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.