Can Online Education Be a Force for Equity and Institutional Sustainability?

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Many reviewers, in my judgment, have misread Robert Ubell’s new book Staying Online.  It’s been largely treated as a compendium of practical advice about how colleges and universities can successfully embrace online learning.

Ubell, a pioneer in online program development at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering at New York University and Stevens Institute of Technology, certainly offers a great many sensible recommendations about:

  • Formulating and implementing an online strategy, including calculating the right price for an online degree and making solid enrollment and revenue projections..
  • Designing, developing, delivering, and growing online programs and providing online student services.
  • Integrating active learning into digital instruction.
  • Mitigating cheating in online courses.
  • Managing online course ownership.
  • Using data analytics to improve online instruction.
  • Deciding whether or not to partner with an online program manager.

But at its core, the book offers a compelling argument that online learning can be a force for equity, despite the widespread claim that low-income and first-generation college students fare relatively poorly in online courses.

Done properly, Ubell contends, online learning can boost outcomes for marginalized students, increase retention rates, improve student learning, and stabilize institutional costs.  

Staying Online is, in short, a clarion call for institutions to mainstream virtual learning.

In addition, he is convinced that digital instruction can be the savior of many traditional institutions, not just during the pandemic, but beyond, as they seek to sustain and increase enrollment.  

Online teaching offers a practical and pragmatic way to address the market forces that are upending institutional finances:  the shrinking college-age population, deepening economic inequality, rising numbers of adult learners, and stiffening competition among institutions for undergraduates and master’s students.

Were it not for lower-cost online education, he argues persuasively, the national decline in post-secondary enrollment would have been far worse than it has been.

As economic inequality intensifies, Ubell contends, it is more important than ever that colleges and universities take steps to bridge the economic divide. That will require these institutions to deliver an education that is more affordable, flexible, and convenient than they have historically offered.  

Scaled online education, in his view, must be a big part of the solution.  

Myth busting constitutes a big part of Ubell’s book.

Must it cost tens of thousands of dollars to develop effective online courses?  Absolutely not, he insists.  High-end production values are far less important than effective online pedagogy.

Must a digital education be more expensive than a face-to-face education?  Certainly not.  It’s undeniable that some institutions do treat online learning as a revenue generator.  But any accurate cost accounting shows that online classes can be cheaper to deliver, especially if campuses are willing to embrace alternate staffing models that allow the classes to be scaled. 

Must lower-income and other non-traditional students perform less successfully in online classes?  Nope.  Ubell cites numerous examples of online students outperforming their in-person counterparts.  

But if institutions are to succeed online, campus leadership and faculty must recognize that delivery methods aren’t the only difference between face-to-face and virtual instruction.  Pedagogy, assessments, curricula, and support structures all need to change if online students are to succeed.

In Ubell’s opinion, the keys to effective online learning involve:

  • Rejecting the notion that effective online instruction should replicate the conventional in-person experience.
  • Recognizing that online students differ markedly from their on-campus counterparts; they are much more likely to work part- or full-time, to be older, and to have to juggle demanding work and family responsibilities.
  • Reengineering courses around a more student-centered approach to engaging, motivating, instructing, and assessing students that emphasizes active learning, peer-to-peer interaction, inquiry, digital exercises, virtual labs, and guided projects.
  • Treating student support not as an afterthought but as central to academic success in an online environment.

Among the many important arguments that Staying Online advances are these:

An online education need not be inferior to an in-person experience.
Online learning generally allows students to process information in their own time, to take part in online discussions and ask questions, without losing face, and to engage more actively with peers and in interactive activities.

A scaled online education can also be a more personalized education.
Data analytics can allow instructors to identify students who are disengaged, confused, or at risk of failure, and address these challenges in near real time.  Such data can also pinpoint material or skills that are particularly difficult to comprehend or master, and prompt instructors to develop tutorials and activities to help students achieve proficiency.

Cheating is more a consequence of misguided approaches to assessment than it is to students who are unethical or unprincipled.
Here, Ubell is one of many innovators calling for more frequent low-stakes assessments distributed throughout a course.

Online learning need not be alienating or isolating.
The design challenge is to make online courses more participatory, collaborative, and interactive than their conventional in-person counterparts.

Institutions without an online strategy will deprive themselves from key sources of future enrollment.
One of the greatest benefits of digital education in this century is its capacity to offer greater access to colleges and universities to students who must work while they advance their studies.  It not only allows campuses to serve non-traditional students, but growing international markets as well.

A successful online strategy at the post-bacc level requires institutions to convert individual courses into bundles of steeply discounted, connected classes that carry credit in targeted high demand fields.

He also stresses the importance of branding these programs effectively.  Here, he cites the example of Specializations, MicroMasters, Nanodegrees, and Professional Certificates.

For many academics, the pandemic has been a wake-up call.  It’s among those once-in-a-generation occurrences that forces a reconsideration of many taken-for-granted assumptions.  

Many of us now recognize that the kind of education that we offered in the past, for all its virtues, hasn’t served many of our existing students well, while ignoring the needs of the non-students who could benefit from a college education.  Cost and a rigid academic calendar are part of the problem, but so too is pedagogy and delivery modalities.

If we truly want to address post-secondary equity, online — or hybrid or low-residency — education must be part of the mix.  Short-term certificates and certifications and alternate credentials, too, need to be part of the future.  

But as Staying Online makes clear, it’s not enough to deliver conventional classes online.  We need to radically rethink the academic experience and our pedagogies, curricula, and assessment strategies.  Ubell’s most important take-away:  Input from the learning sciences and instructional designers and educational technologists won’t simply help online students; it will benefit more traditional on-campus students as well.

It’s a lesson we should take to heart.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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