates.
An important distinction separates Long Tails in pop culture from those in higher education. It's possible to cut delivery costs for "niche appeal" units in entertainment but not education. Technology has an equal effect on pricing for all entertainment products regardless of bestseller status; the same is not so of educational offerings, which are inherently more specialized and expensive. This cost imbalance occurs since we are less likely to move high-end, low-demand educational offerings to an automated or virtual delivery mode-precisely because they are higher-end, requiring more intensive instruction.
Even if we did recreate them for virtual delivery, it would be at great cost. This suggests that a potential for profitable Long Tails may be unlikely in highly specialized university-level courses. But if current trends are any indication, this difference could have a limited lifespan. Three factors could create a Long Tail for course offerings:
Growing demand for higher education beyond undergraduate and professional education. This factor is seen in the great success of continuing education programs, reflecting demand for degree and non-degree programs alike.
Continued and diverse attempts to improve the quality and delivery of higher education online, by traditional, non-traditional, and commercial institutions.
Even if these factors intensify, many challenges lie in the way of a Long Tail market. No one has set a standard for a salable unit of online education -- entire courses, elements of course materials, or something else altogether? Should those units even be sold per se? Some approaches to these issues include: Open access to self-contained courses (Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative ); open access to curricular materials organized by courses (MIT's OpenCourseWare); open access to curricular materials organized into course modules (Rice University's Connexions ); continuing education courses for sale (the AllLearn project of Yale, Stanford, and Oxford); and program courses for sale (the eCornell project).
What really distinguishes high and low enrollment courses? Does the distinction simply consist of enrollment size? Advocates of small-sized, traditional classes argue that a highly specialized course requires an intensively personal approach that even a maximally "high touch" online learning experience cannot provide.
Even if these challenges are met, it's far from clear that traditional colleges and universities would willingly help bring about a Long Tail online market in higher education. From educational and economic perspectives, the outcome would not necessarily be positive. In literature or music sales, rescuing the backlist means exposing new audiences to unknown or forgotten worlds. By contrast, online delivery of higher education's "backlist" might well hasten consolidation of the market. How many different courses on Beowulf or Mallarmé can attain even tiny market share? With a drastic focusing of such "sales," the market could consolidate around colleges offering the best specialized courses, spelling an unhappy fate for institutions unable to compete.
Still, the potential for a Long Tail lies dormant in courses that are not yet offered online but can be found at 2,400 U.S. institutions. Year after year, a wealth of such courses, in highly focused topics such as Tagalog, Random Matrix Theory, and African traditional religion, appear in scores of college catalogues. This indicates a clear and widespread interest among current students in courses on diverse, super-specialized, arcane subject matter. There is no telling what the potential is for additional audiences of adult and returning students.
The 80-20 rule, then, is not a fixed picture, if it holds at all. The backlist 80 percent of courses represent an enormous number of classroom seats in their current, traditional mode of course delivery-and possibly many more virtual seats, if the transition is ever successfully made to online delivery. We're not likely to capture 80 percent of classroom seats by putting online 20 percent of all courses (this was obvious anyway, given that most courses taken by undergraduates are not giant lecture courses). Efficiencies may be gained by concentrating on putting large enrollment courses online. But we must be sober about the extent of those efficiencies-and about what is left out when online offerings neglect the backlist.
Is it really possible to deliver highly specialized courses online at the same levels of quality as traditional formats? Perhaps -- competent online courses or materials abound for focused topics ranging from Akkadian to causal reasoning to the history of the Jazz Age. But in case it is too costly to build those assets, colleges should look at what they are getting from ostensibly low-cost online versions of popular courses-the vaunted 20 percent. Should they demand more than "satisfactory" and "efficient" as grades of quality in those online courses-and would meeting those greater demands cost more?
Although in principle an "add sales" approach based on a Long Tail may beat a "cut costs" approach, low enrollment courses are not being created for online delivery in great numbers -- a notable exception being at MIT, where course materials alone are being digitized. As long as costs and quality remain perceived barriers to digitizing highly specialized courses, a Long Tail scenario in higher education may be a ways off. But it's worth contemplating how such a scenario might arise, and what it might mean for distributors and students ("consumers") of university-level courses. A Long Tail in niche-interest courses could build revenue opportunities for colleges and universities, consolidate markets among institutions offering such courses, and transform how students choose among courses and programs.
Saul Fisher is director of fellowship programs at the American Council of Learned Societies. He is formerly a program officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where he directed the Teaching and Technology Program.
This column will provide Inside Higher Ed readers with advice on a range of strategy and financial issues facing colleges. Eduventures, a leading consulting services firm, has agreed to answer questions from readers. Questions for future columns may be submitted via e-mail. We hope this column provides an opening for all to seek consulting advice and to understand the way consultants approach issues.
Question: How can colleges best mix on-campus and online delivery of instruction?
Too many college and university leaders think, “We have an online program and we have a campus program, so we can probably just combine the two to create a hybrid program.” This usually doesn’t work well because online and on-campus programs often appeal to different people for different reasons, and the delivery challenges for each are also quite different.
We’ve seen some great successes, and a few spectacular failures, in the hybrid market model (in which 20-80 percent of content is delivered online). From these examples, we’ve learned that planning up front and being clear about objectives are preconditions for success. Institutions considering hybrid models for a program, or even several courses, must first create a “business plan” and clearly state what they want to achieve, which students they plan to serve, and how they plan to compete. When building this plan for your institution, you should keep the following in mind:
The Goal. Why are you considering a hybrid model? What is the business rationale? Are you trying to reach different, or more, students, or trying to solve space constraints? Are you doing it because you see an unmet need in your marketplace or because your competitors are going hybrid and you feel the need to keep up? Are you looking for a local, regional, or national audience? The national market is becoming quite competitive, and programs in this space are becoming more commodity like, so a program focusing on the regional or local market may position your program for success.
Philosophy. A program with 20 percent of delivery online and 80 percent on-campus is quite different from a program with 80 percent online and 20 percent on-campus, yet they both qualify as hybrid. Will you use the online component only for communication purposes or for content delivery as well? How will you use adjunct faculty members -- to create the content, deliver it, or both? The philosophy you choose should provide a blueprint or roadmap for how you will achieve your goals. Too often in our work, we have seen institutions miss this step -- they did not identify their philosophy before jumping into the hybrid model, and later found that it significantly impeded success. Without a philosophy, it is difficult to communicate the value proposition internally or externally, and it becomes challenging to make some of the difficult trade-offs inherent in any new venture.
Target Consumer. What type of consumer is your hybrid offering designed to attract? Adult learners tend to be more open to an online experience because it allows them to balance their professional and personal lives with their educational pursuits. Traditional students -- those aged 18 to 24 – tend to want face-to-face, classroom-based learning. Corporations may prefer a little of both, to allow employees to work and study at the same time. Segmenting the market by consumer types and needs -- adult, traditional, current, new, credit, non-credit -- and designing programs that fit these segments and needs are important early steps.
Integration. Integrating between bricks and clicks is probably the single biggest point of failure for institutions pursuing a hybrid model. Where does campus-based learning begin and end relative to the online component? How do student services coordinate with these components? What do you need to change about your student information system? The challenges range from technology and training, to content design and delivery, to student services. Be sure to prepare by thinking through the entire system and how it will affect the students, the faculty, and the staff.
Programs. Some courses and programs have done very well online and would be logical candidates for a hybrid model (e.g., business, IT, education), but not every course or program is well-suited to a hybrid approach. It’s best to begin with an audit of existing programs, dissecting the curriculum to determine how a hybrid model might be applied. At the same time, you should do an external evaluation of market demand and supply to determine where the best opportunities are for introducing new programs. Again, if you consider local versus national distribution, you may find that, on a local level, a particular hybrid program may provide a competitive advantage in attracting students.
Core Competencies. What is your institution known for? What do you do better than most of your peer schools? Focus your efforts on maximizing the benefit of these core competencies and consider outsourcing those areas that are not strengths, such as marketing, lead management, student services, or technology.
Faculty Buy-In. Faculty members have a large stake in content delivery because most of the time they supply the curriculum. Whether you plan to offer incentives for faculty to adapt content to a hybrid model or to outsource this function, faculty should be involved in the discussions.
Hybrid courses and programs represent more of an evolution than a revolution in educational content delivery. Hybrid delivery represents a natural progression for many campus-based institutions to investigate and perhaps pursue, and often can serve as a competitive advantage in reaching a wider student population. Rigorously thinking through process design and delivery components and planning carefully for implementation will make the difference between those programs that succeed in the hybrid arena and those that invest a lot of resources with little to show for it.
Kristin L. Greene
Kristin L. Greene is a senior member of Eduventures' consulting practice. Her most recent engagements involve analyzing growth opportunities and devising market entry strategies for a leading for-profit institution, evaluating geographic expansion for a private two-year college, and assessing opportunities in the K-12 sector.
Submitted by Laura Rein on January 5, 2007 - 4:00am
I run a library at a university of nearly 22,000 students, but I know that two-thirds of them will never step foot in our library. Ditto for hundreds of our professors. These students and faculty are either teaching or learning online or at one of our over 100 extended campuses worldwide.
So when I read any of the slew of reports that come out about the library “as a place,” I worry a bit. What do these on-site spaces mean to our growing population of distance education students and professors? The concept of the "library as place" was most recently reviewed in a report published by the Council on Library and Information Resources entitled "The Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space." Few would argue with the authors that the library is vitally important to higher education institutions in helping them achieve their mission. Indeed, if designed or renovated around the institution’s learning principles as outlined in an issue of Educause Review, the library can offer spaces and services to support virtually all of the latest learning theory principles. As summarized by Colleen Carmean and Jerry Haefner, deep learning occurs when it is “social, active, contextual, engaging, and student-owned.” What better place on campus to provide social, active, contextual, engaging, and student-owned environments than the library with its wired reading and study spaces, reference and access services, collaborative study rooms, rich print and digital collections, media facilities and -- in many cases -- cafes, information commons, conference space, classrooms, displays, and art installations.
How can libraries translate the benefits that our physical libraries offer to on-campus students and professors to serve our distance education students and faculty members in an equitable way? I believe we can do this through careful planning during building and renovation projects, through the creation or revamping of services and collections, and through the creation of specialized services to promote community and active learning.
During library building and renovation projects, space and technical infrastructures should be planned in a new way. Private office space for professionals, for example, is more important when a librarian could be on a lengthy, complicated phone call with a student overseas. Ample processing space is necessary for paraprofessionals providing document delivery and electronic reserves service. Growth space for developing print and media collections and robust technical infrastructure for access to the library’s digital resources also take on new importance in a distributed campus network.
Many other changes are needed that don’t have to do with physical structures but with services and resources that have real costs and need to be part of the library budget. For example, creation or revamping of services and collections should be undertaken with the overarching goal of providing services and resources to distance education students and faculty that are the equivalent of those provided on-campus. Services might include, for example, online request forms and second-day delivery of books and media from the main library to the requestor’s home or office with prepaid return labels; or online faculty reservations of videos/DVDs with delivery to the faculty’s home, office, or campus (if any). Several options might be offered for reference service, including live chat; Web conferencing with the capability to share screens; e-mail with a guaranteed 24-hour response; or low-tech, low-cost toll-free telephone assistance, which some patrons may prefer. Options for posting required or suggested readings might include a full-scale electronic reserves system or assistance with scanning and posting items to a courseware page, university portal, or Web page. Increasingly, libraries are taking a leadership role on campus in educating faculty about copyright compliance, while ensuring that their faculty may make full use of the rights accorded under the fair use provision of copyright law.
Providing opportunities for information literacy instruction to distance education students can be challenging but is possible through a variety of means. Options range from designing an online credit course to creating a series of online tutorials. The latter may be home-grown or adapted at no charge from established sites such as the Texas Information Literacy Tutorial. Webcasting technology offers the opportunity to “visit” remote classrooms at the request of the faculty member and tailor an instruction session to a particular assignment. All that is needed is a camera, computer, Internet connection, and Web conferencing software.
Providing equivalent resources to distance education students has a few challenges but is increasingly becoming easier. The number of academic databases with full-text content is growing exponentially. In many cases, it is possible to use existing funds by shifting resources from print to online. In other cases, consortiums may reduce the costs for a particular institution. Students love full-text articles but appear to be slow in adopting electronic books. If e-books are provided as a supplement to print resources available via document delivery, however, and marketed effectively as a database of information rather than as discrete titles to be read cover-to-cover, they can be useful.
Our challenge increasingly is not the inability to provide sufficient online resources but to make them the resources of choice by our students. We must compete with Internet search engines such as Google to market the quality of our resources and to make them as easy to search as possible. Software tools such as federated searching, which enables searching across many databases, and open URL resolvers, which enable more direct linking to full-text sources, go a long way in making our resources easier to use. However, we need to work with these software producers on continuing enhancements to these products and on new products that make research more seamless.
Perhaps most challenging for libraries in serving distance education students and faculty is creating a sense of community to promote learning. Some libraries are experimenting with blogs to address this, but these seem to have limited reach and focus. One promising direction, however, is helping distance education professors to promote community and active learning. The new library at my institution, Webster University, includes a Faculty Development Center that supports both on-campus faculty and distance education faculty. Resources for off-campus faculty include a discussion forum, where faculty members may discuss any topic on teaching and learning; share their expertise with each other; review new techniques to improve learning outcomes; discuss instructional technology software/hardware; or address common learning issues. Other resources include a new faculty orientation course, an active learning handbook, and most recently, live Web conferencing with a staff of instructional support specialists to offer individualized instructional support to faculty regardless of their location. Many institutions may find similar ways to serve the teaching and learning needs of their faculty in ways that benefit students.
In the last decade, almost a half-billion dollars per year have been invested in new or renovated academic libraries. With this rate of investment, it is imperative that we ensure that these new and renovated libraries meet the needs of our growing distance education population. We can do this in many ways -- by investing in new resources, staff, and services; or by leveraging existing resources (in some cases across departments) in creative ways -- but do it we must.
Laura Rein is dean of University Library and co-director of the Faculty Development Center at Webster University. ReinÂ Laura co-teaches an online seminar for the Association of College and Research Libraries entitled “All Users are Local: Bringing the Library Next Door to the Campus Worldwide.”
Recently, while doing some Internet research on the curriculum of programs that might compete with ours, I found myself on a Web site that refers prospective students to a variety of online degree programs. I won’t use its real name here, and will instead call it COLLEGEFORNOTHING.COM, but you’ve probably seen the services of entities like this when you use search engines. Since this was not what I was looking for, I closed the browser window, only to be offered the chance to chat about my educational and professional goals with a “live agent:” “Wait! A live agent is here to assist you with any questions you might have about online universities.” I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for free advice. Here is the full transcript of that conversation with the purportedly live agent, the epicene-named Morgan:
Morgan: Hey wait! We hate to see you leave! It only takes a minute to fill out our simple form, and you'll receive information about degree programs designed to meet your needs as a working adult. CLICK HERE to return.
Morgan: Just type 'HI' or 'Hello' in the space below to let me know you are there.
Me: Hi Morgan. I'm hoping you can help me.
Morgan: Hi, thanks for chatting with me.... to return to COLLEGEFORNOTHING.COM, just CLICK HERE.
Morgan: E-learning is driven by student-centered learning-so you get to decide how you work best.
Me: Do you have those degrees where you just pay your money and get your Ph.D.?
Morgan: Maybe you want to study at the same time each day for a set time. Maybe you need the support of other students via online forums and e-mail.
Me: That's not exactly what I asked.
Me: What programs can I do online?
Morgan: We have the following major categories of degree available: Business, Criminal Justice, Culinary Arts, Teaching, Engineering, Graphic Design, Healthcare, Hospitality Management, Legal/Paralegal, Liberal Arts, Nursing, Religious Studies, Science and Math, Technology.
Me: Culinary Arts? How do you teach cooking online?
Morgan: Earn your degree while you work. Distance learning is tailor made for busy working adult [sic]. You can now study on your own time, at your own pace, and out of the convenience of your own home.
Me: What e-learning platforms do you use?
Morgan: If you want a career in the culinary world, a formal education is the ideal way to get started. CLICK HERE to see all Culinary Degrees.
Me: Is there a hands-on component to the culinary arts degree?
Morgan: With technology and current events constantly changing, college textbooks become quickly outdated. Online education has the advantage -- it's constantly on the cutting edge. For students and teachers alike, the Internet is their resource.
Me: I have a lot of questions--please try to keep up.
Morgan: Can I provide you with a link back to COLLEGEFORNOTHING.COM?
Morgan: This whole process is quick and easy to get going, so why not start right now?
Morgan: Discover the best way to pay for your online education. Our search service will find the schools that fit your needs.
Me: No, I have specific programmatic questions that you're not addressing.
Me: Can I just give you some money and you'll give me a degree?
Morgan: I'll try my best to answer your question. If the question is regarding a specific degree program or school, please fill out a short form for that school.
Me: Also, what religions are covered in religious studies?
Morgan: Remember if you looking to advance your education and jump-start your career then let us give you FREE college information! CLICK HERE to return.
Me: Can I become a minister?
Morgan: A religious studies degree program, whatever its focus, has the purpose of intellectually challenging its students -- of guiding you in the study of the diverse tenets and traditions of faith around the globe. As the world grows, so does the need and opportunity for the study of religion. CLICK HERE to see all Religious Studies Degrees.
Me: This has been illuminating--I hope the faculty is as well informed.
Me: Thank you for all your help.
Morgan: The process is short, simple, and free, and an enrollment advisor from the school will be better able to answer your specific questions and find the perfect degree program for you. CLICK HERE to get started or ask away.
Morgan: You're very welcome :)
Me: I feel I have the tools to take the next step in my educational journey.
Morgan: Or maybe you find you can really express yourself using chat boards and instant messaging, whereas you were too shy to speak up in a classroom.
Me: You're a great counselor -- can I hire you away from your job?
Morgan: With technology and current events constantly changing, college textbooks become quickly outdated.
Morgan: No this is not a scam. We have helped out many people in the past, let us help you out!
Morgan: Online education has the advantage -- it's constantly on the cutting edge. For students and teachers alike, the Internet is their resource.
Morgan: Simply CLICK HERE to get started!
I decided to share this transcript because it would be perfect for this time of year as we wade through piles of papers to grade. But I leave more troubled than amused. In our online world, how many prospective students are reassured, comforted or directed by Morgan’s college advising?
Jonathan Deutsch is assistant professor of tourism and hospitality at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York.
Don't worry—I'm not clinically depressed or gravely ill. None of my pets or loved ones passed away last week. I've been thinking about death because I've been watching Shelly Kagan (Clark Professor of Philosophy at Yale University) talk about death, at open.yale.edu. That's where Yale has posted a complete series of his lectures from Philosophy 176 -- i.e. "Death" -- as part of the Open Yale Course project. There are also courses on astronomy, psychology, religious studies, physics and more, all for free. It's pretty cool.
Shelly (he tells his students to call him that) lectures on a wooden stage in an auditorium-style classroom, in front of an old-fashioned chalkboard. He favors jeans and black Converse All-Star-type sneakers, and likes to sit cross-legged on his desk as he explains Plato's views on the immortality of the soul. He's a talented lecturer and I appreciate what he has to say. I'd like to think that I'm wiser having watched the course, that my powers of reasoning are a little more nimble, that my inevitable death makes a little more sense.
And yet, I would like one more thing from Yale. A small thing, but an important one.
I would like a grade.
I recognize that -- unlike sending video to my computer over the Internet -- the marginal cost of giving me a grade is not zero. So I'd be willing to pay. Student grades in Philosophy 176 are primarily determined by three papers. Shelly says grad students do the grading, under his supervision. So I think a fair price would be whatever amount of time it takes them to grade my papers, as a percentage of their total working hours, multiplied by their annual compensation, plus Yale's standard administrative overhead, with a little extra for Shelly's supervision and initial course development costs thrown in. Back of the envelope, I'm guessing this should amount to several hundred dollars, but if it's more or less, just let me know.
And if my grades on the papers are good enough, I would like Yale to mail me an official document of some sort recognizing this fact. I would like credit, in other words, for my new understanding of death. Credit that I could apply, if I wish, toward a degree at Yale, or any other institution of higher learning that will have me.
I'm joking -- sort of. The odds of Yale actually taking my money, grading my papers, and granting credit are rather long. And I understand why.
Universities like Yale are built on exclusivity and the status it brings. Only the best scholars can teach there; only the best students can attend. For nearly all of the first 300 years of Yale's existence, there was no real alternative -- the only way to get a Yale education was to live in New Haven, and there are limits to how large a physical university campus can be. This was to Yale's benefit, because exclusivity turned out to be a great business. Yale has become immensely rich and famous over the centuries, and it sells the perfect product for the 21st Century: branded intellectual property. Kind of like Microsoft, but without having to pay taxes or file forms with the SEC.
But even as information technology is changing our economy in ways that make exclusive college degrees ever more valuable, it's also giving institutions like Yale new opportunities to be less exclusive, by educating people at a distance. This creates an ethical dilemma for Yale and its ilk. Hoarding intellectual resources in an era where they can be distributed far and wide at no cost seems selfish and counter to the spirit of higher education. But distributing those resources too far and wide could undermine the exclusivity on which Yale's fame and fortune are based.
The Open Course Web site is an attempt to split the difference. Yale has clearly thought the implications of this through, which is why the fine print says "Open Yale Courses does not grant degrees or certificates" and "Its purpose is not to duplicate a Yale education." Yale's approach -- free courses, but no credit -- is consistent with similar efforts at other universities, such as MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative and the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon.
I don't doubt that the intent was not to duplicate a Yale education. But the question of whether it actually does duplicate a Yale education seems open to question.
As near as I can tell, taking "Death" consists of four discrete activities: listening to Shelly lecture, doing the assigned readings, attending discussion sections, and writing three papers. The experience of the first two can be replicated perfectly at a distance, and the fourth could be, if Yale so chose. That leaves the discussion sections, which I'm sorry I missed. They could, of course, be replicated imperfectly, via chat room or what have you, at very little cost, and I'm told such features are coming soon.
The question of how much I missed by being left out of the discussions, however, can be determined empirically. That's what grades are for. If my three papers aren't good enough, then don't give me credit. If they are, then the imperfect duplication of a Yale education was, by definition, close enough.
There are obviously some limits to all of this. The number of people who could theoretically watch Shelly's discourse on death is essentially unrestricted. The number of papers Yale can grade is not. But it's surely greater than the number Yale is grading now. The costs would be paid from new revenues, and I'm guessing Yale could hire instructors or others more than competent to grade.
The world is extremely large and, comparatively speaking, Yale is very small. It could easily credential ten times, a hundred times more students over the Internet than it currently does in New Haven. Students would have more incentives to take great Yale courses, and the number of valuable Yale-certified learners would increase. This would rankle those who value Yale's exclusivity over the bounty of knowledge, culture, and insight the university could potentially provide. But that's a morally suspect position. Who cares what such people think?
Writing in the New York Times a few years before he died, famous Yale alumnus William F. Buckley defended legacy admissions policies by noting that "there are tribal instincts in life" and "colleges and universities are part of life." True enough. The question is whether Yale and other fantastically wealthy colleges that husband their precious brand names will continue to act on those instincts, or will instead take the new opportunities that technology provides to help as many people as they can.
My dear friend Ina Jackson used to say, “Jane, we need to begin working those online courses. That’s the next thing they’re going to want.” I would reply, “Ina, I teach because I like people. When I can’t work with people any more, I’ll do something else.” What I did, in fact, was become certified to teach Orton-Gillingham, the intensive one-to-one method of teaching dyslexics to read that is the foundation of every contemporary phonetic reading program. It can’t be done online.
Obviously, online courses are a fine option for a lot of reasons. In fact, I’m enrolled in an online Ph.D. program right now because I don’t want to drive an hour each way to take classes at the nearest place offering a Ph.D. in my discipline. It doesn’t have a program that I’m interested in, either. So I’m glad online education is available.
As I work through the courses, though, I run into that irritating American love affair with the new. People keep posting discussions about how wonderful online courses are and what must be wrong with all those people who aren’t taking them. And I’m finding the assumption is that, of course, we are all planning to teach online ourselves. (It’s an education Ph.D.)
No, I’m not. I like people. And the more I participate in online learning, the more I understand why this is a good option for some people and a disastrous option for others. Unfortunately, our educational history is to attack the status quo and club it to death with the new. I am not the only person who remembers clearly how proud I was to be able to read, “Run, Spot, run!” No, I was not bored. I was thrilled that I could read this all by myself. And no grownup had ever read it to me, either! (No grownup would be such a fool.) Of course I didn’t go on reading Dick and Jane for very long. But someone with a Ph.D. in education decided those books bored 50 percent of the children, so the 50 percent I belonged to lost out. Kids don’t read Dick and Jane anymore. I’m worried that our infatuation with online learning will similarly get out of hand, making in-person courses difficult to find.
We all know about the time management and self-discipline issues that make online learning hard for some people. However, online learning won’t work for everyone for more reasons than those.
I work in a rural area where many of my students can’t afford computers. Some can’t afford an Internet hookup, and some, who have an Internet hookup, keep having it cut off for non-payment of bills. In the late ‘80s, my friend Molly was furious that her high school son’s class was told that no one could be an honors student who didn’t have a computer. If we insist everyone must own computers and take online courses, we’re pushing the people who most need education even further down the ladder.
Moreover, when you live in the North Country and are at the mercy of the National Grid, you can’t count on the electricity, especially in the winter. When the local weather is bad, the local schools close and the teachers know what’s going on. However, the headquarters of my online university are over 1,000 miles away. They don’t know what’s happening here, and if I lose electricity for 3 or 4 days (not unheard of), I can’t let them know. I can’t even get into the site to do my homework.
Some people can’t type. Responding to at least four discussions a week, in addition to homework, is hard enough for someone like me who types 100 words a minute; I can’t imagine doing it if I had to hunt and peck. Furthermore, students more proficient in speaking than writing really lose in online courses. The entire emphasis is on what they do poorly, with no chance to show what they do well.
In fact, with all the attention paid to Howard Gardner’s intelligences, I don’t understand why we insist that everyone be taught by a standard method and be measured by a single standard, regardless of the learning context or medium. The problem is more acute with online learning because the hyperlinks are immutable. Translation: you can’t (legally) change how the Web site is put together, and if your mind doesn’t work the way that programmer’s mind works, you’re in trouble. When you give me a textbook, I can open it at the back, the front, or the middle. I can rip out pages, if I want; I can write in it; I can read the titles and sub-titles, I can manipulate it. I can’t manipulate those hyperlinks -- I have to follow them the way the programmer laid them down. Even the instructor can’t change the links, which is why several of us did an assignment on the syllabus that the instructor canceled but can’t delete. He assumed that if it wasn’t listed in the turn-in section, we’d know it wasn’t due. While some people find that online courses present the ultimate in flexible tools, others, like me, find hyperlinks confining.
Different minds process differently. My training has taught me a lot about how different minds process information. I once had the great privilege of teaching a dyslexic young man to read. He described to me how he can visualize and manipulate images in his mind. “It’s easy,” he said. No wonder he’s so good at his job, which involves medical imaging devices. When he sees the pictorial result, he has a mental image of what it looks like in three dimensions and what changes will look like. I have no idea what he’s talking about. When I look at a road map, I see lines. In fact, I sometimes put the map down on the floor and stand on it to figure out whether to turn right or left. However, I can tell from the design of my online courses that the person who designed the hyperlinks has the kind of mind that plans by clustering bubbles. I don’t. I taught Brian to read in the way that worked with his mind, but the person who programmed my course links has no such option.
I remember people by their presence, not their names. I look at my gradebook from three semesters back and go, “Huh?” at the names, but I’ll run into a student and say, “Yes, I remember you. You were in my 101 three years ago in that awful basement room; you always sat under the window and you wrote that really interesting paper on military intelligence.” Online, all I see are names. We’re up to about 800 posts in the “discussion” section -- a lot of it is chit-chat -- so when I remember that I want to add something to what I said to someone last week, all I have is 25 names and 800 posts to scroll through. I can’t remember who said what, so I don’t bother.
An important feature of Orton-Gillingham is the emphasis on multi-sensory learning. It’s the hardest thing for most O-G tutors I know to practice, and the more I do it, the more I realize how important it is. “Uh!” I’ll say to a student I’m working with privately, as I double over with my arms across my stomach. “Uh! It’s the sound you make when you get hit in the stomach and you bend over and look just the like letter U that makes that sound.” One semester I could watch one of my dyslexic students gently touch his stomach every time he sounded out a new word with a short U. When I teach description in the winter, I bring in cinnamon sticks. “Shut your eyes and smell. Taste. Listen. Write down the words that come to your mind. Use all your senses.” (In the spring, we go outside and, like Ferdinand, smell the flowers.)
Online learning is uni-sensory. You look. Period. You’re not even required to read out loud, so the oral/aural component is missing. (“Read the assignment out loud,” I said to a student in the tutoring center of an assignment that appeared impossible. “Oh!” he said halfway through, having missed the essential clause when he read it silently.) They try to vary things with cute little videos with the canned speeches. Having sat in a classroom mesmerized by the words and actions of brilliant lecturers -- Helen Vendler, Margaret Miles, Elaine Scarry, Sol Gittelman, James Kugel -- I know those canned things have as much in common with teaching as cardboard has with a brick wall.
Online learning is a wonderful tool. It works well for some people. Some of us endure it. And for some, like my wonderful, dyslexic friend Lynn, who mourns the fact that she had no option but to take an online course and ruin her grade-point-average with a B-, it doesn’t work at all. When the time comes to enroll in a Ph.D. program, she’s planning to move to where she can attend classes because she knows exactly how she learns. Assuming, that is, that on-site classes are still available.
Jane Arnold is the reading specialist and assistant professor of English at Adirondack Community College.