Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Who the Students Are, Part 1

Over 90 percent of our online students aren’t online students.

They’re onsite students who also take online classes. They use online classes to round out their schedules and reduce conflicts with work. In most cases, the majority of their coursework is onsite. The pure “online student” is very much the exception.

From what I’ve seen at other cc’s, my cc is pretty typical in this respect. While many cc’s offer online classes, they haven’t resulted in vast numbers of students logging on from points unknown. They mostly result in students being able to fit in all of their classes before 1:00 so they can go to work.

Most of us in the trenches know this, but the public discussion of online education seems to ignore it. From popular discussion, you’d think that online students were all “pure,” all thirty years old, and logging on after the kids were in bed. Those students exist, but they’re a distinct minority.

Unfortunately, the accrediting agencies are thoroughly in the grip of the stereotype. This does more damage than they know.

The regional accreditors -- and I’ll admit that I’ve only worked with three of them -- have very different criteria for “online programs” than they have for “online courses.” Offering a stray online section here and there is not terribly difficult. Show that you’re adhering to the same academic standards and learning outcomes, show some assessment measures to back it up, and you’re mostly good. (There’s more, but you get the idea.) But run an entire program, and you suddenly have to show not only that you’re meeting the same student learning outcomes, but that you’re providing student services similar to what an onsite student would receive. If you have, say, a counseling office on campus, then you need online counseling services. If you have student activities onsite, then you need student organizations online. Financial aid, academic advising, registration, library services, tutoring -- anything you offer onsite, you have to offer online. (They seem to make an exception for athletics, mercifully.)

The theory seems to be that online students are awarded the same degree, so they should get the same education. And it’s hard to argue with the logic of having, say, online math tutoring available if you’re running online math sections.

But ramping up every campus service to a comparable level online is a significant cost, and it’s based on a false assumption. It’s based on the assumption that there are two distinct groups -- traditional students and online students -- and they each stick to their own camp. This is simply not reality.

Since our online offerings have continued to grow, we’ve beefed up online offerings in several key support areas. Other than registration, which really should have gone online for everyone by now, they’ve been significantly underused. The 90-plus percent of “online students” who regularly come to campus to take their other courses use on-campus offices to transact their other business. If they need to work with the Financial Aid office, they go when they’re here. If they need something from the library, they go when they’re here. Oddly, we’ve found that even online math students often come for in-person tutoring, rather than using the more convenient online service.

From the student’s perspective, this makes perfect sense. “Online” is less a brave new world than a scheduling convenience. One of the benefits of that convenience is that students are free to do their other business as needed. But the popular discussion of online education hasn’t figured that out, and neither have the accreditors.

In a time of budget struggles, it’s frustrating to have to devote scarce resources to establishing separate-but-equal parallel services that most online students don’t use anyway. It’s a waste of staff, and it’s based on an assumption about who the students are that simply isn’t true.

Yes, it’s conceivable that a student could use online courses to stay off campus entirely. But most don’t. Could we please make rules around the students we actually have?

Pointing out the obvious, maybe the reason your "online" students are mostly "onsite" students is because your offerings are not what the "online" students want and need?
At a faculty meeting every year, the same data is pointed out to us: That we are only "remixing" our current on-campus students, who are using online/hybrid offerings to compliment the schedules of their face-to-face classes.

I was recruited at my college with awards in the area of online public speaking--a course many faculty at the time of my hiring were not comfortable teaching, but one that is necessary at many colleges to complete a full menu of online transfer offerings.

When enrollment was low, a colleague and I drew up a full marketing proposal to build upon our weekend college and online/hybrid offerings. Unfortunately, there were no funds devoted to seeking out this "true" online population. Then, at the next year's faculty meeting, the same data showed up: We're redistributing our current students. I wanted to stand up and shout, "But we haven't even TRIED to reach those online students, so how do we know what the numbers would look like if we did?"

We back up against the same issues with support services. I do wonder this: If online students aren't using the newly available online services, is it because they are choosing not to? Or, is it because the availability of those services aren't marketed to them?

(End note: I'm a new commenter, but have been enjoying this blog a great deal!)

Ellen Bremen, M.A. @chattyprof
I'm 31 and login to the online classroom after the kid is in bed. Except I teach. And I only go to campus twice a year.
We use an on-line tutoring operation that appears to be located in India, but it is used mostly by on-site students.

We have the same pattern as DD observes.

Actually, it amazes me that we have any on-line students who are in distant locations, since we hardly have a national advertising presence.

Specifically, why would a student in (mumble state that might be where DD is located) take my class rather than a similar class at DD's CC, and pay out-of-state tuition to do so? That student also pays a proctoring fee to take each exam, whereas students within a few hundred miles can pay in-state tuition and drive to campus every month or two to take clusters of exams for free at our on-site facility.

Economics alone argues for staying close to home when taking on-line classes.

Interesting question: Should we be required to have a secure testing facility in every community in the country?
I'll go you one better. I have been teaching online for 10 yrs, it is now a regular part of my CC load. I am finding increasing numbers of students who take online classes even though THEY DO NOT HAVE A COMPUTER. They rely on using a computer at work (do homework on lunch hour), at someone else's house, or at the library. If I want them to watch videos or something that requires FLASH, they often cannot do this since it's blocked. Sometimes our Blackboard apps don't work for them. It is very very frustrating. I think we have become too "consumer driven" in this regard.
Seems to me you have two directions you can go. One, you can offer courses only and not have programs. That makes it unnecessary to have the additional student services. Alternatively, you can create popular on-line programs that through their enrollment justify the additional services.

This is a pet peeve but if student services would accept credit cards and consistently answer the freaking phone there would be less need for people to drag themselves down to campus for the start of semester crazy. Skype would make this free! This would benefit both on-line and on-site students. So perhaps there's a way to make these services a help to all types of services.
Your market is changing and over time large brick and mortar campus facilities will shrink as online enrollment grows. Look at the banking industry, for example.

25 years ago, I would stand in a bank teller line, deposit my paycheck, withdraw cash, etc. Today, like most people, my paycheck is electronically deposited and I use an ATM machine, while checking my balance, etc., on my smart phone. It is a very rare instance that I need to enter a bank branch, which is now a kiosk at the local supermarket, and much more convenient for me. Reduced brick and mortal, and employees, is also more cost effective for the bank.
The desire from students to take classes online (I can only make two of the classes I need fit between work and kids) is the same issue that drives the need for online services. If a student is schedule-constrained with respect to classes, aren't they in the same boat with access to services?

We've seen tremendous use of the transactional stuff (registration, paying tuition, searching library databases), so why not provide some academic support?

I'd agree with you in so far as 24x7 support isn't critical. That may matter if you have students around the world, or specifically target night shift. But the use patterns don't support staffing a help desk at 2am. It's just not worth it.
It seems like for a lot of these services, such as counseling, a sensible way to incrementally add online support is to simply buy an appropriate setup for one of your existing on-campus people to also conduct sessions over Skype. Students could then choose to book either an "online appointment" or an "in-person appointment" with the same person (yes, you'd need an online-friendly booking system if your accreditors would be upset about asking an online student to make phone calls for some reason, I suppose, although presumably this could be done with emails to the same person who handles all the rest of the bookings for marginal cost as this person presuambly already has and checks email regularly). That'd let you add "online" capacity to anything that requires an appointment and could reasonably be done with videoconferencing now with what I assume would be less cost than a full-on extra service. If it actually gets used enough to merit its own full-time person (or several) you could look into adding an actual parallel service.
DD: Your comment about online athletics was amusing. What kinds of sports could be offered online?

Seriously, it got me to thinking about my "nontraditional" students. They are often the same types of students who take online courses: working adults, caregivers and the like. Their needs and interests are very different from those of nineteen- and twenty-year-olds one sees in more traditional classes.

One pet peeve of non-traditional students is having to pay "student activity fees," when they rarely, if ever, participate in student government, the marching band, the basketball team or any other student activity you care to name. Plus, they don't use services like counseling much and, if they do, their concerns are very different from those of younger students. And, on most campuses, the counseling services are prepared mainly to deal with the issues of younger students.

From what you're saying, it seems that the accrediting agencies really need to re-think their criteria for on-line as well as traditional programs.
Why do students want to be online? 15 years ago, novelty was a factor, and in particular the novelty of a more direct and disinhibited line to the instructor and the rest of the class. Now they're exhausted with being online, but convenience in relation to paid work and family is still a major factor. But there are emerging and strongly expressed demands in relation to environmental impact, particular in terms of driving long distances to stand in lines to do something that could be done from home, if we just made it so.

But I'm puzzled we don't hear much about one of the big educational benefits online offers as budgets contract: the capacity for smaller disciplines to collaborate across locations and sectors and even internationally to co-deliver curriculum. In Australia this is mostly happening with language learning, but will be a growth area over the next 5 years.

Obviously, this means institutions learning how to share. And, you know ...
I go to a CC in MN and there is talk of starting the fall semester classes at 7 a.m and having the last class start at 5 because "it's what the student body keeps requesting". Of course, the slack would be picked up because a majority of classes would become blended/hybrid or online.

I keep asking my professors and admin, as well as classmates, who requested those hours and I get nowhere. Personally, I drive an hour to be in class at 10. For parents who need to drop off their children at daycare or schedule classes around the public bus schedule and then factor in all the morning rush hour traffic coming into Minneapolis... I just can't fathom seeing a large enough percentage of the student body requesting classes during those odd hours.

At times it seems like the institution seems to forget the we, the students, are the consumer and without us; they would fail. There comes a point when the jig is up and it just seems like when you strip away all the big words and fancy names it's bullying. They want to charge us more and give us less. They can enroll more people in online classes, there isn't the one on one (or as much of it) and they can blame the students for the change.. kind of like when I was a kid and would misbehave and blame my little sister: Bully.

I know that the orders come from above the Dean, but, I'm 30 and in CC.. not 30 and on life support.
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