Yesterday’s post elicited a couple of comments and an inquiry from a reporter. Rather than respond to comments individually and just email the reporter, I figured I’d put my answers into a follow-up post.

Michael Berman’s comment is worth addressing because he is right, at least according to my experiences at VCU and my observations of and conversations with folks at other institutions. There are a number of reasons institutions of higher ed. are looking to ramp up distance education offerings, including, as Michael points out, speeding up time to degree completion. At VCU, for example, we knew that students were getting locked out of certain courses and there was simply no classroom space to add additional sections of those courses. When we added online sections of those courses, the filled nearly instantly. Similarly, we knew students wanted to take courses over the summer, but had to return home to work. We undertook significant efforts to offer summer classes online and those sections filled as soon as registration began. There is no question in my mind that distance education, done well, can be a huge advantage for students already enrolled in an otherwise face-to-face program of study. HOWEVER, those students are not captured in yesterday’s post. IPEDS also collects data on students enrolled in “some but not all” distance education. Those numbers are much higher than the numbers of students enrolled exclusively in distance education.

So, to clarify my claim from yesterday, and to respond to Michael, I believe that public institutions of higher education are mostly looking at FULLY online courses and programs as revenue generators. In times of dwindling public support for higher education, institutions are looking for NEW/ADDITIONAL students and tuition dollars via distance education. That’s the elusive pot of gold.

The inquiry from the reporter had to do with regional publics looking to distance education for filling jobs in certain fields, particularly some of the health professions. This, too, is a strategy I have seen, though I think it goes hand-in-glove with the hunt for increased revenue. The thinking goes something like this:

  1. We need new students/revenue.
  2. Profession X is hot and needs more employees.
  3. Let’s quickly create a distance education program to credential a bunch of people to meet that job market demand.

This is not inherently or necessarily a bad strategy. It can be a win-win for the university and the workforce. As one example, it is no secret that cybersecurity is a growing field and the job market is hot. At VCU, we offer a Master of Science in Computer and Information Systems Security. Also, students enrolled in computer science M.S. and Ph.D. programs can specialize in cybersecurity. I was involved in many meetings and discussions about creating online versions of those programs. For a number of reasons, it never happened. It should have; it’s a lost opportunity for VCU to meet a need in the marketplace.

Another good example of this win-win is in nursing. As I understand it, new hospital accreditation guidelines and merit systems called for nurses to have bachelor’s degrees. Suddenly, thousands and thousands of working nurses needed a way to get a degree quickly and flexibly (as full-time working nurses). Fully online RN-to-BS programs sprouted up all over the place. It was (and continues to be) one of our most successful (in terms of enrollment) distance education programs at VCU, enrolling a few hundred students.

There are, however, to my mind at least, some limitations to this strategy/approach of trying to meet job market demands via distance education. Today’s article in Inside Higher Ed about Excelsior College provides a clear example of what can go wrong. As best I can tell, Excelsior was meeting a demand but failed to focus enough on course/program quality and to track outcomes. When that information came to light, things started going downhill. If institutions of higher education rush to build distance education programs without focusing on quality, which I fear is happening widely, things will not end well. Academic reputations of the institution will be diminished and we will have a poorly prepared and/or oversaturated workforce.

Additionally, a real challenge for the “meet workforce demand via distance education” strategy is figuring out the right signaling mechanism. Institutions of higher education are pretty good at spinning up new graduate programs: certificate programs, masters programs, post-masters certificate programs, doctoral programs, etc. But, not every emerging profession demands even as much as a 15-credit certificate program, let alone a masters degree.  Going back to the cybersecurity case, if employers are looking to hire cybersecurity experts, what’s the mechanism (credential(s)) that signals that expertise? Does one need a masters degree? A certificate from a university? Are micromasters degrees going to catch on as legitimate credentials? Maybe just a couple or a few continuing education courses would suffice. In recent weeks, I have been in similar conversations about the field of instructional design. There is enormous demand for instructional designers all across higher education and also within the corporate sector (online corporate training is booming). But, again, what’s the mechanism (credential(s)) that signals expertise in instructional design? It may vary; institutions of higher education might be looking for candidates with at least a masters degree whereas corporations might be satisfied with employees who have some coursework and/or professional experience in instructional design. Or vice versa; we don’t exactly know.

In sum, distance education can and should be a legitimate part of an institution of higher education’s overall mission. As Michael Berman points out, online learning can be a real boon to existing students. This is what Michael Caulfield referred to (in 2012, I might add) as Residential Online. And, higher education CAN meet workforce demand via distance education. BUT, they must do so with attention to program quality and outcomes while figuring out the sweet spot in terms of the right signaling mechanism (aka, credential). My concern, though, is that too many institutions are simply looking to fully online programs as a source of new revenue, that pot of gold at the end of the distance education rainbow.