Monday, September 27, 2010

 

When “Degree” Becomes “Kind”

There’s an old saying to the effect that a difference of degree eventually becomes a difference of kind. One could say, for example, that Albert Pujols is a better hitter than I am, but the difference in our respective skill levels is so drastic that subsuming both of us under the category of ‘hitters’ is misleading. The chasm between us amounts to a phase shift.

We’re beginning to see that phase shift with online education.

My cc, like most others, started with entirely face-to-face instruction. It built not only its curriculum that way, but its support systems, schedules, workload calculations, registration procedures, and everything else, too.

In the early years of online instruction, the comparatively innocent 1990’s, the college only ran a few sections here and there with early adopters. The numbers were small enough that any quirks of the online format could be handled with relatively labor-intensive workarounds that didn’t fundamentally change the way we did anything. It wasn’t terribly efficient, but the numbers were small enough that the inefficiencies didn’t matter much.

Over the last decade or so, the number of online sections has steadily grown, and has become a progressively larger percentage of overall instruction. It’s still a smallish portion, but it’s outgrowing the labor-intensive workarounds. It’s starting to exert pressure to remake the ways we do all kinds of business, from registering students to providing advisement to administering financial aid to accommodating disabilities to providing counseling. The difference of degree is becoming a difference of kind.

When changes like that happen, they upend “cost per student” calculations. When the marginal cost of another section is simply the cost of the adjunct who teaches it, the college comes out ahead with reasonable enrollments, even at our low tuition level. But when enrolllment gains hit the point that you have to start adding staff in the library, the financial aid office, OSD, and the like, you fall behind again pretty quickly. That’s roughly where we are with online. The enrollments, and expectations of those enrolled, are getting to the point where we can’t just run it off the corner of someone’s desk anymore. That means an abrupt increase in our overhead costs at a time when any increase in overhead is deeply suspect, if not out of the question.

Much of the popular discussion of the economics of online education -- both in the press and in the academic blogs -- just gets it wrong. The institutional savings, if any, don’t come from larger class sizes. If you do online education right, it’s labor-intensive. Frankly, if reducing labor costs is your primary motive, you can’t do much better than the traditional overstuffed lecture taught by an adjunct. On a per-student basis, the labor costs of that are miniscule. The institutional savings from online education come mostly from infrastructure. Adding server space is dramatically (and increasingly) cheaper than adding classroom space. You don’t have to add parking, or heating costs, or seats in the library. When your physical campus is running full, this is no small consideration.

When you can add students without adding to infrastructure, and without adding to your support staff, you can come out ahead. We’ve coasted on that for several years now.

It’s becoming clear, though, that we can’t keep coasting that way. Online students are starting to demand a full panoply of services, and to expect that those services will be available on the same basis as the classes themselves. And the numbers now are big enough that the workarounds are simply untenable.

One could always say that we should have planned for that, and there’s some truth to that. But we didn’t plan for the Great Recession and the consequent evisceration of our state funding, or on the consequent enrollment boom. Both of those have strained resources to the point that even well-thought-out plans have been scrapped entirely.

It’s frustrating to have to spend untold staff hours on re-engineering the website to allow for remote drop/adds, or on trying to retrain some longstanding support staff to expand their skills to include helping students who can’t come to the office. But that’s where we are.

Somewhere along the way, online education turned pro. It’s not Pujols yet, but it’s climbing the minor leagues. I just hope we can keep up.

Comments:
"When the marginal cost of another section is simply the cost of the adjunct who teaches it, the college comes out ahead with reasonable enrollments, even at our low tuition level."

Thanks for that clarification about your institution. We come out ahead with extra sections, but in the past we also counted on that producing a "formula" increase from the state that would pay to shift those positions to full time. These days our "formula" turns out to be the same share of a shrinking pie.

"If you do online education right, it’s labor-intensive. ... The institutional savings from online education come mostly from infrastructure."

Certainly we benefit from being able to offer non-traditional format classes even when our classrooms (not just our classes) are literally full, but much of the demand is for non-traditional times. In that case, both faculty and students benefit from not having to travel to campus to have a class or office hours at 8 PM. I'd love hearing how folks on your end view accountability for virtual office hours.

"It’s frustrating to have to spend untold staff hours on re-engineering the website to allow for remote drop/adds, or on trying to retrain some longstanding support staff to expand their skills to include helping students who can’t come to the office."

Yes, we push distance education but good luck trying to get distance advising (or financial aid?) into that mix.

Our drop/add system is great. On the other hand, the process for withdrawals (probably because of financial aid issues) is very much manual and on campus.
 
We've found that online education can ultimately serve students we could not otherwise serve - primarily because of schedule (ie parents who have to be home to pick up children and include commuting time of up to two hours in their day).

At a more micro level, it allows us more direct interaction with students since they cannot sit silently in the back of a medium or large classroom.

I appreciate your showing us the other costs involved.
 
"But when enrolllment gains hit the point that you have to start adding staff in the library, the financial aid office, OSD, and the like, you fall behind again pretty quickly. That’s roughly where we are with online."

I'm missing something. Enrollment gains in traditional classes would drive the same increases in support staff, would it not? So is this really an online problem, or merely a basic growth problem?
 
I'm not sure if I agree or disagree with this post but I'll comment on parts.

If you do online education right, it’s labor-intensive. Really? Beyond the up-front conversion, I haven't found this to be the case. I think it depends on our expectation of engagement and whether or not you teach asynchronously or synchronously. Also many (especially older) faculty aren't very efficient with the on-line tools because they're not great at leaning new user interfaces and get frustrated. Younger faculty struggle less and more effectively / efficiently use their tools. With everyone using the LMS, even in FTF classes, the cost of that tool can't really be placed at the feet of on-line education anymore.

re-engineering the website to allow for remote drop/adds We've had this technology on campus for our FTF students for over a five years and it saved enormous amounts of staff time. The trick was to convert everyone over to that system - not just the on-line folks.

I wonder if part of the problem here isn't that on-line ed is more expensive, it's that you have to pay up-front the cost of conversion and the systems that made money FTF won't work as well for on-line folks. If you put more of your library on-line, can you cut staff? If you offer all evening sections on-line can you save on utility and security costs?

It's those labor intensive workarounds that are killing this for you. Adjusting to distance ed might bring more efficiency to both your on-line and FTF students. It's just easier to do that when there's money to offset the cost of conversion. Too bad the stimulus couldn't fund that....
 
Ivory, if you put more library resources online it doesn't mean you can cut staff. Those resources still need to be selected, purchased, cataloged, and processed so that they show up on the library's website. Tech staff need to respond to outages and technical problems, and web design staff need to keep the website functioning well. From a librarian's perspective there's no functional difference between an online resource and a printed one, except the electronic ones can be more finicky.
 
Ivory -

We regularly have some large (70 to 80, not 600!) lecture classes but our largest web-based class is around 50. Should we try for 75? 600? Can everyone get the contact they're expecting, or is it just a 300 seat lecture with one hour of (unused or overcrowded) office hours?

Now maybe you can have an on-line composition class with 50 enrolled in it, but will you count that as one section or two for your workload? If it has to count as two classes, just like 25 in a f2f class because it is being "done right", then on-line is just as labor intensive as f2f.
 
I am in agreement that if online education is done right, it isn't that much, if any, of a cost or labor saver. In fact, in my personal experience as a student, those instructors who teach online and do the best job probably put in a lot more hours than those who teach traditional, classroom-based courses.

The same is true from a student perspective. Online courses tend to involve more work than those done in the classroom. But the tradeoff, for both instructor and student, is the flexibility that the asynchronous interaction in online courses can provide. And, as an earlier commentor said, online courses allow institutions of higher learning to reach and service students who they wouldn't be able to otherwise.

So, big supporter of online learning done well, but done well means cost - money and time.
 
<if you put more library resources online it doesn't mean you can cut staff.
I'll admit, most of my experience getting stuff from the library is through journals and those are purchased mostly through acquisition of large databases - they are not individually selected and cataloged. My perspective is colored by that. If 20% of your students were on-line, couldn't you close the library more or limit hours? That would cut costs. Also, it has to be less labor intensive to purchase a database than to have to receive and shelve thousands of journals. Maybe the library buys fewer physical materials and saves on processing costs.

but done well means cost - money and time.
This assumption is part of the problem. Teaching any kind of class "done well" can be a major time suck. What does "done well" mean? Why should there be an upper limit of 50 on an on-line course? Does every class need to have discussion boards that the students post to? I think we deceive ourselves if we thing that somehow a large lecture FTF is interactive but an online lecture is not. Large lectures are not interactive. They do not provide some kind of mystical connection between the student and teacher - the teacher just has the advantage of getting a feel for the room. A few of the bold students can grab the prof after class and ask a question. I'd argue that because of the chat box, my large lectures were more interactive on-line - my more introverted students would answer and ask questions more. I could spin them into small groups to work on just in time cases or to solve short problems. On-line courses are only more work if you make them more work.

A very smart prof once told me that if you try to teach on-line the same way you do in a FTF classroom, you won't succeed. I've found she's about half right. You have to carefully select your tools to teach on-line. You have to plan your lessons a little differently. But at the end of the day, teaching a straight lecture class was about the same in terms of workload online and FTF (once I had digitized my course materials). You just can’t get caught up in the “this is on-line so it has to be more work” mentality.
 
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