Thursday, November 09, 2017


I had to smile at news of the report that an internal investigation at GWU has highlighted concerns that online courses are “cannibalizing” classroom courses.

I’d guess that nearly every community college administrator has heard some version of that over the years.  The usual “cannibals” are online classes and classes taught at sites other than the main campus.  The assumption underlying the charge is that classes taught in classrooms at the main campus are somehow more “real” than either online or offsite classes.  

It’s easy to get sidetracked by the usual debates about online learning, but for present purposes, they’re beside the point.  Instead, I’ll frame the alleged cannibalization as an organizational issue.  It’s about structure.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll use the English department as an example, but it’s really not about English.  Substitute nearly any department you want, and the point is the same.

We have one English department.  It consists of full and part-time professors who teach classes ranging from developmental writing to literature, but with a heavy concentration on composition.  Composition classes are required in every degree program at the college.  That’s not unusual; it’s a cornerstone of general education.

That means that students at the main campus, where the faculty offices are located, take classes.  But we also offer English classes online, and we offer them at the branch campuses and offsite locations, as well (what we call “higher education centers”).  The English department, which is located physically on the main campus, is responsible for staffing, teaching, and monitoring the quality of English classes regardless of location or modality.  So a professor whose office is at the main campus in Lincroft may teach a few classes there, plus a class at the branch campus in Freehold and another online.  

We don’t have separate English departments for each location, or for online classes.  It’s all the same department.

The advantages of that are twofold.  The first, which should be obvious, is cost; duplicating departments across locations and modalities across the curriculum would be prohibitively expensive.  Some private universities can do that -- I’m thinking here of Southern New Hampshire University, which I believe has a separate faculty for its online classes -- but we can’t.  The second, which may be more subtle, is ensuring consistent quality.  Not only do we have the same academic requirements for faculty across locations and modalities, we often use the same people.  That makes it much easier to ensure that academic standards, student learning outcomes, and the like are consistent.  If Professor Hypothetical teaches well in Lincroft, I’m confident that she will also teach well in Freehold.  When the department meets to make curricular decisions, it includes people who teach in other locations and modalities without even trying, because many of them are the same people who teach at the main campus.

Given too few faculty, though, in the heat of scheduling, it’s easy to perceive other locations and modalities as cannibalizing the main campus.  That’s particularly true when some of the offsite locations tend to run smaller sections.  The directors of the offsite locations get frustrated at having to beg for sections, and the department gets frustrated at having to stretch to cover the sections it has.  The conflict endures because both sides are correct, as far as they go.

Even if we had the resources to hire enough faculty, though, I’m not sure I’d go with the “separate departments for each location” model.  Having the same people cover multiple sites and modalities ensures consistent quality and constant communication.  Yes, the logistical burden of maintaining that is non-trivial, but it’s in the service of quality control.  That strikes me as worthwhile.

GWU apparently has other concerns as well, many of which are presumably local.  But the cry of “Cannibals!” is painfully familiar.  If it means that students across the college are getting the same high level of instruction, I’ll take it.