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.
It was September of my first year as assistant professor at a liberal arts university when I read the announcement about teaching a summer online class. Summer seemed a long way off and the idea of the extra money I could earn was enticing. (My new baby, new mortgage, and the ever-lamented low pay of assistant professors weighed heavily on my mind.) As an avid user of Blackboard, I felt more than well-prepared for the task of teaching online and I thought it would be fun to challenge my teaching skills by depending entirely on the Internet to communicate class material to my students. Additionally, I was delighted to be able to teach students a seminar in my specialty area, cognitive neuroscience of memory. My university offered extensive course development and online training, including an assigned instructional designer for the entire process, so I fearlessly signed on for the adventure.
As I faithfully attended the monthly training meetings for Just in Time Technology (ex: how to use Skype) and for Course Design (ex: what is the conversion of 14 weeks pacing into a 30 day class), it began to dawn on me that I had underestimated the time and preparation required for my online course. I was one of a handful of new faculty who had added summer teaching to their first year obligations. As we sat in our classes and were shown the innovations of the online veterans, I doubt I was the only one who was feeling overwhelmed with bells and whistles. The online teaching veterans had planned every detail from music clips to the customized picture that would be shown behind the course title when students logged in. I learned that there are more than three ways to present a syllabus electronically, that I should probably post a video introduction of myself, and that the bar for creativity is set very high when an origami project can be successfully taught online. I had confidently thought I knew a lot about technology but I admit I had never considered such intricacies as whether presenting exam questions one-at-a-time or all on one page resulted in better student performance and ensured protection against cheating. As a cognitive neuroscientist, I know quite a bit about learning and memory but my mind was boggled by pedagogical concepts like “visual arguments” and “muddiest points,” and by the practice of making “concept maps” out of course material. As the summer crept closer and closer, I started to think that I had made a tremendous mistake.
A month before the class was supposed to start, I finally buckled down and decided to strive for simple and leave the major innovations for the next round of online teaching. I planned my calendar, finalized my syllabus, created my assignments, and most importantly, customized the course Web site (without a customized log-in picture). On the first day of class, I nervously checked (repeatedly) to see who had logged in and what areas they had visited and I worried once again that I was overloading myself since I had only recently finished an energy-zapping spring semester. For many of my students, this was also a new experience as my university is a traditional, residential institution, but the first day went by with only a few hitches and panicked e-mails. The second went by without any problems. This pattern held throughout the whirlwind of the course and then, suddenly, it was over. When I finally had a chance to reflect and read over student evaluations, I realized – shockingly – that teaching online my first year had actually been a great learning experience for both me and my students rather than a quick and easy way to earn some extra money. Here’s my take on online teaching:
Reducing the amount of content does not mean reducing rigor for students or work for me. Like many others who have never taught online, I had entered this experience thinking that online courses were a little bit “fluffy.” I have a newfound respect for my fellow online professors. While my online course had fewer total journal articles than I would have expected my 14 week course to read, the standards I set for my online class were just as challenging as for my traditional classes. I was pleased to find that most of my students were able to meet these standards and a few even surpassed them.
Online classes monopolize time, but it’s worth it. My online class took up more of my time than any one of my on-campus classes does in a regular semester. Because I was teaching in a new venue and because I could not be physically present to teach my students, I found myself living on the discussion boards and AOL instant messenger (apologies to my family!). This was particularly true because many of my students were not psychology majors – or science majors of any kind – so they needed me to set a foundation for them. Asking them to learn about concepts like long term potentiation and the role of the hippocampus in memory meant that I spent hours each day monitoring the discussion, redirecting threads, emphasizing important points, and guiding/prodding their intellectual development. The good news is that this paid off, according to student feedback and performance.
Students can learn just as effectively online as in a traditional classroom, with some tweaks. I normally encourage a lot of class discussion and I give immediate verbal feedback so I was worried about how this would be possible online. It turns out that discussion boards work really well for this but you have to be vigilant about monitoring (see above). I would post discussion prompts and students would respond to the prompts, or post about their own insights. Writing so consistently with frequent feedback and being able to see their own thoughts written out helped students to steadily improve the quality of their writing. Students were required to ground their comments in the context of the readings and to support their comments with evidence from the readings. The distinction between posting an “I think X” comment and an “I think X because Y, Z, & Q” was a real challenge for the students but I found it is easier for students to write logically than it is for them to speak logically in an in-class discussion. It was exciting to see their intellectual growth and the improvement in their scientific writing ability as the course progressed.
You can create a safe and open classroom dynamic without being in a classroom. Both my students and I thought that the anonymity and lack of group meetings would make the class unnatural and lonely for each individual. Many students commented that they thought they’d feel isolated from their classmates since they would not see them physically. Instead, the discussion board allowed them to interact with their classmates and to “feel like [it] was a real class.” Posting an initial introduction and then posting daily afterward resulted in class cohesiveness even though the students never saw each other face-to-face. At the same time, the lowered inhibition of posting online freed students to make bold statements and to disagree (politely) about research conclusions, which made for wonderful discussion.
Project collaboration is not a good idea in an online class. Although I am usually a champion of group work because it mimics the collaboration that is key to scientific progress, I took a leap and required students to work independently on journal article presentations. I presented the first journal article and then let the students choose their own article for presentation. Viewing an individual student’s attempt to explain primary literature allowed me to quickly ascertain and target gaps in learning. I might have missed those gaps if the student had worked in a group because someone would have taken up the slack for the member who was falling behind. Fortunately, most students extracted a substantial amount of knowledge for the topic on which they presented (as evidenced by their exam performance and discussion board posts) and many expressed pride in their newfound expertise. Student presenters in each topic unit also monitored the discussion boards with me and responded to their classmates’ posts which allowed peer-to-peer teaching to take place.
Although I am a relative novice in the teaching arena, I appreciated the chance to revive my teaching mojo. I was forced to be creative about how to present course material and ensure that my students had a solid understanding of the information. I also realized I needed to revise my opinion of online teaching and those who participate in it. I now know that online courses are not a pale and lifeless version of traditional courses or worse, a “pay for an A” scam in which everyone teaches him/herself and everyone gets a good grade. Online courses can be distinctive and worthwhile ways of teaching in their own right.
Amy Overman is assistant professor of psychology at Elon University.
A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Education released a report that looked at 12 years' worth of education studies, and found that online learning has clear advantages over face-to-face instruction.
The study, "An Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies," stated that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”
Except for one article, on this Web site, you probably didn’t hear about it -- and neither did anyone else.
But imagine for a moment that the report came to the opposite conclusion. I’m sure that if the U.S. Department of Education had published a report showing that students in online learning environments performed worse, there would have been a major outcry in higher education with calls to shut down distance-learning programs and close virtual campuses.
I believe the reason that the recent study elicited so little commentary is due to the fact that it flies in the face of the biases held by some across the higher education landscape. Yet this study confirms what those of us working in distance education have witnessed for years: Good teaching helps students achieve, and good teaching comes in many forms.
We know that online learning requires devout attention on the part of both the professor and the student -- and a collaboration between the two -- in a different way from that of a face-to-face classroom. These critical aspects of online education are worth particular mention:
Greater student engagement: In an online classroom, there is no back row and nowhere for students to hide. Every student participates in class.
Increased faculty attention: In most online classes, the faculty’s role is focused on mentoring students and fostering discussion. Interestingly, many faculty members choose to teach online because they want more student interaction.
Constant access: The Internet is open 24/7, so students can share ideas and “sit in class” whenever they have time or when an idea strikes -- whether it be the dead of night or during lunch. Online learning occurs on the student’s time, making it more accessible, convenient, and attainable.
At Walden University, where I am president, we have been holding ourselves accountable for years, as have many other online universities, regarding assessment. All universities must ensure that students are meeting program outcomes and learning what they need for their jobs. To that end, universities should be better able to demonstrate -- quantitatively and qualitatively -- the employability and success of their students and graduates.
Recently, we examined the successes of Walden graduates who are teachers in the Tacoma, Wash., public school system, and found that students in Walden teachers’ classes tested with higher literacy rates than did students taught by teachers who earned their master’s from other universities. There could be many reasons for this, but, especially in light of the U.S. Department of Education study, it seems that online learning has contributed meaningfully to their becoming better teachers.
In higher education, there is still too much debate about how we are delivering content: Is it online education, face-to-face teaching, or hybrid instruction? It’s time for us to stop categorizing higher education by the medium of delivery and start focusing on its impact and outcomes.
Recently, President Obama remarked, “I think there’s a possibility that online education can provide, especially for people who are already in the workforce and want to retrain, the chance to upgrade their skills without having to quit their job.” As the U.S. Department of Education study concluded, online education can do that and much more.
Jonathan Kaplan is president of Walden University.
While seeking to make college more affordable and accessible, the Obama administration has launched a worrisome but largely unnoticed assault upon the nation’s publishers and the vibrant market in online learning. The U.S. House has approved a White House-backed provision to provide $500 million to develop free, and “freely available,” online college courses.
The administration is pushing forward with its trademark certitude; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan humbly suggested last week that the administration’s American Graduation Initiative is the 21st century counterpart to Abraham Lincoln’s Morrill Act and to the landmark post-World War II GI Bill.
Duncan is particularly enamored with the $500 million to develop the “Online Skills Laboratory,” in which the federal government will “invite” colleges, publishers and “other institutions” to create online courses for Uncle Sam in a variety of unspecified areas. The feds will then make the courses freely available and encourage institutions of higher education to offer credit for them.
The proposal is both short-sighted and destructive. It’s one thing to encourage providers to develop ”open source” wares and to promote measures that encourage publishers, colleges and universities to reduce costs and save students money. But it’s another thing entirely for the federal government to use taxpayer dollars to provide services that will undercut those offered by self-sustaining private enterprises.
First off, it’s not clear what problem the administration hopes to solve. Online courses already exist and are offered by an array of publishers and public and private institutions. Access to online courses is hardly an issue. Online enrollment grew from 1.6 million students in 2002 to 3.9 million in 2007, when the figure equaled more than 20 percent of total enrollment at all U.S. degree-granting institutions. U.S. News and World Report reports that nearly 1,000 higher education institutions provide distance learning. For-profit online providers reported that online enrollment was up more than 25 percent from summer 2008 to 2009.
More than half a dozen major textbook publishers, including Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Cengage, W.W. Norton & Co., and John Wiley & Sons, as well as hundreds of smaller providers, develop and distribute online educational content. To take one example, Pearson’s “MyMathLab” is a self-paced customizable online course that the University of Alabama uses to teach online math to more than 10,000 students a year. Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium, says that new course development is not a “terribly high need,” and “I’d rather see more of the money go into scholarships for online learning than reinventing courses that have already been invented.”
Now, I’m as skeptical of big publishing as most, and make no claims for the quality of any particular product. But the point is that exactly the kinds of online courses and materials that Duncan and the House are calling for already exist. If Duncan’s claim is that somehow these same providers or new providers will deliver a better-quality product when hired by Uncle Sam, he needs to make that case.
Further, if there is such urgency to act, it is hard to understand why the administration wants to launch a federally directed effort to develop new materials rather than find ways to leverage those that exist.
What is it that federal dollars will buy that isn’t already available? As Tom Allen, CEO of the Association of American Publishers, has noted, “State-of-the-art, market tested and validated educational materials are already available and in use by millions of students at virtually every public and private college campus in America…. Why spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for the government to attempt to replicate products that already exist?” Sure, Allen is an interested party here, but that doesn’t make the observation any less true.
If the administration is concerned about cost, cost-cutting new providers like StraighterLine illustrate that the efficiencies created by new technologies and delivery systems are already allowing some providers to start offering dramatically cheaper instruction.
Today, the chokepoint is often not the lack of existing online courses or materials but the fact that colleges and universities offer them at prices that approximate those charged to students enrolled in more costly traditional instruction. Of course, this stickiness in price has been due to credentialing and regulatory practices that impede the emergence of low-cost entrants; state-funded institutions that use new e-learning students to cross-subsidize other units; and proprietary operators that have happily responded to this cozy arrangement by competing on convenience rather than price.
Rather than addressing the anti-competitive arrangements and cross-subsidies that have led colleges to profiteer at the expense of students, the administration is pushing to spend half a billion dollars to procure online courses that will be offered free of charge to all comers, both in the U.S. and overseas. The proposal would hide true program costs from both student and taxpayer.
This is sensible only if one assumes that federal contracting and oversight ensure better outcomes than market transactions. But this is the same administration that explains that the “public option” is desirable in health care precisely because it believes in market competition. Moreover, if experience with online education during the past decade is any guide, there is little reason to believe that colleges and universities would actually pass cost savings produced by taxpayer-funded courses on to students.
The measure also manages to raise concerns about academic freedom and stifling critical research and development.
Federal law has long buttressed academic freedom and intellectual pluralism by prohibiting the U.S. Department of Education from exercising control over “curriculum, program of instruction … text books, or other educational materials by any educational institution.” The administration would suddenly have the department funding the creation and dissemination of entire courses. Once the U.S. Department of Education is sponsoring a freely available course financed with taxpayer funds, it will be difficult for all but the most expensive or distinctive institutions or providers to justify paying for an alternative offering. For the huge swath of the curriculum represented by general and introductory courses, it is not a stretch to imagine that federally-sponsored courses would become a de facto national college curriculum.
As for R&D and market innovation, Duncan’s proposal is a profoundly short-term solution. If the federal government started freely offering large swaths of cell phone service, it would be difficult for providers to retain customers. The result would be the gradual erosion of the market place and reduced investment in new products or services. Short-term savings would be gained at the cost of gutting the sector’s ability to keep innovating and improving.
The administration and Congress might want to think twice about undercutting publishing and computer software when the copyright sector, which employs more than five million people, is already wrestling with intellectual piracy and declining print sales.
For those who think that the U.S. Department of Education can develop instructional programs and identify promising innovations and opportunities more effectively and efficiently than the messy market place, the “Online Skills Laboratory” must sound like a swell idea. For those who believe that functioning markets generally yield better outcomes than state-directed enterprises, it is a very troubling development.
Even as his administration has become the majority shareholder in General Motors, appointed a “pay czar” to oversee compensation at the nation’s major banks, and endorsed a “public option” to ensure “competition” in a health care market already populated by more than 2,000 insurers, President Obama has taken pains to explain that he is acting reluctantly and only under duress -- and that, as he told Fortune magazine last year, he continues to be the same “pro-market guy … I always have been.”
The president explained at the time, “I still believe that the business of America is business. But what I also think is that with all that power … comes some responsibilities -- to not game the system, to not oppose increased transparency in the market place, to not oppose fiscally prudent measures to balance our budget.” If the president meant what he said, it is hard to fathom why his administration is moving to undermine productive enterprises, obscure price mechanisms, and spending a half-billion dollars to replicate existing products.
If the president is a “pro-market guy,” this would be a good time to show it. Does he really want to add chief of the national “Online Skills Laboratory” to his list of burdens?
Frederick M. Hess
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
As someone who researches and works with distance education consortia in both the United States and Canada, I have received several inquiries over the past week about “what really happened” in the closure of the University of Texas’s TeleCampus. Just two weeks earlier, I had met with Darcy Hardy and Rob Robinson, the leaders of the TeleCampus. They were charged last May with meeting an accelerated timetable for making their organization self-sustaining. Their efforts appeared to be bearing fruit. That was the first of several wrong conclusions drawn by me and others in recent weeks.
In this article, I raise other conclusions that were offered to me.
Is distance education dead? Commenting on Inside Higher Ed’s article announcing the closure, one observer suggested that the pursuit of distance education is driven primarily by monetary motives. He added that universities “find distance education is not infinitely scalable and scramble for some reason to drop such programs.”
It is wrong to conclude that the TeleCampus closure reflects negatively on distance education as an enterprise. Distance education enrollments continually grow faster than the on-campus population. Officials at Colorado Community Colleges Online recently told me about their 49 percent enrollment increase over the spring 2009 term. Although some would like it to do so, distance education is not going away.
Are distance learning consortiums dead? Some suggest that it no longer makes sense to have separate structures, like the TeleCampus, to support distance education. That conclusion rings hollow for me, especially since I heard about two other states considering new consortiums in the last week. In my 2008 study on financing consortiums, I harshly concluded that these multi-institution entities need to evolve or dissolve.
As technology and constituent needs change, so must consortiums. They should focus on services that the institutions cannot do on their own or for which economies of scale improve quality and costs. Consortiums can also add value by conducting research on emerging technologies and teaching techniques. Successful consortiums constantly evolve their structure to assume new roles while shedding activities once they become entrenched on campus. The Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium embraces an entrepreneurial spirit by developing e-portfolio and online tutoring services that have expanded well beyond state borders. If a consortium does not meet the evolutionary challenge, it should dissolve. Failure to evolve was never a criticism of the TeleCampus.
Are services redundant? The TeleCampus was criticized for unnecessarily mirroring services offered by the UT campuses. That conclusion does not universally hold either. Not all campuses have the same level of services. Redundancy multiplies as each campus regenerates lost services once offered centrally. Efficiencies of scale evaporate and the costs shift to the campuses. Collaboration efforts struggle mightily in meeting needs that are urgent on one campus, but absent from another. Now the campuses will be struggling to fill the void in the next few months.
Can we say the TeleCampus mission is complete? The press release announcing the closure asserts that “a new organizational support structure is appropriate as the next step in maximizing distance education opportunities for our students. The UT TeleCampus has accomplished its mission of providing this capability to our campuses.”
Again, a conclusion that is tough to substantiate. As with other consortiums, the Telecampus’s mission is to “extend the reach” of its member campuses. That strikes me as an ongoing goal and not one with a defined endpoint. While I am delighted that the UT System will continue to support its program to accelerate baccalaureate degree completion, I remain very interested in seeing what else the new centralized support structure offers.
Is UT TeleCampus one of the best distance learning consortiums? I have called the UT TeleCampus one of the leaders in the field and an exemplar for other consortiums. Upon reflection, that conclusion is wrong. Given the strength of its staff and quality of its services, it is the best. Oddly enough, Darcy Hardy learned of the closure after returning from a trip on which she was one of 20 national leaders invited to meet with a prestigious foundation.
What lessons can be drawn? Many theories on the TeleCampus closure have been offered, including those around financial, leadership and organizational dynamics. My sincere hope is that others do not draw the wrong conclusions from this experience in assessing the worth of their own consortium. Consortiums are unique entities. While general principles may apply, their value can be judged only in each unique, local environment. The local landscape contains political, financial and historical barriers and opportunities that do not translate well from place to place.
Am I saying that we cannot learn anything from this experience? No. There will be much to learn. WCET’s eLearning Consortia Common Interest Group includes leaders from many consortiums in the United States and Canada. This decision renewed efforts within the group to examine consortium success factors and to identify practices that do (or do not) work. Keep watching for developments.
In the end, why is the University of Texas System closing its TeleCampus? I remain perplexed, and I hesitate to guess, as I will probably draw the wrong conclusions.
During the tech boom of the '90s, New York University and Western Governors University were among the ambitious innovators in distance education. NYU created a for-profit, online spinoff. After a few years, it tanked. Western Governors, with its emphasis on "competency based" education, predicted it would quickly enroll thousands of students -- and ended up with dozens.
This week, both institutions are turning corners in their distance programs.