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.