Distance education

Babson Survey Research Group considers changes to annual report on distance education market

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With the federal government tallying students in online courses, the Babson Survey Research Group considers changes to its annual report on the distance education market.

The Pulse podcast features highlights from mid-Atlantic eLearning conference

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The Pulse podcast offers highlights from a regional conference on distance learning.

Working paper suggests online education can lower tuition costs

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Economics paper suggests online education can lower the cost of tuition -- but is it due to increased competition or productivity?

Faculty members must own the online learning process (essay)

The results are in. Inside Higher Ed recently released its third annual survey of college and university faculty members, focusing on perceptions of online learning. It showed that faculty:

  • Remain highly skeptical about the efficacy of online education
  • Consider the instructor-student relationship essential for learning
  • Believe that ownership of online courses belongs with them
  • Feel there is too little support for online course development
  • Don’t want outside companies to create their courses or curriculum

I suppose these results could be taken as bad news for those of us in the online education world. But to me, they all make perfect sense.

I shared faculty skepticism about online education for many years. True, my mind has been changed in recent years by online courses I’ve encountered that are easily as rich and meaningful as face-to-face courses. But caution is still warranted. Without careful and creative design, online courses can – and often do – amount to a stale collection of materials with little power to motivate or inspire.

By the same token, the most well-designed course can fizzle when the digital tools it relies on don’t work as they should. Moreover, it’s increasingly clear that online courses aren’t the right modality for all students or, for that matter, all instructors. So I not only understand faculty skepticism; I appreciate it. It’s to instructors’ credit that they want proof before they jump on this bandwagon: not only the evidence that online education works but also when, how, and with whom.

I also agree wholeheartedly that instructor-student (and student-student) connection is critical for effective online learning. Online courses require more, not less, from instructors: more communication, more engagement, and more feedback. If online courses are to serve students well, they will likely be strenuous both to build and to teach.

That having been said, when faculty build online courses that foster meaningful engagement, they often find the experience deeply satisfying. I’ve worked with faculty who feel more connected to their students in online courses than in their face-to-face courses. And I’ve heard students say the same. The trick is creating these connections over geographical distance. And that requires excellent tools, excellent pedagogy, and institutional incentives that make it worthwhile for faculty to invest the necessary time and energy.

Of all the results from the survey, the one that strikes home most for me is instructors’ conviction that they should develop and own the courses they teach. Amen to that! I recently spoke with an administrator at a university that has steered hard in the direction of publisher-created online courses. He sneered at my company’s faculty-driven approach to course creation, maintaining that faculty ownership of courses is a thing of the past.

I respectfully disagree. If meaningful education were just about content, we never would have needed universities, just libraries. But it isn’t. Education is about apprenticeship and mentoring: about putting disciplinary experts and students together, where the passion of the teacher for his or her field brings the subject to life and influences the students’ desire to learn more.

That relationship can’t be replaced by mass-produced courseware, nor can faculty bring the same passion to their teaching if they are merely facilitating a course someone else created. Teaching your own course your own way allows you to show students what you yourself love and find meaningful about your discipline. It’s central, not peripheral, to effective teaching. So I am in complete agreement with faculty that they and no one else should control the process (as well as the product) of online course creation, just as they do with residential course creation.

At the same time, I don’t see how faculty can possibly own the process of online course creation when the institutional support they receive for creating these courses is so often inadequate.

Online courses are a different animal than residential courses. They have to be designed extremely carefully for clear, intuitive navigation, coherence, and reusability. They require far more construction in advance of the semester than residential courses and thus a significant investment of time upfront. And they demand technical acumen that not all faculty members possess.

Instructors need help to do the job well. And not just casual, intermittent help: intensive help. Sometimes the necessary resources are available in-house through campus teaching and educational technology centers, but not nearly often enough, as the survey makes abundantly clear. It’s little wonder that faculty lose their taste for developing and teaching online courses if the support they need – never mind recognition for their efforts in the promotion and tenure process! – is missing.

And that brings me to the final point from the survey: faculty members don’t want outsiders developing or marketing their programs. Again, I can’t disagree. While I think there is a reasonable role outside partners can play in helping universities develop online courses and programs, it’s clear to me that we need a different model than the one currently offered by the big online enablers.

For one thing, rather than combining marketing, course development, and student retention services into one monolithic – and expensive – package, these services need to be disaggregated, so universities can pick and choose what they want and need from outsiders. Moreover, outside partners have to be flexible. Instead of providing one-size-fits-all solutions, they need to help universities identify the problems they’re trying to solve (e.g., linking remote campuses, increasing active learning, offering continuing education courses, generating incremental revenue, expanding access…) and work with universities to accomplish their particular goals.

Finally, the relationship must be collaborative. Universities have valuable expertise at their own teaching and educational technology centers. Outside partners should work closely with these units to fill in gaps, expand resources, and increase the institution’s capabilities. The goal should always be capacity building and empowerment, not long-term dependence.

So, yes, the results of Inside Higher Ed’s survey seem at first to paint a bleak picture for online education, but to me the results are encouraging. They confirm my sense that we can’t let outside companies take over the process of online course and program development and reduce faculty to mere subject matter experts.

At the same time, we can’t leave faculty on their own to sink or swim, without adequate resources or support. If we want to produce challenging, engaging online courses and programs we need to provide faculty with top-notch tools and ample pedagogical and technical support and put them back where they belong: in the driver’s seat.

Marie Norman is senior director of educational excellence at Acatar, a Carnegie Mellon-based company that helps faculty develop effective online courses. She has taught anthropology for over 20 years and is co-author of How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.

Connecticut faculty push back on systemwide reform plans

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Transform CSCU 2020, a plan to reform most of Connecticut's public institutions, faces faculty pushback over centralization and online education.

U. of Florida political science department declines to build a fully online degree

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The U. of Florida's political science department turns down a request to build a fully online degree over concerns about quality and the university's commitment.

Lynn U. to launch iPad-powered distance education programs in fall 2015

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Lynn U.'s tablet revolution marches on. Its next initiative: affordable online degree programs delivered exclusively through iPads -- at tuition rates that are a fraction of what the university regularly charges.

U. of Arkansas System debates how to fund online education startup

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Campuses in the the University of Arkansas System balk at the idea of paying the startup costs of an online institution that is missing its own fund-raising target and may one day compete for their students.

The Sloan Consortium renames itself the Online Learning Consortium

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Ahead of its 20th conference on online education, the Sloan Consortium renames itself the Online Learning Consortium.

Essay calls for end to charging online students same as in-person students

Several hundred incoming Georgia Tech students made history this spring as the first cohort in the institution’s online master’s program in computer science.  While today it is hardly noteworthy that a prestigious university like Georgia Tech is offering a graduate degree online, the university’s decision to price it more than 80 percent less than the on-campus option is truly groundbreaking. At $6,600, the online program is one-sixth the cost of the on-campus one, a fact that higher education leaders should be examining closely.

Georgia Tech’s decision is indeed significant, given that more than 60 percent of large public U.S. universities typically charge online students a campus-equivalent tuition rate, while 36 percent command a premium, according to a 2013 report from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Learning House. Not only is Georgia Tech challenging the status quo in online tuition pricing, but it is also shedding new light on the true cost of serving online students.

These days, two out of three students attending on-campus programs receive some form of generous subsidy or discount, while their online counterparts, generally ineligible for such assistance, foot the full sticker price even though they do not benefit from all the amenities of the revered campus life, do not take up parking spaces, inflict wear and tear on facilities, or take up as much instructor time. Instead of embracing these online learners who produce considerable incremental revenue for institutions, colleges and universities are penalizing them, which has troubling implications not only for students’ bank accounts, but also for universities’ own vaunted views of fairness. By introducing e-tuition, which is appropriately lower than the on-campus price tag, universities could easily capitalize on the scale, brand extension, and new revenue synonymous with online learning while maintaining far more equitable pricing for online students.

In his book Generation on a Tightrope, Woodrow Wilson Foundation head Arthur Levine writes that most nontraditional, online students shop around before choosing a university at which to enroll.  He says they look for low tuitions and fees, but more importantly, they want to be treated fairly and pay a fee commensurate with the benefits they obtain from an institution. However, this is not what is typically happening. For example, students in the Villanova University’s online MBA program will pay nearly 25 percent more for their education than their on-campus counterparts, $1,240 per credit hour versus $1,000 for residential students. While the differential may be less profound at other institutions, the fact that such a disparity exists is confounding and unfair.

Although a rapidly increasing number of universities see online programs as a means of expanding their footprint and a way to capitalize on the principles of scale — adding more students without adding more on-the-ground resources to serve them — the pricing dilemma has not been fairly addressed. 

Some universities, including several in Texas that Academic Partnerships represents, have found another way. Early adopters of online degree programs, Texas public universities have enrolled thousands of students at prices far lower than comparable on-campus options, substantially increasing their market share within two years and retaining that lead six years later.  One such institution now boasts the nation’s largest online public nursing program, while another is home to one of the largest online education programs in all of American public higher education.

Several of these universities have seen their online enrollments increase the total student body by more than 30 percent, with the new revenue generated by online programs allowing some of them to offer faculty raises as other campuses in their systems have tightened budgets.

Though there is some cost associated with launching online degree programs, it pales in comparison to the benefits they can bring as students from all over the world converge through the cloud. Program enrollment of a few hundred can scale by five- or tenfold at a very low incremental cost to the university, while, at the same time, on-campus enrollment increases due to universitywide brand-building driven by intense online marketing effort associated with a successful online rollout.

While higher education is struggling with leaner budgets, the growing wave of digital students creates a meaningful financial opportunity for institutions, especially when online programs are priced at fair e-tuition rates that drive scale. Online learning allows institutions to expand into new markets, extend their brand and prestige beyond regional borders, while at the same time allowing them to tap into legions of new students, building their global alumni base and seeding future fund-raising efforts.

The benefits of online learning are many, and so too are the beneficiaries. E-tuition is both a boon to students and a potential windfall for higher education.

Randy Best is the chairman and CEO of Academic Partnerships (AP). AP strongly encourages its partner universities to offer e-tuition rates to students enrolled in online degree programs.


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