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Is Online Learning the Solution?

The need for reform is at the top of many lists detailing current issues related to higher education. Concerns about ensuring quality and access, as well as funding and career preparation are all around us, discussed and debated by educators and administrators at all possible levels. Can online learning provide a viable response to these concerns? 

Institutions: Saving while Expanding

A new initiative within the University of South Carolina (USC) system sheds some light on the challenges faced by higher education institutions today. The problems often include contradictions among priorities, such as meeting demands to cut operational costs, while also providing educational opportunities to additional student populations. Palmetto College, an initiative still in the planning stages, "aims to provide South Carolinians who may not be able to attend classes at one of the university's campuses with access to higher education." The program targets those students who already have two-year degrees, providing them with the option to complete bachelor's degrees through online programs.

In addition to increasing access to education, University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides also anticipates the program will be available at a lower cost than for-profit alternatives. The plan includes tapping existing resources across the system's eight campus locations, eliminating the need for construction of new facilities and hiring new faculty members. Pastides recently asked the State Legislature for $5 million to fund the online Palmetto College, as well as $30 million to fund building renovations and deferred maintenance (estimated at $300 million) on the various campuses.

Faculty: Curriculum and Collaboration

California State University (CSU) Online, an effort led by the university's Technology Steering Committee, has multiple goals that envision increased access to students who want or need higher education opportunities but are not able to attend campus-based courses, along with increased revenues from higher enrollment through expanded offerings. Among the prospective learners are high school students preparing for college, community college students anticipating transfer to four-year programs, military servicemembers, and state prison inmates.

While USC's faculty voices are not yet heard regarding the Palmetto College initiative, instructors are weighing in on plans for CSU Online. There are questions regarding the design, development, and maintenance of the online programs and courses. Academic Senates, composed of faculty members on each campus, are stressing the need for faculty involvement throughout the process. CSU East Bay's faculty senate recently requested that funding for the online initiative be halted until 80% of campus senates are in agreement and approve of the plans to move forward. Establishing and maintaining high quality courses online is a primary concern as the conversations about faculty involvement in planning and decision-making continue.

Students: Access and Convenience

In early 2011, the University of Washington (UW) launched the UW Online Initiative. This project is "a multifaceted effort that expands online access and will double online course enrollments to 24,000 within three years without using state funding." A pilot project of the initiative, conducted with undergraduate students, found that 80% of those surveyed reported that they would recommend the online courses to their peers. Convenience factors, such as flexibility in scheduling around work obligations and reduced time spent commuting to campus, were important to students. Due to restructured tuition and fees, these students benefited from reduced costs. Online delivery also opened up additional "seats" in courses that normally filled quickly, preventing students from having to wait another term to enroll.

The students of UW echoed some of the same concerns and preferences expressed in a larger study of online learners conducted by Noel-Levitz. Their 2011 annual National Online Learners Priorities Report, [PDF] includes a list of online enrollment factors for two groups of students, those enrolled primarily online and those enrolled primarily on campus. Both groups reported "convenience" as the most important motivating factor for taking courses online. Both groups also identified "flexible pacing for completing a program" as the second most motivating factor for online enrollment, while the on campus group reported a tie with "cost" in second place. 

Finding the Way(s) Forward

Online learning initiatives are not the only solution to all of higher education's current problems, however, they can provide options for all involved to explore. As government agencies, colleges and universities, faculty members, and students continue to meet the many challenges they face, their effective use of technology may provide answers and innovative solutions along the way. We all can stand to learn from the lessons and recommendations resulting from these programs.