As I noted yesterday, the strong likelihood is that to whatever extent higher education does move online, it will be dominated by a few strong players associated with strong brand names. The problem is that institutions with strong brand names are the ones least likely to risk those brands by messing around with alternative degree-granting mechanisms. That’s why, to date, all the institutions participating in either EdX or Coursera have been very firm about keeping everything on a non-credit basis.
If you want to get a sense of how ad hoc everything is in this business, take a look at the leaked copy of the contract that Coursera signed with a dozen-odd institutions (including U of T) this past summer. It’s clear that Coursera itself has no solid idea about how it’s going to make money from streaming courses for free; instead, it lists about eight ways that it might make money. Maybe. One day.
(Doesn’t watching people get excited about a business model where revenue is irrelevant make you all gloriously nostalgic for 1999? Almost makes you want to go listen to ‘N Sync. Almost.)
One of the routes to profitability Coursera posits is making money by through invigilation. That’s smart – one of the main barriers to making online higher education a reality is the problem of verifying identity in online courses. You’d think, therefore, that a move by one of these consortia to fix that problem would get a lot more press than it did. And yet the news that Pearson had signed a deal with EdX to provide physical testing centres and identity verification somehow stayed pretty much under the radar. It’s hard to see this as anything but a really big milestone for the industry.
Udacity – a much more downmarket competitor, with no links to any big research university – is trying to compete by making links with similarly down-market traditional institutions. It has struck a deal with Colorado State University to have the latter recognize Udacity’s credits asequivalent to its own. So, by the back-door, Udacity has essentially managed to wrangle credit-granting status. (It’s not completely clear how CSU’s accreditors feel about this; this story may not be as simple as it sounds.) But if you have the choice between EdX and MIT credit or Udacity and CSU credit – which are you going to take?
I’m still a skeptic about online education as a force in undergraduate education – in developed countries, the prestige of traditional education is going to outstrip online for a long time to come. But enough pieces are now falling into place that it’s time to pay more attention to online.
There are a lot of institutions facing a demographic challenge over the next few years. Outside the GTA and the B.C. lower mainland, the youth population is in decline, and that means institutions in these regions are either going to have to start increasing their yields or find some new markets to exploit.
(Or, I suppose, cut their budgets a bit, but that seems to be a last resort.)
Though I can’t claim to have a lot of granular detail on the issue, I’m getting the sense a) that most institutions have decided to go for new markets, and b) that the ratio of frantic, flailing activity to serious strategy and planning in this area is alarmingly high.
The two obvious candidates for attracting new money are “older students” and “foreign students.” Going after “older students,” interestingly enough, now seems to be entirely a digital affair; it is assumed that this demographic has little interest in hauling itself to campus and should be addressed primarily via online programs. But – and this is the crucial bit – what is it exactly you should put online? The same courses you were offering before? Or totally new courses? It’s a critical question, but it doesn’t seem to be one a lot of people are asking – the automatic assumption seems to be that offering the same courses with a new delivery mechanism will do the trick. I’m not convinced this will end well, especially given the costs of translating old content into a new format.
Another option, of course, is to aggressively court foreign students. You can charge them more, of course, which is a bonus. But they also cost more to educate and they cost a lot more to find and recruit. That sounds simple, but a lot of schools haven’t figured out that second part; I know of at least two in Western Canada that are losing money hand over fist on international students because they don’t systematically stack up costs against revenues.
In both cases, the issue is marginal net revenue: there is no reason to do something for the sake of chasing revenue if the costs are too high. More to the point, it’s comparative marginal net revenue that matters. Why spend any time or energy recruiting foreign students if you can make more per student via the digital option (or vice-versa)?
Ultimately, institutions need to be more strategic about deciding which avenues to exploit in order to chase a buck. The temptation to just “do something” is very real, but needs to be resisted. Deciding on the right balance between different types of revenue-generating activity needs to be done with a lot more deliberation than is often given at present.
Here’s the key fact you need to know about HESA’s new report on the State of E-learning in Canada: as the intensity of availability of e-learning resources increase, students become less satisfied, and less likely to say they feel they are learning a lot.
Contrary to the rantings of technophiles, students don’t behave much like “digital natives.” They still far prefer to do their readings on paper rather than on a screen, for instance. They really don’t seem to have a lot of time for dynamic e-learning resources like interactive discussion forums, and they don’t think there is any comparison between courses you take in person and those you watch even occasionally on a screen – the former wins hands down.
The fact is, Canadian students aren’t impressed by the e-learning resources on offer in Canadian universities. Now, possibly that’s because they don’t like e-learning, period. Particularly in the humanities, there’s an aura of eros around the teacher-as-guru that e-learning enthusiasts just don’t seem to take into account.
But possibly we just aren’t getting the implementation right. It might just be that the technology, and the way in which we integrate it with the curriculum, just isn’t that good. Just because students aren’t digital natives doesn’t mean universities can’t underwhelm them.
For the moment, students pretty clearly see e-learning resources as a convenience issue. What they seem to want is as much course-related text as possible available online all the time so that missing class is less of a big deal. But that suggests it’s an alternative to in-class learning, not an addition to it.
Work done by the National Center for Academic Transformation has shown how intelligent course redesign can improve learning outcomes and reduce costs, and with budget crises looming across much of the country, this isn’t something any institution can sensibly ignore. But it will require institutions to pay a lot more attention to implementation and to continually measure and monitor results to find out what works and what doesn’t.
That’s a big task, but it’s one HESA will be working on for years to come.
Extra note: those of you in Ontario looking for deeper commentary on the Liberals’ Big Idea regarding tuition grants, visit my Globe and Mail blog.