Scaling online education (and a bit of exponential growth)

Jan 23, 2008 by

I am reading something like 5 scholarly articles a day between the lit search for my dissertation and the online course I am taking/helping with on Higher Education and the Tech Frontier. As you were warned, you are likely going to see a lot of “musings” on my latest readings as it helps me to organize my thoughts – I hope you find some of it interesting/helpful.

The following are my musings after reading Scaling Online Education: Increasing Access to Higher Eduction (Moloney, J. & Oakley, B, 2006). The article can be found here.

An example of exponential growth: During 2003-04, approximately two million learners were engaged in higher education via Asynchronous Learning Networks (ALN). Online enrollments are expected to grow 20% annually during the next few years (according to this report).

Eponential growth graph from SUNY Learning Network:
(go to the paper on the Sloan-C website if you want the data)

Interesting facts from the paper:

  • More than one-half of all the online enrollments were from community colleges (although community colleges provide almost half of the total higher ed enrollments in the U.S. too…)
  • UIS (University of Illinois at Springfield): In developing online programs, one of the obstacles that UIS had to overcome was that faculty who did not understand “online” were unwilling to “accept a vision of teaching and learning outside of a physical classroom.” (Personally, I think this has been a particular problem in mathematics – which has been heavily tied to the use of chalkboards and then whiteboards, for a long time. The particular difficulty of putting equations online, has fueled the resistance to “online” as a legitimate learning platform. I think it would help for math instructors to participate in some kind of online learning experience themselves, to see what is actually possible in online education today. Our campus has two faculty “seminar days” before the beginning of the fall and winter semesters – maybe, this next year, one of the days of seminars should be done online… hmm) UIS does have a nice variety of online math courses.
  • UMass Lowell: Pays careful attention to “strategic planning done in tandem with academic departments.” In each case where they have an online degree or certificate, the program was developed to address a problem identified by the department, like, for example, low-enrollment programs. By moving the programs online, the programs gained an infusion from students who would have otherwise not been able to participate.
  • Stevens Institute of Technology: Their online programs emphasize engineering and technology. (If you read through of their online Master’s Programs and certificate programs… notice that math is not on the list)
  • Washington State University: WSU listed “changes in faculty perceptions about teaching” as one of the important issues it had to deal with as it scaled-up its online program. They met the challenge by helping faculty to focus on student learning rather than faculty teaching.

The paper lists many characteristics of successful implementations in “scale-up” of online programs, but I’m focusing in on #7, the one about faculty development:

7. High quality training and support for online faculty. Faculty professional development programs are critical to overcoming faculty skepticism and resistance to online education. Successful online initiatives have required faculty to participate in extensive training programs and created related professional development opportunities for the faculty. At many institutions, the best online faculty have been recruited to assist with the development of new online faculty, thereby building a community of engaged faculty working to improve the quality of their online courses.

Obstacles to scaling at non-profit institutions? Among other things, like a lack of institutional mission to serve off-campus students, was, of course, “faculty resistance to change.”


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