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Can Online Education Save Higher Ed From the Recession?

Tomorrow's Academy

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The funding crisis will be with us for a while; online education is here to stay. What we do with the crisis will make all the difference. If we commit to developing online solutions that both save resources and maintain access and quality educational experiences, we will be able to look back on this difficult time with a measure of pride. We will have resisted the temptation to turn online education into college on the cheap.




The posting below looks at impact of online education on higher education budgets . It is by Michael L. Rodgers  of Southeast Missouri State University, and it appeared in the February, 2010 issues of the National Teaching and Learning Forum. This posting is #50 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. February, Vol. 19, No. 2, 2010. Copyright © 2010 James Rhem & Associates, LLC. © Copyright 1996-2010. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.




Rick reis

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Can Online Education Save Higher Ed From the Recession?


Last spring, as I was beginning work on another TECHPED (technology and pedagogy) article, I considered writing about the effects of the recession on teaching and learning with technology. I asked James Rhem if the topic would be suitable for the Forum. James quite rightly steered me away from a piece on "cutbacks," preferring instead to strike a more hopeful tone. So, I wrote on a much different topic. Unfortunately, the passage of almost a year has only sharpened the widespread unease already felt by many about the future of higher education. Concern is everywhere, it seems: the present and coming reality of drastically reduced state appropriations to public institutions is mirrored in private institutions by lower returns from endowment funds and worries about students' ability to afford tuition. The obvious solution-raising tuition and fees-is perilous on both political and economic grounds.


Federal stimulus money has temporarily shielded my state and others from deep budget cuts. But it is not business as usual: while my institution's president urges the campus to "do more with less," open positions go unfilled, budgets are eliminated or reallocated, and class sizes are increased. And now, staff and faculty positions are being terminated in numbers too great to be accounted for by ordinary attrition. The strategy to use the buffer purchased by stimulus dollars to better prepare the institution for the bleak budget years ahead seems wise to me, but the pain is drawn out, much as it would be if the dressing on a wound were removed too slowly.


Uncharted Territory


As we head into what Robert B. Stein, Missouri's Commissioner of Higher Education called, in a letter to the Presidents and Chancellors of Missouri Public Postsecondary Institutions, (1) "uncharted territory for higher education," many of the budget cuts are resulting in lower levels of service to our students: courses are offered less frequently, low-enrolled summer sections are canceled, class sizes and teaching loads are increased, and programs are cut for low enrollment. The result? Students complain. Time-to- degree-completion increases. Morale declines. For many, the situation creates a bunker mental- ity: hunker down, look for more corners to cut, and wait for times to improve. Others react (politics aside) in alignment with Rahm Emanuel's famous declaration (2) on the opportunities of crisis:


You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.


Not surprisingly, many who seek ways to avoid "wasting" the funding crisis look to technological solutions, often featuring online education.


Stein, for example, used part of his letter to summarize discussions with his colleagues about the budget problem. These conversations produced a variety of suggestions regarding online education, although there was disagreement on whether this form of delivery would save money or be more expensive, especially in the early years. Some were confident that online delivery is not less expensive than traditional classroom delivery. Others believed that certain courses can definitely be cheaper to deliver online. It was suggested that there could be one basic course outline and syllabus for a basic government class, for example, and large numbers of students around the state could take the course online with graduate students or adjunct faculty, allowing a much higher student/teacher ratio than in the classroom.


Online Realities


Unfortunately, reports on the cost of online education do not show a consensus. On the Internet, articles written for public consumption, such as "College for $99 a Month," (3) claim that online education is both a cheaper alternative to traditional college, and a superior educational experience. Another article (4) proclaims that "The real force for change is the market: online classes are simply cheaper to produce." Other, more scholarly voices (5) point to higher fees charged to online students as a factor that makes online courses more expensive than their face-to-face analogs. Yet, scholarly studies of online courses tend to focus on non-economic benefits: student convenience, improved access, and, increasingly, improved student performance. (6)


Perhaps the question will be settled by the market after all: if students are forced to accept large class sizes as institutions contract, what other cost-saving concessions might they make? Stein suggests in his letter that "all athletic programs could be eliminated"-a drastic concession indeed! But, if students are newly impelled by costs to focus on the degree and not the extracurricular benefits of college life, the cost equations for both online and face-to-face education may change, as institutions move to reduce, outsource, or eliminate expensive benefits.


The proposition that online education can help institutions continue their missions using fewer resources is complicated by a sense that resource reductions make online education a moving target. What are the online analogs to less frequent course offerings, summer sections canceled for low-enrollment, increased class sizes and teaching loads, and eliminated programs? How would online students respond to the lack of face- to-face alternatives to online courses, especially when online students are less likely to show a high degree of institutional loyalty? Can brick and mortar institutions scale up customer service to levels needed to make widespread online education work?


Starving Faculty Development?


As a part-time faculty developer, I am especially interested in knowing what a poor economy means for the future of faculty development for online teaching and learning. Will teaching and learning centers be so hollowed-out by cuts that faculty development becomes impossible? Good online teaching is preceded by good training and development; tough problems are seldom resolved by quick fixes and intuition. One example is the "legacy assignments" problem. In the age of Web 2.0, are students well-served by writing assignments designed for a world of failing newspapers and magazines? (Social networking is even causing e-mail to become obsolete, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. (7) In my own field (chemistry) a lab report might be classified as a "legacy assignment," because its design is adapted from the research journal article-a format defined in an age of expensive monochrome still graphics. Without authoritative guidance from faculty developers, faculty who are already stressed from increased teaching loads and committee assignments will probably not take the time to effectively adapt course assignments to the new and unfamiliar online environment.


Simple analyses probably won't provide unambiguous evidence that online education will save enough resources to eliminate budget deficits. But there are some obvious steps that we can take-short of capitulating to "canned" online courses that offer little or no interaction with an identifiable faculty member-that can save real resources. Here are two suggestions:

o Streaming video is now very popular: YouTube is loaded with brief instructional video clips. To reduce costs, however, care must be given to the videos' content. If a video clip is scripted so as to address problems students have with content, we can, in a sense, automate the resolution of "routine" student confusion, leaving the instructor free to spend time working with students to draw meaningful conclusions, or apply concepts.


Webinar technology can be used to bring synchronous interaction to an online course. That this technology could produce savings may seem surprising, given that instructors must be trained to use the technology and class sizes will likely be limited by available bandwidth to ten to twenty students. Nevertheless, substantial savings can be realized by collecting students from multiple locations into the interactive classroom environment. For example, instead of an instructor teaching ten students in Hayti, Missouri, and another instructor teaching nine in Marble Hill, Missouri, we can hire one instructor to teach nineteen students simultaneously in both locations. For this simple implementation to work, however, the institution must adopt class size policies that are sensitive to the webinar's potential to use existing resources efficiently. A one-size-fits- all class size edict from administrators would squander the webinar's potential for increasing access to quality courses.


The funding crisis will be with us for a while; online education is here to stay. What we do with the crisis will make all the difference. If we commit to developing online solutions that both save resources and maintain access and quality educational experiences, we will be able to look back on this difficult time with a measure of pride. We will have resisted the temptation to turn online education into college on the cheap.



1 Robert B. Stein, "To the Presidents and Chancellors of Missouri Public Postsecondary Institutions," 22 January 2010 (Janese Heavin, "Campus Chatter," online posting, 26 Jan. 2010 <http:// campus-chatter/2010/jan/26/steins-letter- to-colleges-universities/>).


2 Rahm Emanuel, "Rahm Emanuel on the Opportunities of Crisis," YouTube, 19 November 2008 < watch?v=_mzcbXi1Tkk&NR=1&feature=fvwp>.


3 Kevin Carey, "College for $99 a Month." Washington Monthly September/October 2009 (9 Sep 2009 <http:// college_guide/feature/ college_for_99_a_month.php>.


4 Zephyr Teachout, "Will the Web Kill Colleges?" MSN Money 15 Sep 2009 (25 Oct 2009 <http:// CollegeAndFamily/CutCollegeCosts/will- the-web-kill-college.htm>).


5 Campus Computing Project and Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, WCET, 2009. <http:/ / ManagingOnlineEd2009- Exec%20Summary.pdf>.


6 B. Means, Y. Toyama, R. Murphy, M. Bakia, and K. Jones, "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies" (29 Oct 2009 < evidence-based-practices/ finalreport.pdf>).


7 Vascellaro, Jessica E. "Why Email No Longer Rules..." Wall Street Journal 12 Oct 2009 (2 Feb 2010 <http:// SB100014240529702038039 04574431151489408372.html>).




I wish to thank Dr. Guohua Pan, Instructional Design Specialist at Southeast Missouri State University, for several helpful discussions about the use of video in online education.


Contact Michael L. Rodgers, Ph.D. Director, Advanced Placement Teacher Development and Professor of Chemistry Southeast Missouri State University Cape Girardeau, MO USA 63701

E-mail: Telephone: (573) 651-2360 Fax: (573) 986-6433 Web: