Friday, November 11, 2005

Online Courses, Office Hours, and Cross-Purposes

For all the right reasons, my college is at cross-purposes.

We want to run more online courses, since students love them and they solve a nasty space crunch during ‘prime time’ (10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday to Thursday, pretty much). They’re especially helpful with meeting the needs of students with jobs, illnesses, children, or other unpredictable demands on their time. (The jobs open to our students frequently have unilaterally ‘flexible’ hours, meaning they change every week. How anybody is supposed to build a life around that is completely beyond me.)

To encourage faculty to develop more online courses, we’ve offered stipends for their development, on-campus tech workshops at all hours, limited use of online office hours (in place of office hours held physically on campus), and all the attaboys we can muster.

We also want to increase student retention, since enrollments are shaky and our entire fiscal structure is based on enrollments. (Tuition is over half of our operating revenue, and the rest, which comes from government, is also enrollment-dependent.) Since studies have shown that retention increases where there is more faculty-student contact, we’re encouraging faculty to be more available for student advisement.

(Astute readers may ask how it’s possible to have shaky enrollments and a space crunch at the same time. I’ve wondered the same thing. It pretty much comes down to two factors: ever-increasing claims on ‘dedicated’ space for specialized programs taking general purpose classrooms out of circulation, and students’ stubborn refusal to take classes outside of ‘prime time.’ At 4:00, or on Friday, we’ve got plenty of room.)

Online courses and increased student contact are both worthy, but they contradict each other.

Since you don’t have to be physically on campus to teach online (which has been one of the selling points we’ve used to entice faculty to teach them), folks who pick up multiple sections aren’t around that much. Which means that the burden of advising the students who come through the door falls disproportionately on their colleagues who are actually there.

A few years ago we tried scheduling more classes on Fridays, on the theory that we could decompress the space crunch at prime time; faculty were willing, but students weren’t.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that the more we accede to compressing everything into 16 hours a week, the less room we leave ourselves for growth. In fact, we pretty much guarantee decline.

I’m guessing mine isn’t the only college trying to square the circle of increasing retention while simultaneously increasing online teaching. Have you found something that works? Anything I should take special care to avoid?