Thursday, March 19, 2009


The Myth of the Online Cash Cow

According to a new survey from the League for Innovation in the Community College, enrollments are, in fact, increasing at community colleges across the country, especially in online programs. A quick and careless read could lead one to conclude that profits from growing online programs were being used to supplant losses in state aid.

There may be some college, somewhere, that's actually doing that. But I haven't seen it.

Online courses are not cash cows for us. Most of the cost of instruction is labor, and we don't pay any differently for online instruction than we do for traditional instruction. (We also charge the same tuition and fees.) We have full-time faculty who teach online courses as part of their regular load, and we have adjuncts who teach them for their normal pay. (We also have full-timers who teach 'extra' online courses, above the regular load, for extra pay.) Online courses require that we support Learning Management Systems, a perfectly awful term of art for web platforms designed for online courses – WebCT, Blackboard, etc. Those require licenses, server space, and helpdesk support. Class sizes for online courses here are either the same as their traditional counterparts or slightly smaller, depending on the class. Since students can't hide silently in an online class nearly as easily, the time demands on faculty for student interaction are high enough that overstuffing the class simply isn't an option.

By union contract, we also pay extra for the initial development of an online version of a class we already teach in the classroom. It isn't huge, but when you get a significant bump in interest, you feel it. As online courses have ramped up, and they have, we've also had to invest significant staff time in working out new course evaluation forms, new deadlines, etc. None of this is dealbreaking, but none of it is free, either.

The one area in which we actually 'save' with online courses is space. Since we don't have any open classrooms during prime time, new online sections can be safety valves for excess demand. To the extent that we don't have to build (and heat) new classrooms, or expand existing parking lots, it's fair to find savings. But on a per-section basis over the useful life of a classroom, that's a fairly small cost.

This might all seem obvious, but it seems like at least once a week I read or hear someone saying that the motive for moving online is profit. Yes, some for-profit colleges run online programs, but that doesn't mean that 'for-profit' and 'online' are synonymous. To conflate the two is simply a category mistake. There are for-profits that run classroom-based classes, too; does it then follow that traditional classes everywhere are motivated solely by profit? Just because the for-profits and online education grew during the same decade doesn't make them the same thing.

At my cc, which isn't unusual in this regard, student tuition and fees cover far less than our overall costs. The rest is covered through state aid and some federal or private grants. Another way of saying that is that we lose money on every student. That's true whether the student is taught in a classroom, over the web, or at a worksite. (I'm referring here to the academic-credit-bearing side of what we do, including remediation. The non-credit side – personal enrichment classes, some workforce training -- is altogether different.) Annoyingly, that means we can't just grow our way out of a funding crisis.

Like most of the colleges noted in the report, mine is facing higher enrollments and lower state funding. It's also growing its online offerings. But we're growing those offerings despite funding cuts, not because of them.

Anyone who has taken, or taught, or even closely observed an online class knows that it's far from automated. The burden on the instructor to get through as effectively in two dimensions as in three is considerable, and requires both effort and craft. That means paying for course development, and offering training and support, and aligning the student support services with the very different expectations of online students. Some of us believe that it's a worthwhile enterprise for educational reasons, even allowing for an unfortunate institutional learning curve in the early going. But it's not a cash cow, and done right, it won't be.

Can you say a little more about class sizes in on-line classs? What is the maximum number of students, what is the minimum?

Right now I teach 50 students in Ethics face-to-face and refuse to make it on-line because I think it's unethical to have that many in an on-line envornment.

We're considering an on-line surcharge and making all on-line classes have a uniform enrollment cap. What do you think about that plan?
DD, some open source alternatives exist for WebCT and Blackboard:

From what I read, the Sakai project operates on the support model, but you can use it for free if needed.
All our online classes have a cap of 25, which appears to be the maximum amount of students that can interact with each other online. Otherwise, there are hundreds of messages each day. Classroom caps for most social sciences here is 40, so we definitely take a hit when we teach online.

I think that a small online surcharge makes sense to cover the cost of the software, and I agree that there should be a uniform enrollment cap, but it better not be 50! I'm thinking that 30 is about the practical limit.

When we started out doing online courses, we made them self-supporting, i.e. we did not use State-funded dollars to pay for them - we charged students a fee (about $40 more than the equivalent tuition, to pay for the course management software), and that stayed in a separate budget. The online outfit made a little money, enough to pay faculty for course development and buy them some laptops too.

It all came crashing down when we ran into an enrollment slump and couldn't make out state-mandated enrollment targets. We solved the problem by moving all those online courses back to state support. Voila! Instant piles of new FTEs. Now the pendulum has swung the other way - we have gobs of enrollment but not enough money to pay for all the classes. Answer: take online classes back to self-support.

Even though we turn a 'profit' it isn't really a cash cow. To do it right, each 'self support' class should pay a certain amount in overhead costs back to the college to cover administrative costs, maintenance, hardware, etc.
At my SoCal cc, we've found that as on-line class enrollments increased, enrollments in our face-to-face evening classes decreased. Folks at some other CA cc's report the same trend. No cash cow there.

I would love to see the numbers on whether or not it's more expensive to build heat and maintain a building or support an LMS - don't know what they would be but it would be interesting.
I think the chief advantages of going on-line are three:

First, you can expand your student numbers without expanding your physical plant, parking etc. This is not an inconsiderable thing if you have thousands of students online. Likewise, you can shrink your student numbers without having a lot of empty buildings to keep up. And you don't need to provide things like snack bars after hours or child care because at least in asynchronous courses the student would theoretically be able to provide those things for hirself at home.

Second, it allows high cost low enrollment programs to expand their audience in a way brick and mortar programs cannot. My two most distant students are 400 miles north and 400 miles south of me. If I was limited to the local area for my students, my enrollment would be half or less than what it is now. Teaching on-line is what allows me to keep enrollment high enough to justify my continued existence. It also expands to pool of hospitals that are politically invested in my program beyond the local area, increasing the number of CEOs who are available to bulldog my dean should he ever have the silly notion that we are somehow unnecessary. There are programs like mine with over 400 people enrolled because they can take students nationwide – and they are profitable.

Third, and this dovetails with point two, I provide access to education to students who otherwise would never be able to get this training. People who are placebound who would like to advance their careers but live more than 200 miles from the nearest college are pretty screwed without an online program. I provide rural hospitals with a way to take folks living in their community, working in the hospital or local community, and leverage their education into a career that gives them (on average) a 30% boost in pay. That this solves a severe workforce problem for the hospital is an added bonus. That the people living in communities I serve have access to high quality care (because fighting a workforce shortage controls wages and makes care more affordable and keeps our rural hospitals from going belly-up) is also a bonus.

I’ve taught asynchronous, synchronous, and blended courses to grads and undergrads for the last seven years. My class size has ranged from 6-81. For all of those classes, I would say that you can’t teach the same way on-line that you do in the classroom. But I think artificial caps on course size are silly as they hinder faculty member’s ability to choose how to organize their course. Online teaching is different but not in some magical way that makes teaching more than 25 students impossible. Finally, I think you have to keep your mission / goals front and center. My mission is to serve the needs of my local and rural hospitals. My goal is to train local people on-site at their local hospital. There is a program like mine about 100 miles away that provides on-campus labs to prep their students before clinical training. I could never do that (even though it does make things easier for the students and clinical sites) because it would conflict with my mission to provide on-site training. It would also triple my budget – not going to happen. I think you have to deploy on-line courses in a way that dovetails with your mission, addresses your learning goals, and allows students to come away with what they need. My students pass their cert exams, get licensed, and more than 70% of them work in hospitals that have a training agreement with me. They don’t get as much time to interact with their peers as they would in a brick and mortar course but that is not the point of my program. Going into the online game with preconceptions about what is right and fair will prevent you from thinking creatively about building your curriculum and is counterproductive to really evaluating if online learning will work for your students.
I don't have much experience, but my wife is taking an on-line CC math class right now and has had 1 (!) interaction with the instructor all semester--a mass email he sent out at the beginning. Other than that it's all automated. Probably a lot of work on someone's part, but it sure looks to me like the textbook publisher's work, not his. I don't know whether the CC is making a profit, but he's sure as hell doing a lot less for his pay than someone who teaches the same course in person. If this is how on-line courses go, you could just increase the number of sections an instructor teaches for the same pay.

In support of Anonymous 7:01, I've used Blackboard, WebCT, and Moodle, and Moodle rocks.
Thanks for your comment, Rubashov. That's one of the nasty little secrets of distance education. Some of the time the software is doing all the work. Of course, if you do it right, like Ivory does, distance education can be more work than face-to-face teaching.

Resolving these two extremes, especially if you're trying to negotiate class maximums for online classes (and we're hard at it in my cc)is a tough one.

I know that some faculty members who teach DE classes are skating. They've requested--and received--double loads (and where are the administrators when this happens, Dean Dad?)semester after semester.

As a union guy who's concerned with workload equity, that ticks me off. If I teach 10 classes/year (and because I teach composition, that's ALL I can do)to make $80K, and one of my DE "colleagues" says he'll teach 20classes for $100K, he's devaluing my work. And I've gotta wonder what goes on in his DE classes.

Not very damn much, as you've seen.

I think something needs to be done about quality control in on-line ed. The instance of an instructor having no interaction with students is rediculous and should be noticed by those in charge.

On the other hand, I don't believe that most courses should have more than about 25 students --why? Because good on-line course design requires evaluation of writing to insure that the student understands the material. Especially in health care, I don't want someone who is good at taking multiple-choice texts giving me my chemo -- I want someone who can write about the process, the potential problems and the solutions.
I took an online Stats class and an online Macroecon class at my local CC. In the math class, there was a crummy interactive "textbook" and some multiple choice tests. In the econ class, there was a real text, some terribly written rantings from the professor that were supposed to substitute for lectures, and multiple choice tests. In neither class was there interaction between students and the professor. I got As in both classes without studying, but didn't learn much.

My son took the same classes, at the same CC, but brick and mortar. He got plenty of attention from his professors. He got As, but he had to do work to get them. The online professors seemed to do about a tenth of the work of the face-to-face professors.

-- Cardinal Fang
Let's face it: profit is the motive when many colleges get into this. Motives aren't always rational, you know.
Thanks for posting this. It *is* expensive to offer online courses, even if you use an open source LMS. You still need the server and the personnel to manage it. And if you want to customize it, you may need even more personnel.

On the faculty side, you definitely need to do some significant training, not just in the technology, but also in how to teach effectively online. You don't want the experience of Cardinal Fang above of having a class where the student learns nothing. It shouldn't just be online lectures with quizzes.

I do think you can increase class size in certain courses if you do things like set up groups and monitor student interaction. In my field--writing--you really can't do that. You still have to comment on the writing and that takes a lot of time. I once applied for a job where they asked if I was interested in teaching a course or two online. I enthusiastically said, yes, until I found out they doubled the class size. That just doesn't make sense in a writing class unless you reduce it to grammar.
Reading this comment thread, it is clear that people are talking about asynchronous courses (for the most part) when they criticize on-line ed. Many assumption here - like this one - I want someone who can write about the process, the potential problems and the solutions. The assumption that online tests have to be multiple choice with no writing - in fact all of my test have significant writing and little or no multiple choice. My student solve case studies and describe how they would trouble shoot problems. Their board exams are multiple choice.

Again, I think while there are some courses that would not lend themselves well to an on-line format, the fact that some distance ed teachers do a bad job isn't a reason to junk the whole thing. I also know that my college is not doing distance ed to make a profit but to increase access for students who have a hard time getting to campus.

Distance ed is a method of delivering content - done well, it works. Done badly it doesn't - but isn't that the same with any teaching method?
Anonymous at 7:01 AM writes, referencing share-ware course management systems:

" what I read, the Sakai project operates on the support model, but you can use it for free if needed."

The Sakai project is not primarily designed for online instruction, but has been developed as a course management system, with most of its activity in face-to-face classes. I teach at one of the consortium schools, and I would strongly encourage anyone thinking about Sakai to run in the opposite direction. As fast as you can.
I've had my first experience teaching on-line (2 sections of an MBA economics course) in the past year, with another section of the same course coming up in May/June. I'm also about to finish up an on-line course on designing o n-line courses (which has had some utility, but not as much as I had hoped).

I had way too little time to port the classroom version of my class to an on-line environment, and parts of it worked, well, not so well. The students had (1) the textbook; (2) my lecture notes; (3) DVDs we made from the in-class version of the course immediately prior to the on-line version (same textbook, different assignments).

The course work was about half individual, about half team-based. All the assignments were written, not multiple choice, and required students to apply the theory we were developing and, sometimes, to find actual data related to the theoretical concepts. I posted, bt did not use in calculating student grades, multiple-choice quizzes over each chapter in the text.

I tried using the discussion feature in the course management system, but that didn't go very well.

I can tell you that the on-line version 9with 25 students) took nearly half again as much time as the classroom version (28 students), even without having to deliver lectures in real-time. Part of this is attributable to start-up costs, but most of it is attributable to the time intensity of the interactions. Having just looked, I received more than 300 student emails over the 8 weeks of the course and sent more than 150; I posted 25 announcements. Students posted more than 100 messages in the discussion forums, and more than 200 in the chat room (another feature that didn't work well).

I got no help, financial or otherwise, with the course development, and no extra pay for teaching on line.

And I'm doing it again, more-or-less voluntarily. I think I may be crazy.
As a student of distance education, I can say that without the option of online learning, I would never have earned my bachelor's degree, and would not be able to complete a graduate program. Being the full time working wife, and mother of 4 children ages 8 and under makes it impossible for me to physically attend classes on campus. However, if I would like to further my earning potential, and in turn help better provide for the family, it is necessary for me to obtain a graduate degree. I have been very choosy in the programs I have selected. Accreditation and appropriate professional certifications are important. I am not a fan of the WebCT and Blackboard learning systems. In my opinion, they make the learning significantly more technically complicated than is necessary. Also, distance ed students require more motivation to complete assignments and participate in discussions than for a campus based classes in order to actually gain any relevant knowledge from the experience. Online classes also require students to teach themselves the material through reading and research, rather than being spoon fed through face to face lectures. Learning online is not "easier" or any less "real" than completing a degree by going to campus. What it allows students to do is complete work in a time frame that is convenient for them, rather than when taking a class fits the school's or prof's schedule.
When I began my BA program, I was taking a course from a 4 yr univ at a local CC. After arranging my schedule with work and childcare to attend the class 2 days a week for 2 hours, on day 1 of the course, the professor announced she was changing the day and time of the class to 1 day per week for 4 hours. She didn't want to loose time from her private practice on the East side of the city (over an hour from the CC) to teach the course. After approaching the Dean of the Partnership program, the Dept. Head at U, and the CC Dean, none of whom would stop this woman, I withdrew from the class, and vowed never to step foot in another on campus course again at either institution. I realized I needed to be able to complete course requirements at 11pm on a Tuesday or 4pm on a Sunday in order to succeed in college. Thankfully, other institutions have been happy to oblige (and in turn earn my tuition dollars.)
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