Tuesday, March 26, 2019

On-line learning

On-line learning has been growing, often an attempt by institutions to expand their revenue base. However, the altruistic purpose of on-line learning can be to increase access to higher education opportunity for adult students, students from diverse domestic or international environments, and students for whom the cost of residential education is prohibitive. Particularly in relation to international students, on-line programs can be a less expensive entry point that can lead to eventual shorter term residential learning.

A number of institutions, particularly state universities, are looking at expansion. For some state universities the issue is regaining some of their own in-state prospects who are presently studying on-line with some of the larger providers such as Arizona State, Southern New Hampshire, and Western Governors Universities. These three institutions have captured a large share of the not for profit on-line market and those who wish to compete are expressing urgency. Arizona State's for profit intent adds another dimension to the on-line program competition. Marty Meehan, president of the University of Massachusetts indicated, "It's predicted that over the next several years four to five major national players with strong regional footholds will be established. We intend to be one of them."

Doug Lederman and Mark Lieberman describe the challenges and opportunities of entering the on-line space. What populations are being served is one of the first questions that has to be answered. Is it students being captured by other institutions or expanding access for other new population groups? The second question is whether institutions should build their own on-line programs, purchase another, or borrow practices by acquiring talent from dominant providers? These questions have to be explored within the context of institutional and student culture and the politics of institutions' views of themselves and their purposes in advancing student learning.

A complementary article derived from a survey of on-line learning administrators raises important questions about how these programs are governed and managed. Relating the survey findings to the challenges and opportunities identified by Lederman and Lieberman, the quality of student engagement in learning was found to vary a great deal with faculty-led course design being more passive and educational specialist courses being more active and engaging. Unfortunately, the learning outcomes for students in some programs was found to be relatively superficial with a narrow focus on student retention and achievement of program objectives. The outcomes that are less commonly addressed are post graduation employment, student debt, and graduate earnings, each of these likely being the most important in students' minds.

Interestingly enough, none of the articles cited above mention the broader student experience addressed by student affairs educators. Eric Stoller offered the critique that out of class learning in the on-line world is largely ignored. He singles out graduate preparation programs that seldom address on-line learning engagement that should be the focus of student affairs. In a follow-up article, Stoller recommended that student affairs educators utilize existing campus-based resources but also indicated that approaches tailored to on-line learners may be necessary.

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