The University Professional Continuing Education Association and the Association for Continuing Higher Education recently convened a summit of education leaders to talk about the phenomenon of online learning, described in summit literature as "the biggest thing to ever hit higher education."
These days, online learning has come to the attention of presidents looking to find new student markets and to replace state dollars that many institutions have lost in recent years. These presidents see publicly traded companies running institutions like APUS and the University of Phoenix competing for student market share via online programs. They see innovative public community colleges such as Rio Salado College and the Colorado Community College Online enrolling massive numbers of students via online programs.They see flagship institutions like the University of California - Berkeley gingerly dip their toes into the online learning space. And so they want to know what they can do about online learning, too.
Online learning has moved from margins to mission-critical, representing a higher profile in institutional strategic imperatives. This is all making continuing education professionals both happy and anxious. The cash-funded basis of operation that set them apart from their centrally funded colleagues is now, institutionally, a very good thing that central staff are being asked to emulate.
Except that maybe the cash is going to be someone else's cash. Students have turned in significant measure to non-traditional, for-profit providers of education programs and degrees for the flexible adult serving programs they offer. Hundreds and thousands of students, paying millions and millions in tuition, much of it funded through publicly sponsored financial aid programs.
It is not an exaggeration to say that public and private not-for-profit insitutions are seriously offended that publicly traded businesses have stepped into their space. They don't quite know what to do about competition. They hate that there is so much money involved. Quality is a huge concern. Loss of market share is making them nuts.
And so there is fomenting about quality and interstate commerce, and railing against the bad actors whose recruitment techniques are evil and whose SEO investments are obscene and whose students drop out in great nunbers and default on student loans. On purpose.
Wait. Market share? Competition?
Here is the dirty little secret of online learning: Everyone is in online learning for the money. We are all competing for market share.
Think about it. Everyone who considers adopting online learning as a learning delivery option thinks about both extending reach AND generating revenue. We have to. Even open online learning has to figure out how to operate these days. WCET's Managing Online Education 2010 survey with the Campus Computing Project shows this very clearly. It doesn't matter if you are a "for-profit" institution, run as a business - or if you are a state-funded institution, focused on common good. Revenue is not the only reason for offering online programs. But it's becoming an increasingly important consideration, across the post-secondary ecosystem.
So maybe this is a great moment to celebrate. Online learning has tipped into mainstream consciousness. Yes it has. It matters enough that people will pay for it. Let's celebrate the fact that there is demand for high quality, online learning programs. And let's all finally admit that we are ALL in it for the money, one way or another. These days, we have to be. It's the only way our programs will thrive.
With that out of the way, perhaps we can quit worrying about our respective bases of institutional funding and we can ALL focus on raising the bar on quality and giving a lot more people a shot at achieving the dream of a college education. Time to own the secret that we all need to think about what it takes to pay our way and delight our stakeholders. Time to move on to things that matter.