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.
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.
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.
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.
Telltale fast clicks of laptop arrow keys gave away my distracted student from 30 feet off.
So engrossed was he in a 1980s role-playing game that he barely noticed when I leaned in to whisper how entirely inappropriate his behavior was during my digital humanities class at Dartmouth College. As a noted visiting technology and culture speaker held forth on participatory culture and Wikipedia — in which my students had expressed an avid interest — I was shocked as he and many others openly engaged with their Facebook pages.
Why would he play a game in a class he insisted he enjoyed? He had been playing the game before he went to bed, so when he opened his computer in class, "the game was just there, so I started playing," he explained to me during office hours. He didn't intend to check out from a class he likes.
But he did.
This incident is particularly ironic as we had discussed in the previous class the myth of multitasking and dialogued about the Stanford University professor Clifford Nass. Now, some class members can handle themselves with their technology; about a third cannot. Multitasking makes us poor learners, studies show. It not only hurts the perpetrator by splitting their focus and attention, but it hurts those sitting around the multitasker and lowers everyone’s overall performance on each task. While millennials may think they have better multitasking chops than older generations, data show this assumption to be false. Unfortunately, science tells us the human brain is not meant to multitask and succeed — even if people truly believe they are good at it.
As a digital humanities professor, I spend many waking hours communicating and creating on a computer. I deeply understand the exciting possibilities offered by digital tools because I spend a great deal of time designing them: in fact, I’ve designed a class that minimizes lecture time to create engaging activities involving mapping, making diagrams and hosting debates on virtual experiences. I also know there's a time and place to engage with actual people. There is a rising concern among faculty members across the country on the need to investigate classroom culture regarding technology so students might actually benefit.
Clearly, the lure of the laptop is too compelling to resist.
Some people might say we should use technology for activities that “flip” the traditional lecture class. In line with this thinking, I have run hands-on activities one to two times a week with great success. During those activities, students are focused and use technology to further learning.
But most days, there will come a time where faculty or guest speakers actually speak, or dialogue happens or provocative points are raised. It is then that students with technology-control issues immediately check out and check into Facebook or online games or shoe shopping. Unless they are directly involved in a hands-on activity for which they will be accountable in public by the end of class, it is much easier to give in to the presence of technology and lose the experience of direct engagement.
Is this chronic narcissism? Or is this phenomenon a desire to escape the confines and taxing nature of concentration? Does this "checking out to check in" represent an insatiable need for immediate news in the "fear of missing out"? In 2013, an international team of researchers designed a way to measure fear of missing out and found people under age 30 were more affected, as were those who reported low levels of connectedness, competence and self-autonomy. This research supports earlier findings that the lonely and bored were more apt to rely on social media and feel left out if they miss out.
Yet students also miss out if they cannot listen and engage with the world in front of them. The presence of technology in a class may not work unless the active learning is active all of the time or, I would suggest, our culture changes such that the live, in-person exchange is more valuable than whatever the student is doing with his or her own technologies.
In higher education, themes of dialogue, listening and presence are a core part of the college experience. We know from research that employing "embodied cognition" -- that is, learning from all of the senses-- is a more holistic and effective way to learn. There is so much to the human experience that is reflected in a face to face meeting, where body language, expression, tone of voice, and others around create a whole-body experience. If higher education continues its mission to support experiential learning, this may mean we must reestablish forms of learning centered back in bodily experience, and lean a little less on technology to transform ourselves.
We need a culture change to manage our use of technology, to connect when we want to and not because we psychologically depend on it. Enough is enough. We need strategies for unplugging when appropriate to create a culture of listening and of dialogue. Otherwise, $20,000 to $60,000 a year is a hefty entrance fee to an arcade.
Mary Flanagan is a distinguished professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth College and a fellow of The OpEd Project.