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Our Best Test Environment for Scaling Online Teaching

Are private companies driving all the advances in online education? Recent articles on MOOCS and online education efforts certainly give the impression that the private sector is the driving force of online teaching.
Graph 1

Source: America Foundation: State U online, 2013

While we believe in the power of innovation driven by many of these private companies, we read with great interest the report by the America Foundation on the State U online - a great report providing historical context on the deployment of technologically-driven, long-distance education. The report looks at the early correspondence courses based on the innovative mail service, to current efforts by state universities to build comprehensive institutional systems. Given that more than 75 % of all students are educated by public institutions, when we talk about innovation and change in online teaching we need to include the public sector universities. These institutions offer the opportunities of scale, breath and reach that hardly any private (non-profit or for profit) institution can offer.

The America Foundation report evaluates the collaborative practices of state universities online. The analysis identifies five steps that a state's higher education system can take to build online into its larger offering (see Graph 1 above). Each step builds on the steps before, leading toward an increasingly integrated system in which students can move freely among institutions within a state and eventually, beyond state and hopefully our national, borders.

In identifying the five steps, the report profiles individual states that have reached each level. For each step, the chart below profiles a state and/or system to show how it overcame obstacles that have hindered the advancement of distance education — including the challenges of financing, faculty buy-in, leadership, curriculum, and quality control.

Beyond the chart above, State U Online describes how a number of notable state systems are adopting and adapting to online education including: University of Wisconsin System’s e-campus, Minnesota Online, Florida Virtual Campus, Georgia’s ONmyLINE, Great Plains IDEA, and others. The report highlights strengths and challenges of each program, and identifies areas of opportunity.

State U Online also makes policy recommendations states can adopt to ensure their online systems are on a strong, sustainable footing. A few key points:

  • Create sustainable, self-sufficient cost structures. Systems and institutions should not have to rely on line-item budgeting from state legislatures. Creating shared tuition structures, for example, can help ensure online systems have staying power.
  • Provide incentives and support for faculty. Although instruction is given significant weight in tenure decisions, there is no added benefit for faculty who develop online courses. Providing such incentives would encourage faculty to experiment with teaching online.
  • Actively promote online efforts. Public universities often cannot afford to spend extra money on marketing. Publicizing clearinghouses and online degree programs helps ensure students are aware of affordable public online options.
  • Collect robust data on online student activities. With the rapid growth of online education, it’s now a necessity to collect better data on distance-learning students, separate from students enrolled. Doing so can only improve our understanding of online student outcomes.
  • Give college credit where its due. Currently, one in three undergraduate students will transfer at least once in their academic career. As the borders between institutions (and states) blur, ensuring college credits follow students will support swift degree completion.
  • Support students. Attrition in online course-taking can be high. Institutions and state systems must support retention efforts to mitigate this common problem.
  • Experiment with innovative course and credit delivery. States and institutions should incorporate innovative credit models, such as Prior Learning Assessments and other competency-based learning modules that will hasten a student’s time to degree.
The bottom line: With state universities educating the vast majority of our students across the country, these institutions are an excellent testing environment for online education's ability to scale. Ultimately if online is going to work as a method of providing greater access to higher education and combating the rising costs, it is going to have to work within the nation's large public higher education systems. Let's get out there and use the integrated systems and relationships that already exist as our testing ground.
Topics: Insights