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Distance Ed and Institutional Performance

It may meet many student/customer needs, but distance learning can also be your solution to six institutional performance obligations.

DISTANCE LEARNING IS sometimes viewed by nonprofit colleges and universities as either an end in itself or a positioning factor in a rapidly changing market that is increasingly responsive to flexible for-profit postsecondary programs. Yet there’s more to the flex model than student convenience. It’s time to focus on how flex courses, programs, and services can address some of the institutional performance obligations that are reshaping the social compact between nonprofit higher ed and the public and its policy makers.

Academic Computing

sought to counter declining Online Degree Program
enrollment. "Flexible" service redesign came to the rescue.

First though, to think differently about distance learning, let’s drop “distance” as the defining characteristic of the flexible course and program access models that deserve strategic attention today. Distance is sometimes a factor, but the defining characteristic, from a student perspective, should instead be convenience.

Extolling convenience, however, often sparks a “studentas- customer” academic dust-up. Students, nevertheless, are customers when they ask about institutional options for how learning services and other services are delivered, and want to know what learning is required and how it is assessed. Based on the answers to such questions, students can decide either not to apply or, if admitted, to decline the offer. On the other hand, students have no more right to determine curriculum and their own grades at an institution than a bank’s customers have to set their own interest rates and loan terms. Convenience of access to courses, programs, and services is about giving students delivery options, and such options a priori need not compromise the faculty’s dominion over curriculum, learning objectives, and grading. So, let’s examine convenience of access from a student perspective.

Whether for reasons of personal preference or to work around scheduling constraints inherent in career and family obligations, students may seek or require instructional delivery models substantially unfettered by the inconvenience of scheduled participation in real-time lectures and discussions—whether such participation is scheduled in a traditional classroom, in a remote classroom linked by interactive audio or video to the instructor’s classroom, or in an online chat room or IM discussion. These students are looking for “flex” course, program, and service delivery models designed primarily to eliminate or significantly reduce regularly scheduled synchronous interactions in favor of 24/7 online self-service (asynchronous web access to instructors, classmates, learning materials and activities, and other academic and administrative resources and services). Flex students also expect and often need one-to-one, real-time help from an instructor, librarian, academic advisor, financial aid assistant, or other service agent. These real-time custom service encounters may take place on campus, in an off-campus service center, on the phone, or online, but it is the institution’s or program’s holistic online self-service website or portal that helps the student identify and, as required, schedule real-time custom services when they are desired or needed. So, we understand what is needed from the institution in order for flex programs to meet the needs of its customers, the students. Yet, the question still remains: How can flex programs address some of the institutional performance obligations, as well? The following three scenarios will illustrate some common institutional performance challenges.

Scenario #1—Capacity challenges. Two-and four-year public institutions in high-growth states and communities often face capacity-of-access challenges and related program accountability and learning accountability obligations. Some institutions react as though they are being forced to:

  • Cap enrollments among existing and would-be students in high-enrollment, required and elective general education and developmental courses, and also in required courses in high-demand majors. Such courses are “common courses” taught at most institutions around content and learning objectives that vary little from institution to institution.
  • Turn away qualified applicants to nursing, teacher education, and other professional and workforce programs aimed at producing the graduates most needed for the societal and economic advancement of states and communities.

Scenario #2—Program and learning accountability. Two-and four-year public institutions in a number of states and communities face learning accountability and program accountability obligations. For example, some are being asked to:

  • Improve the college-going rate among high school graduates
  • Improve retention rates
  • Increase the proportion of degree-holders in the citizenry
  • Help students who stopped short of a degree complete their degrees
  • Increase the supply of graduates in programs aimed at workforce and economic development goals—nurses, teachers, science and technology professionals, and so on

Scenario #3—Countering declining enrollment; boosting profitable enrollment. A number of private and public institutions are facing declining enrollments and/or are looking for innovative ways to increase “profitable” enrollments in high-demand niche markets in order to:

  • Survive/grow as a tuition-dependent, private institution
  • Retain—or increase—the current level of FTE-based public funding
  • Increase out-of-state or other profitable tuition revenues as a public institution

Flex Strategy for eLearning

My inaugural column in these pages (“Academic Computing: Order the Change, and Change the Order,” November 2004) describes “flex program and service redesign” and “common course redesign” strategies and how they can be used to address six “institutional performance obligations: convenience of access, capacity for access, affordability of access, expense accountability, program accountability, and learning accountability.” The flex strategy— when applied to services, and selectively to common courses and high-demand programs—increases (obviously) convenience of access and, with it, student options and satisfaction. It can reduce or eliminate the need for new classroom capital expenses and reduce the capacity strain on the existing classroom plant, thereby improving the capacity for access and the unit-cost basis for expense accountability. It also can improve: a) the affordability of access (for students) by eliminating or reducing any on-campus living expenses and travel expenses, and b) program accountability, because much of the most pressing program demand and access need is from flex students who can’t or won’t participate in traditional instruction.

When combined with the flex program strategy, the common course redesign strategy can measurably improve learning, thus, learning accountability, while simultaneously increasing the faculty dimension of capacity (student-toinstructor ratios), thereby directly reducing per-enrollment costs to improve expense accountability and the affordability of access. So, all six of the above institutional performance obligations can be addressed by the flex program and service redesign strategy, with reinforcing help from the common course redesign strategy. A number of institutions are doing just this.

Real-Life Application of Flex Strategy

The goals for the Tennessee Board of Regents Online Degree Programs were precisely those described in scenario number two, and they have been substantially and measurably advanced through the flex program and service redesign strategy. Broward Community College (FL) and Ocean County College (NJ) now offer flex nursing programs and have reduced their backlogs of nursing applicants while increasing the supply of degree-holding nurses in their local communities, all in response to some of the issues in scenarios one and two. The University of Baltimore (MD) turned around a pattern of decreasing enrollments by offering one of the first AACSB-accredited fully online MBA programs. The university has met its financial and enrollment-increase goals, and is now offering additional flex programs. Benedictine University (IL) has similarly increased its profitable enrollments with a flex MBA offering. Both of these examples fit the framework of scenario number three. And finally, the Community College of Southern Nevada has had to cap enrollments in a number of common courses and turn away applicants to its associate of arts degree program and a number of other high-demand programs. In response, it plans to redesign these common courses and highdemand programs for flex delivery and for measurably improving learning outcomes and reduced direct perenrollment expenses. The college is going for the scenarioone jackpot by attempting to improve institutional metrics for all six performance obligations.

All six institutional performance obligations can be addressed by the flex program and service redesign strategy, with reinforcing help from the common course redesign strategy.

Now’s the Time

According to the latest report from Sloan-C, a consortium dedicated to quality online education, flex enrollments are increasing at nearly 20 percent annually—a much greater pace than for traditional enrollments. This elevated rate reflects student demand and preference for convenience of access. The time is therefore right to look beyond the demand for convenience. We need to look to the programmatic and goal-oriented strategies and practices recommended here and reported by the Alliance for Higher Education Competitiveness; these will be the keys to success in flex markets in which distance is less a focus than student convenience, student accomplishment, and institutional performance.

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