The institutional dilemmas of online education, or why there ain’t no such thing as a monolith

This entry may appear cryptic, because it was inspired or prodded or nagged into being by a Twitter conversation between Sara Goldrick-Rab of U. Wisconsin-Madison and Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute, discussing whether online education is a “profit center” of colleges and universities and whether the siren song of MOOCs is … um, let’s stop the mixed metaphor before it kills again, right? At this hour of the evening, anyway.

So some dry considerations of online education. The lesson here is that the organization of classes online (or blended) is affected by the same institutional constraints that affect face-to-face classes, making it unlikely that online education can be a significant “money-maker” for institutions:

  • Most colleges and universities offer some slate of online courses because of student convenience, specifically for students who are already enrolled. These online offerings may or may not be more expensive than face-to-face options, because their existence is predicated on helping students advance in programs rather than squeezing students into virtual seats. This group of online courses is close to evening and weekend courses in spirit and motivation. Of course, some programs are only evening-based, and so some programs may be online-only, not because of “profitability” but because there is at least marginally enough demand to figure out how to keep programs alive.
  • Another chunk of online courses is the set of those designed/offered to meet general-education and elective demands. These online courses are the ones most likely to be high-capacity, low-cost courses even if the institution throws in a few TAs to help with the management of the course. Then again, the obvious parallel here is to the massive lecture course rather than to the small-class equivalent. If you will excuse my language, cross-subsidies happen.
  • Another set of professional programs (not just courses) are going to be offered online because that is the only way to generate enough demand to run programs. This is sort of the online equivalent of the graduate program one sometimes sees attached to tuition-dependent non-profit colleges, of the “we’re a liberal arts undergraduate institution with a Graduate College of Profession X that probably doesn’t make much sense thematically” type. The quality of these opportunistic programs varies considerably. It can be quite high, but often that is in an environment where at least the local unit has a critical mass of such programs, enough to generate a few FTE for great support staff who run the back-end logistics specifically for a coherent set of disciplines/programs.
  • There is a range of risks in creating and trying to sustain online programs. A first-mover advantage holds for a regional college or university with significant name recognition and reputation, but it is not an inherently lasting advantage. If a regional college or university invests in both the faculty and in the outreach to generate interest, it can be self-sustaining, but faculty turnover can hit online programs in a particularly nasty way given the fragility of online teaching quality. Or a for-profit can invest heavily in a region. Or the state flagship can jump in. Or an elite non-profit can. Or your institution decides to move away from online initiatives and towards international students on campus as a strategy, but a student from another country cannot take online courses … and so on and so forth.

In several places in the past month, Kevin Carey has suggested that we can have accreditation (or, more practically, transfer-oriented approval) of individual courses. I have stated elsewhere that students do not generally want to shop for courses a la carte, though they will when opportunities or needs arise. More practically, who would be offering these courses that students would take one-by-one and provide enough income for the offering entity? Sure, the elite institutions might offer xMOOCs, but the glittery power of them at the beginning of 2013 could fade as much as the dreams of online programs a decade ago.

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One response to “The institutional dilemmas of online education, or why there ain’t no such thing as a monolith”

  1. CCPhysicist

    Apropos your 4th bullet: What do you think about the long-term prospects of a CC having a significant on-line presence?

    And more along the lines of your research interests, why hasn’t anyone dug out an old programmed learning “book” and simply automated it as an on-line course? Same basic pedagogical concept, and some of those might even be in the public domain as college research projects.