Sunday, August 05, 2012

A Framework for Developing Online and Blended Degree & Certificate Programs for Non-Traditional Students

This framework distills the ideas and data that were discussed in detail in the "Related Notes" previously posted on this blog that are listed at the end of this paper.

A. Increased Demand vs. Constrained Supply
  • The conversion of the highly competitive global economy from services to a knowledge-base  is placing a premium on post-secondary education and on the continuous re-education and re-certification of employees in the workforce. This increased demand for lifelong learning has made non-traditional students the largest and fastest growing sector of the global market for higher education.

    Note: Non-traditional students have family and/or work obligations that prevent them from enrolling in weekday classes on a full-time basis; they can only take classes on a part-time basis in the evenings, on weekends, and via distance learning, which today is mostly online.
  • Support from federal and state governments enabled the extraordinary expansion of U.S. higher education since World War II. For example, in 2007, 80 percent of all online courses were offered by public institutions. However government support has recently begun a decline that is unlikely to be reversed in the near future. As consequence, the percentage of traditional and non-traditional students enrolled in state colleges and universities is also likely to decline.
  • Tuition at U.S. colleges and universities has consistently risen faster than inflation and faster than the income of U.S. families. Students paid for the shortfall between tuition and family resources with loans. At this point the average debt of U.S. students upon graduation has risen so high as to raise fundamental questions about the affordability of U.S. higher education.
  • The costs of U.S. higher education have steadily risen whereas the unit costs of the goods and services produced by most other sectors of the economy have steadily declined because most colleges and universities, especially in the non-profit sector, have made comparatively little use of information technology in their teaching and administrative processes. By contrast the for-profit institutions have been highly innovative; but being profit-oriented, they extracted substantial profits instead of lowering their tuition.
  • Although for-profit institutions that focused on non-traditional students have also enjoyed an extraordinary expansion in the last ten years, this expansion has recently stalled because of substantial damage to their reputations that resulted from a series of highly critical reports from U.S. Senator Harkin's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), and from the U.S. Department of Education. These reports documented significant abuses in the for-profit's recruitment and loan processing, and questioned the quality of their courses as reflected by the inability of many of their graduates to obtain gainful employment, i.e., jobs that paid high enough salaries for their alums to repay their student loans in a timely manner.

    For-profit institutions are heavily dependent on tuition paid by government aid; hence the U.S. Department of Education is in the process of developing regulations that will substantially curtail their students' access to federal grants and loans. Some states, e.g., California, are also revising their regulations so as to limit the access of students enrolled in for-profit institutions to state grants and loans programs. And regional accrediting bodies have recently denied accreditation to for-profit institutions, which will further curtail their students' eligibility for government aid because such assistance is only granted to students at accredited institutions.
B. Window of Opportunity
The previous considerations indicate that HBCUs and other non-profit colleges and universities currently face a window of opportunity for developing degree and certificate programs for non-traditional students that could generate substantial revenue. However, this window will close as for-profit operations "reform" their procedures in recognition of the fact that the global market for higher education for non-traditional students will sustain long-term billion dollar profits that are orders of magnitude larger than the millions they have extracted via their current abusive practices. In other words, in the long run it will be well worth whatever investments are required for them to "clean up their acts."

C. Defining Characteristics
This window of opportunity can only be exploited by HBCUs and other nonprofit institutions whose programs for non-traditional students embody four defining characteristics
  • High Quality
    Courses in the programs for non-traditional students must be good enough to sustain the reputations of their institutions. And, of course, they must be good enough for their graduates to obtain "gainful employment" and good enough to meet any other standards proposed by government agencies for the courses offered by for-profit institutions because it is only a matter of time before such standards are implemented across the board.

    While courses for part-time non-traditional students may not be as good as the very best courses offered by their institutions to their full-time traditional students, they should be comparable to most of the institution's traditional courses.
  • Affordable
    Courses must be affordable. Tuition cannot be so high as to drive students to assume unmanageable debt levels through student loans nor so high as to price the courses out of the market.
  • Self-Sustaining
    As support from the federal government and the states declines, the tuition charged by non-profit institutions must get closer to the full costs of offering each course ... but not rise so high as to make the courses unaffordable. 
  •  IT Intensive
    The only way to ensure that an institution can offer high quality, affordable, self-sustaining courses to non-traditional students is by designing these courses to make far greater use of appropriate eLearning technologies than the institution's traditional courses. In other words, nonprofit institutions must now do what just about every other sector of the economy has done ==> become more IT intensive. This means offering courses to non-traditional students that are fully online or highly blended, i.e., hybrid combinations that require some face-to-face sessions, but provide most of their content online.

    But in offering online or highly blended courses, HBCUs must use IT, specifically, social media, in such a way as to retain the highly personalized TLC -- "tender loving care" -- that has been one of the defining hallmarks of their legacy.
D. Making Traditional Programs More IT Intensive
There are no short-cuts to developing high quality online or blended courses. Faculty who only teach face-to-face courses can't just take a couple of distance learning workshops, then suddenly produce online or blended versions of their courses of comparable quality. They need time to acquire hands-on experience with the new technologies. In other words, faculty need make their current courses more IT intensive before they can produce versions that are highly blended or fully online.

E. Strategic Partners
Some for-profit operations -- e.g.,  the University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, and DeVry University -- own colleges and universities that offer online/blended degrees and certificates in direct competition with nonprofit institutions. Other for-profit companies -- e.g., EOServe, Learning House, Embanet-Compass, and Pearson -- provide services to nonprofit colleges and universities that facilitate their development of online/blended programs. In recent years, HBCUs and other colleges have entered into strategic partnerships with these companies whereby the providers advanced the up-front funds required to cover the costs of market research, course development, advertising, and recruitment in exchange for a negotiated share of the tuition revenue when students enrolled in the programs.

Although faculty have the subject-matter expertise required to develop high quality online/blended courses, this knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient. High quality design also requires comparable expertise in eLearning, i.e., the instructional technologies that enable students to enjoy the most productive sessions when they log on to their courses, technologies that also enable HBCU faculty to use the Web to provide their traditional TLC. The complementary subject matter and eLearning expertise of the nonprofit institution's faculty and the provider's instructional technologists can equip the partnerships with the full range of knowledge that is both necessary and sufficient for the production of high quality courses that are affordable and capable of generating substantial revenue.

Related Notes: