Online learning is here to stay. I remember presenting my master’s thesis almost two decades ago on the promise of online learning. One of the committee members asked, “Don’t you think this online learning thing is just another fad?” My response? “I suppose that we’ll just have to wait and see.” Twenty years later, I’m ready to give a different answer. No, it is not a fad. It is an integrated part of life and learning in the 21st century. Certainly, methods and models of online learning come and go, but leveraging digital tools and networks to design courses and programs that transcend time and space is here to stay.
Some are only joining the conversation in the last couple of years, learning about online learning primarily through media blasts about MOOCs. MOOCs are not the first nor are they the dominant form of online learning. SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) remain the dominant force when it comes to credits, degrees, and programs. That may or may not change in time, but I am ready to say that online learning, in some form, will become an increasingly integrated and significant pat of a typical University experience.
As more colleges and Universities find their place in this online learning world, they are facing critical decisions. Some resist it altogether, arguing that what they do is not possible via online courses or programs. That is an admirable position, especially when it is defended by directing people to their distinct University mission and ethos. And yet, others are moving into online offerings, and there are countless reasons and justification for this move.
As a student of the impact of digital culture upon education, I have followed dozens of these transitions by large state Universities as well as smaller private liberal arts colleges. I have consulted for more than a few of them. Some navigate this change with grace and conviction. Others do it with fear of missing out or perhaps dreams of significant revenue streams for their school. Still others do it simply because it seems like the thing to do, or because they are willing to let a certain program chair experiment with it. As I reflect upon these different transitions, I see patterns. It is becoming increasingly clear which patterns are evidence of a university that risks “selling out.” With that in mind, I offer the following eight “warning signs.” These are not hard evidence, but they do indicate risks that call for careful consideration for Universities that value their institutional integrity.
1) No Effort to Cultivate Shared Ownership – Innovations need institutional flexibility in order to incubate, emerge, survive, and thrive. At the same time, I am suspect of bulldozer initiatives that do not elicit feedback or invite participation from key University stakeholders. Yes, online learning efforts require adding new people at times and implementing new systems and processes, but this does not need to happen in complete isolation from the rest of the University. There is great benefit in working with key stakeholders, seeking to keep them informed, learning from their critiques and feedback, and respectfully making use of their gifts and abilities. This does not mean that everyone needs to be on board before moving forward, but it does not hurt to build support from at least a small and connected team that embraces the University mission and values.
2) Bypassing the University Strategic Plan – I have seen this happen more than once. A group of leaders want to pursue this online effort and they have the power and resources to do it. So, they do so with little regard for the formal strategic planning process. Startups and new innovations sometimes defy traditional strategic planning, but that does not mean that it is wise or healthy (from an institutional perspective) to skip the process altogether. Strategic planning is also an opportunity for open communication and building trust. You can start an online initiative at a University and do these things at the same time.
3) Not Building a System for Student Support – At the typical University, there are countless student support services available to traditional undergraduate students. What about the online students? How will they get those services. The University that is serious about offering online learning in a way that reflects that same commitment to student learning and success will show it in visible ways. They will do it by making special plans to ensure that remote students have access to the quality services that they want and need to be successful.
4) Buying Courses and Programs from Outside Companies – Leveraging contracted services can be a helpful step to build a quality and robust online program. It can also be a way to add the necessary expertise to design engaging and effective online learning experiences. Taken to an extreme, it can also be a way to hand off the task of designing courses and programs to some outside body, as if course design were some neutral cookie-cutter project. Universities that want to stay true to their mission, vision, values and goals take significant efforts to make sure that individual courses and entire programs reflect the University identity, values, and commitment to quality. I have, for example, seen faith-based Universities that purchased entire curricula that are void of their distinct faith tradition. This may be fine, as they can revise the curricula and courses to fit with their values. Unfortunately, some never get to the revision. Some do not even change the branding within the content.
5) Online Faculty Who Are Not Informed About or Do Not Embrace the University or Program Mission and Distinctives – Full-time or adjunct faculty both play a valuable role in modern higher education. They are ambassadors of the University mission and program values. While there may be diversity of perspectives among faculty, it is important that online faculty identify with, embrace, and act upon the mission of the institutions for which they work. Even from a simple business perspective, this is an important part of having a consistent brand. More importantly, it is about being faithful to and consistent about the University mission. This doesn’t happen when an online faculty member at youruniversity.edu sends an email to a student from thatotheruniversitynextdoor.edu. I’ve seen it happen, especially with faculty who teach online for several universities. Quality online programs require all faculty to go through orientations and programs that are about more than just how to use the technology and system. The training also gets into the distinct values and identity of the organization, as well as the expectations for a faculty member at that institution. This training also assesses faculty on what they did or did not learn in the training, having certain benchmarks and non-negotiables.
6) Hands Off Outsourcing of Recruitment, Marketing, Back Office Support, etc. – I already mentioned this in one way, but it deserves another bullet. If your University uses outside companies, I argue that doing it with integrity means being hands on, in frequent communication, having ongoing input about how you are represented and how service is provided to students. Without this, your online program becomes just like every other program that company services. The University values are communicated through all staff at the University, not just the faculty.
7) The Primary Measure of Success is Profit – I’m writing this one to the non-profit learning organizations in particular, but I argue that it applies to the for-profit educational institutions as well. Education is a social enterprise. The primary measure of success must relate to student learning and benefit to society. When student learning gets replaced with revenue, that is a critical danger sign. Yes, online learning can be done is a way that is financially responsible and even in a way where there is revenue available to reinvest in making the University a vibrant and quality enterprise long into the future. However, similar to health care, it is not in the best interest of society or individuals for it to be shaped, at all costs, for maximum profit. That is a betrayal of the social contract between higher education institutions and the broader society. The same is true when a University sets enrollment increases as the primary measure of success. It may be cliche, but quality over quantity must remain a core value of higher education.
8) Ceasing to Justify the Endeavor Through the University Mission, Vision, Values and Goals – Ask a person at school why their university is involved in online learning. Look for answers that align with their mission and their core values. If they instead use a completely different vocabulary, one that is foreign to their historic mission and identity, then that is not a good sign. They may be seeking to serve a new and very different population with online learning, but they should still be able to support that decision in a mission-minded way. In the most promising online Universities, you will find that most anyone that you talk to will communicate similar answers to that question.
Many Universities are doing a fine job embracing online learning while remaining faithful to or even extending their mission and identity, but this is not a given. Doing so requires vigilance and commitment. Doing the opposite of these eight warning signs is a good start.