Friday, November 20, 2009

The Real Story About Online Learning - Revisited (Part I)

Donald M. Norris, President and Chief Scientist, Strategic Initiatives, Inc.
Paul Lefrere, Partner, Strategic Initiatives and Professor, University of Tampere, Finland

Based on comments on our earlier blog on this topic, we have expanded it, added a graphic, and divided it into four parts:

I. Following the Example of Strategic Market Leaders
II. Two Evolutionary Transformations in the Models of Learning and Competence Building
III. Evolution in Learning Settings from Institutional to Open
IV. Getting Strategic About Online Learning

We shall post these over the next few days.

I. Following the Example of Strategic Market Leaders

Over the past several weeks, online learning has been in the news. Two points of reference are especially worth noting.

First, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education both reported on the recent report on online learning by Kenneth C. Green, Director of the Campus Computing Project. While there is a clear global trend towards lower-cost (even no-cost) online learning, this survey of senior officials at 182 public and private nonprofit colleges, conducted in conjunction with the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET), found that many US institutions actually charge a premium for their online offerings through higher tuition, fees, and special charges.

This survey also found that many US institutional leaders were uncertain about the profitability of their online operations or how they compared, performance-wise, with traditional offerings. Many institutions were still searching for effective organizational models and structures for online learning. Dr. Green also found that many institutions were reticent to provide their data in ways that would reveal their practices.

Second, last week the 15th Annual Meeting of the Sloan Consortium explored the state of best practice in online, blended, and e-learning. The progressive growth of online learning has been chronicled by Sloan’s Annual Survey. By extrapolating 2008 figures, Dr. Frank D. Mayadas, founder of the Sloan Consortium, projected that in 2009 well over 4 million students may be enrolled in at least one online course in the United States. Even this figure underestimates the penetration of online practices.. Many students are concurrently enrolled in blended and e-learning offerings at colleges and universities that that are enthusiastically rolling out new elearning offerings from coast to coast and beyond.

Yet Sloan’s emphasis has been on the mainstreaming of online learning, rather than on the transformational potential of online practices to deconstruct and reinvent educational practices and change the financial business model for higher education. It is our contention that transformational potential is the real story about online learning. Selected market leaders are demonstrating these practices, today.

Understand the Leaders, Not Just the Entire Population

None of this is truly surprising to anyone familiar with the development of online and blended learning in US higher education. Online and blended learning are broadly practiced, but true breakthrough practices are very limited to a set of market leaders, many of them for-profit institutions.

Online, Blended, and e-Learning, Broadly Practiced. Initially, most institutions use online learning to replicate their courses and curriculum practices in an online mode, making adjustments for the differences between the nature of online and face-to-face experiences. From this initial development phase, they progressively improve and enhance the online experience and discover the power that blended learning offers, combining online and physical elements to create more engaging student experiences. Blended learning has become the preferred mode for many practitioners, enabling institutions to reduce the need for classroom space and change pedagogical practices. Finally, institutional leaders incorporate the lessons learned from online and blended offerings to further enhance all face-to-face instruction with technology resources and techniques that work. As a result, face-to-face instruction morphs into ”e-learning.” Institutional leaders leverage this range of technology-supported learning offerings to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their offerings and to provide learners with a portfolio of choices. Offering a range of instructional choices is especially attractive to adult learners and students who are working (the most recent data suggests that 70% or more of full-time enrolled students are working at least part-time.)

Breakthroughs by Market Leaders. Unlike emerging practice elsewhere in the world, the majority of US practitioners have not attempted systematically and systemically to unbundle learning, assessment, and certification and reinvent faculty roles. Nor have they attempted to fundamentally change the business model or price points for learning. For these reasons, looking at the herd is less instructive than understanding the global leaders and extrapolating their innovations into the future.

By examining the breakthroughs achieved in online learning by today’s current or emerging market leaders, both in the United States and abroad, we can better understand the real story about the potential future of technology-supported learning in all its settings and permutations. In this paper, we use the behavior of market leaders and trend setters to sketch the likely evolutionary path of online learning. We also describe how the vast number of mainstream practitioners can position themselves to take advantage of this evolution and position themselves for success while others, less well-prepared, face the withering competition to come.

Why Has Online Learning Become Even More Strategic?

Up to this point in its development, online learning has been waging a battle of acceptance with faculty, institutional leaders, and even some students. Research has shown that online learning has progressively come to be regarded as equivalent or even superior in some ways to traditional, face-to-face learning, especially among 18-24 year old and working adult learners and faculty who were early adopters..

But the Great Recession and the American Higher Education Affordability Crisis have raised the stakes for online learning not just in the U.S., but globally. Transformed versions of online, blended and e-learning hold the potential to be essential elements of the reimagining of American higher education, post recession, to make it sustainable worldwide. Four factors make this so:

• Addressing the American Affordability Crisis. Learners and parents are facing an affordability crisis of unprecedented propositions. In America, the cumulative effect of year-after-year escalating costs of tuition has outstripped the rate of inflation for 30 years running. Gradually American higher education a pricey if not unattainable proposition, for many potential learners. The current recession, rising unemployment, and collapse of the housing market have reduced the net worth of families and changed the educational plans of many learners.

Community colleges and for-profit educational providers have experienced explosive growth in demand this year as learners turn to more convenient, local, high-value, alternatives to mid-ranking public four-year institutions and private colleges. Some community colleges in especially strapped states like California have turned away legions of students this year. Truly transformed learning, using combinations of online, blended, and e-learning, has the potential to both reduce the total cost of achieving competence objectives and improve the success of learners by providing a range and mix of options that meet their personal and financial needs.

The pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education are peppered with stories of community colleges, in particular, whose leaders are experimenting with increasingly transformative mixtures of solutions to these challenges.

• Achieving Financial Sustainability Requires Transformation. The model for funding public institutions is broken, as has been reflected in the diminishing relative level of public support for education in general over the past three decades. During recessionary times, community colleges and other public four-year institutions typically experience their greatest enrollment demand at a time when state and local resources decline. Transformed learning can change the business model so that the marginal cost of learning is consistently reduced to less than the price of tuition, allowing growth to meet demand, even during recession. Market leaders have already achieved this goal. Post recession, the rest of American higher education needs to adopt and scale these practices.

• Transformed Online Learning is a Part of Broader Institutional Strategies. Institutional leaders have spent 2008 “staunching the flow” of the resource impact of the Great Recession. They recognize that they must use 2009-2012 to aggressively leverage stimulus funding and discover not just efficiencies, but innovations and transformations that will enable them to achieve financial sustainability when the stimulus money is gone. Transformed online, blended, and e-learning is one of a set of even broader institutional strategies to achieve financial sustainability that we mention in our white paper, “Linking Analytics to Lifting out of Recession.”

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs. The link between learning and employability is tenuous and must be strengthened if America’s to regain its competitive position in the global economy. Learning experiences must be more closely linked to active, immersive application and to the workplace. The capacity to perpetually enhance competences to maintain or raise competitiveness is enhanced with online learning and Web 2.0 tools and patterns of interactivity.

As we look at the future potential of online learning and competence building, we should learn from market leaders how to leverage transformation in business models and learning settings, as described in the next series of blogs..

No comments:

Post a Comment