Found this column interesting in the Chronicle, although for different reasons than the author does. Rob Jenkins points out that success rates in online college courses tend to be lower than those in face to face courses (he mentions but does not cite studies of 50% vs. 70-75% success rates). Doesn’t that make sense if, as he points out, online courses are often harder than their f2f equivalent? They require more reading, more writing, more self-motivation, and they build technical skills along with the skills covered in the class.

Then again, don’t understand how online courses can be more difficult in one part of this essay, and lacking in quality in another part (he refers snidely t0 the practice of teaching anatomy online. I guess he’s never seen this.)

I disagree that the answer is to screen students to determine if they have the chops to succeed online. I think what colleges should do is constantly refine and improve online course design. Adaptive learning software makes this easier than ever. They should add hybrid elements where appropriate, which don’t necessarily have to take place in a classroom. Jenkins gives a great example of this: an online speech course where students must go out and give a speech to their church, community group, or other real-world setting. Evidence, not prejudice, should determine the development of online vs. f2f courses. In truth, what we’re really talking about is online vs. hybrid courses, as it’s rare to find a course that doesn’t have an online component, whether the syllabus on a web page or the ability to connect with professors via email.

The other troubling fact in the piece is when Jenkins mentions that online courses have become a “cash cow”: “colleges can produce online courses much more cheaply while charging roughly the same tuition.”

THAT’s outrageous. Students deserve to pay something closer to the true cost of their educations. Price gouging by a publicly supported institution is unattractive and unethical.

PS: Check out this great article by the founder of Techchange (and a professor) on up to the minute tools for teaching hybrid courses.

One Response to “Online Classes As Cash Cows”

  1. Well, it’s not that simple.

    On the cost side of the equation, the more accurate way to put it is that online course costs scale better than F2F. Early investments in online courses are typically money losers, because there’s a fair bit of fixed cost plus startup cost that gets spread out over only a few classes. But as the number of enrollments ramps up, the costs don’t ramp at the same rate. You don’t have more classrooms to clean and heat, more security guards to hire, and so on.

    On the price side, what’s true is that state schools often charge out-of-state tuition for online courses. The in-state/out-of-state thing is one of those weird analog constructs that translates awkwardly into the digital world, but I certainly wouldn’t call it price gouging.

    You can add to this the fact that many states cap the number of F2F students that a college can take, both because they can’t afford the capital expenses of expanding the physical plant and because every in-state student is subsidized by the taxpayers (though by far less than they should be). Since online learning has neither of these limitations, state schools are able to accept many more online students. Which lowers the cost per student, because of the scaling thing, which actually brings money into the college.

    Far from being price gouging, what we have here is a virtuous cycle that should be lauded and encouraged. It infuses the schools with badly needed cash while increasing access to education by adding available seats. Even out-of-state tuition can be a relatively good deal, depending on the state. It’s not an ideal solution, to be sure, but it is a net positive.

    When 80% of an article demonstrates a slanted view of a person with an axe to grind, it’s probably best not to take the remaining 20% at face value–particularly when no verifiable facts are cited.

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