IMHO, Online learning is one of the best things to happen to higher education in a long time. Also - and this is my provocative poke for the day - IMHO for-profit universities may be one of the best thing to happen to online learning. Both matter, because both have been huge catalysts for change in US post-secondary education.
Online education is coming under some interesting fire right now, under the auspices of quality oversight. And as questions are raised on the quality/relevancy/appropriateness of online learning (which, in 2010, is a question that I really don’t quite understand...) I’ve also observed a tendency for critics to equate online learning with for-profit education.
For-profit higher education – that is, colleges and universities run as businesses, funded by investors who buy shares of stock and use investments and tuition and student fees to fund operations and programs profitably enough to return financial dividends – is under full-blown attack.
I am uncomfortable with the hostility aimed at colleagues in for-profit institutions. In the same way that I am uncomfortable when someone goes after an online program in ANY environment, just because it’s online. I’m all for eQuality. I’m all for fairness, too. And I'm all for giving adult learners choices. I want anyone interested in pursuing the dream of a college degree to have the opportunity to pursue – and achieve – that dream.
I’m not suggesting that for-profits will ever replace Harvard and Stanford, OR Sonoma State or your local community college, for that matter. And I am certainly not suggesting that they should. But I AM suggesting that they are obviously filling a demand that has not been met by traditional institutions. And we all need to pay attention to that.
Now, there are some darn good reasons for some of the frothing and flaming that is going on. Diploma mills are a bad thing. Buying a credential with no requirement of demonstrating skills or competence is cheesy. Tricking prospective students into borrowing more money than they can afford to pay back is as evil as tricking people into buying mortgage instruments with rates that blow payments into the stratosphere as they mature.
But tarring every single for profit institution with the same brush, categorizing all such institutions as being evil and predatory is just wrong. It obfuscates the very important conversation that needs to take place around the critical need we have in this country to provide adult learners with choices for pursuing the dream of a college education.
Not all of us will find our educational aspirations met on an R1 residential campus. Some of us work full time and can’t get to campus for a 50 minute class, three times a week. Others of us live hundreds of miles from a campus, any campus. Some of us find that getting to class gets trumped by rush-hour traffic. Some of us are serving our country oversees. Some of us try to take classes at our local community colleges but can’t get the required courses we need because there is simply no room and all the classes are over-subscribed.
And so for some of us, the online options from publicly traded educational enterprises are some of the best options we’ve got.
I'm getting a little tired at the ad hominem logic used to lump anything online with anything for-profit, and that any school run as a for-profit enterprise is a bad thing.
I would hope, instead, that those of us who care about online learning quality – eQuality - will focus on working on rubrics that matter, programs that build capacity, technology that open the walls of the campus, standards and benchmarks that promote student success and faculty engagement.
WCET sponsored and I hosted a webcast with Dr. Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project today, October 5th. Casey is also the voice behind Digital Tweed, a column in Inside Higher Education. The topic of our webcast was Data-Driven Decision-Making, D3 – It’s So Trendy. (I’ll post the url to the webcast as soon as it’s posted.)
Casey and I talked about the role that data have in helping people get their arms about what is meant by quality in digitally enabled learning settings. We talked about how the higher education community’s heightened awareness about the pervasiveness of data collection from our consumer lives. How many of you use the Like button on Facebook? Did you know you were leaving a datum behind? The more we know about social media, web statistics and web analytic services, the harder it to ignore that the numbers are telling us some very important things.
I would suggest that, given the fires of criticism leveled against the for-profit sector these days that they are not sitting around feeling sorry for themselves. I would suggest that they are learning from other web companies that use their data to figure out what their constituencies are looking for, and acting on that information in ways that generate demonstratable improvements and positive results. You can be fairly certain that strategies and steps being taken to actively build more eQuality into these systems and programs are all actively informed by data.
Our online learning systems have given us a way to collect more information about the teaching and learning process than has ever been available. Our for-profit brethren are showing all of us that paying attention to our bottom lines and our consumer demands might not be such a bad idea. And I'm betting that they are going to have the data to prove it.
Data change everything. We’re all learning the new lessons that it’s what we do with that data that counts.
So perhaps we all owe our colleagues on the for-profit side a tip of the hat for drawing attention to these very important developments that can't help but influence the future of online learning.