Distance Education (DE) offerings by community colleges and universities increase in spite of reports indicating an end to a period of unsustainable U.S. growth. In Australia, India, China, Eastern Europe, Russia, Africa and Latin American growth rates range from 14% to 17%. In the U.S. the growth rates are much flatter: from a high yearly growth of 35% in 2005, to an anemic 1.4% in 2013 according to IPEDS data. Some institutions have “bet the ranch” on DE and may be in for a rude awakening. In select disciplines and programs new delivery modes will thrive; however, one size doesn’t fit all.
Enrollment trends are informative. In 2013, graduate students enrolled exclusively in DE programs constituted 23% of the total national DE student enrollment. Compared to undergraduate programs where 11% of the total enrollment was exclusively in DE, graduate programs offer attractive opportunities. For-profits overwhelmingly have the highest enrollment of graduate and undergraduate students: nearly 2 of 3 students enroll in the Kaplan’s and Phoenixes of the world.
But they better be careful too.
DE becomes a charade and demeans the educational process for all if incorrectly motivated, just as face-to -face (F2F) programs do. Educators may be perceived as hucksters. A straightforward approach to DE is essential inside and outside of offering institutions.
One – DE and residential F2F will never be the same. Students may be fleetingly fooled. In approaching DE students at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, I explain that it is never identical to residential F2F instruction. For many nontraditional students with families and jobs it is a powerful advantage to be able to study at night and on weekends from home, office, or car — I have seen DE students log in while driving across the country. The ubiquitous flexibility of access offsets absence from a conference championship game. And then, of course, there’s T.V. or on line streaming for that too. No parking problems for study or athletics either.
Did I say one size doesn’t fit all?
Two – DE students should meet the same admission standards as F2F students. For graduate study if a GRE score of 1200 and a GPA of 3.5 in the last 60 hours of undergraduate work are expected, then F2Fand DE expectations should be identical. There is a tendency to discount student preparation, motivation, and ability in DE programs: an ill-fated take-the-money-and-run mentality. Standards should probably be higher for DE as more maturity and self-reliance are required. Nonetheless, the prevailing predisposition reveals the attitude that DE is second rate, for sub-par students, a treacherous self-fulfilling prophecy.
Personal experience shows that weak online students perform similarly to weak residential students. Additionally, in SIUC’s professional Master of Architecture program the best students — whether DE or F2F – are indistinguishable in their capacity to produce high-quality work.
The rule is this: whether application is for DE or F2F program the standards should be identical. Anything else weakens both.
Three – DE faculty should meet the same requirements and expectations as F2F faculty. Regrettably, I have witnessed DE offerings that are taught and administered by graduate students, even to other graduate students. This is a con, and demeaned prestige and perceived value of the university will surely follow. Distinction between means of delivery should diminish if quality is the controlling factor. Apparently Corinthian Colleges neglected quality, looked only at cash flow, and was found out; not because of the delivery method, but because of what is/was delivered by whom — academic standards should be the deciding factor.
Four – DE students should spend one weekend a month on campus. Learners build a sense of purpose and community when they gather. Students in DE programs should be treated like the National Guard with occasional “camp meetings”. Not homecoming to be sure, but a valuable time of focused interaction, sharing and reflection: mutual interests add to the educational opportunity afforded. And students warmly respond. SIUC’s Master of Architecture students travel from 12 different states usually 6 times during the 15-month program. To decrease travel time and costs, a partnership with Ranken Technical College in St. Louis, nearer the airport, allows excellent facilities for classes and overnight accommodations for students.
Five – DE provides some bargains. Tuition and fees of $19,800 for the SIUC Master of Architecture program is a good deal. Even when travel costs and lodging are added in, the tab for the total program is significantly less than the next closest competitor at $35,000 for tuition and fees alone.
Excellent students and faculty in a professional program committed to good work create effectiveness, be it via DE or F2F. Even two cans connected by a string are a mode of delivery, but the trifecta of intellect, determination, and passion pilot the horse that runs towards quality, no matter the mode.
The challenge confronting online education is the quest for a “Holy Grail.” A mystery formula of cost/price/delivery variables neglecting academic excellence produces worthless results. Students and their aspirations are our raison d’être. Anything else is ineffectiveness squared.