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?