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A Tale of Two (Online) Cities

Recently I participated in two webinars on the topic of the future of online programs (SIIA membership required, and Monterey Institute, Elluminate archive). I co-presented with John Watson of the Evergreen Education Group, with John covering K-12 online and with me covering higher education online perspectives. During the webinars there seemed to be some real interest in the paradoxical nature of the higher ed online world – despite tremendous growth of online courses and programs, online organizations are often in a large state of flux and turmoil. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .

You can get a good look at this situation by viewing two recent studies. The new 2009 Sloan Consortium report just came out last week, and it documents the continued, and potentially accelerating growth of online courses and programs. For the first time, the report includes enrollment numbers affected by the recession that started in 2008, giving us a perspective on its potential affects. The highlights are that for fall 2008, 1 in 4 higher ed students takes at least one online course, with 4.6 million students in this category, and enrollment growth rates of ~17% per year. Compare this to overall enrollment growth rates of 1 – 2%, and you get the distinct picture of online’s growth – it’s here as a major option, regardless of any skepticism.

At the same time, a WCET and Campus Computing Project survey was
released in October 2009, and it documents the turmoil of our online organizations and academic technology infrastructure. The highlights are that 45% of online units have re-organized in the past 2 years, 52% of online units plan to re-organize in the next 2 years, and 29% of online units have reorganized in the past 2 years and still plan to do so again in the next 2 years. Talk about instability. Furthermore, while 88% of online units use the same LMS as the main campus, 47% plan to re-evaluate their strategy, and 24% plan to change LMS in the next 2 years.

With this kind of enrollment growth, as seen in online courses and programs, you might expect that institutions have the organizational models in place, but that is not the case. It seems that institutions are achieving online growth despite the support of their campuses, rather than because of it.

One explanation for this tale of two cities is the growth of the for-profit sector, with average online growth rates of 45%. Many students are moving to for-profit schools, which are happy to provide the online courses and programs. The turmoil of organizations is not a strong factor in for-profit schools – they seem to know where to put online units and manage growth.

Another explanation for this tale of two cities is that online growth is student-driven, rather than institution-driven. Students are demanding online options, and institutions are following their lead. Whether institutions are prepared to take advantage of this student demand or not, the students are seeking online options.

There are some key questions that every institution should answer at a strategic level, whether in a formal strategic plan or a more informal organizational plan.

  • For our target student population, is there a demand for online courses and programs?  If so, what are the drivers for this demand (e.g. shorten program completion, fit degree around work schedule, avoid commuting)?
  • Is our student population changing, and if so, what needs do the new students have?
  • If we need or have a significant online presence, should this be managed at the departmental level or campus-wide level?
  • Do we have a funding model to support the organization(s) serving online students?
  • Have we developed a help-desk strategy to support faculty and students when they are taking courses and doing online work?

Institutions should develop a real strategy for online courses and programs and get out of a reactionary mode. This might make the difference between the best of times and the worst of times.