November 7th, 2017 by Jon Becker

We go low…

and high…

Well done tonight, people of Virginia.

Posted in TOD Tagged with: , ,

March 13th, 2017 by Jon Becker

About 6 weeks ago, I wrote about efforts underway to advance online/distance education across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Since then, I’ve talked to some folks involved, attended a hearing in the General Assembly, and received updates from folks “in the loop.” The tl;dr version of what has happened since that last post is that we now have a state-supported initiative aimed, at least for now, at degree completion via distance education. The Online Virginia Network (OVN) is now a thing, and, for now, is mostly a collaboration between Old Dominion University and George Mason University to advance a degree completion agenda by streamlining the process for enrolling in an online program at one of the two institutions. Their new website, which I think is pretty slick and simple to navigate, is mostly just a portal to information about programs offered at the two universities. The OVN1 also has new oversight in the form of a board that’s loaded with state legislators. How the OVN grows in the future feels undetermined to me, but maybe that’s OK. We’ll see…

[UPDATE: I was properly informed that the OVN isn’t really officially a new thing, yet. House Bill 2262 breezed through the House of Delegates and the Senate, but has not yet been signed by Governor McAuliffe. So, what exists now (particularly the website) lives, at least budgetarily, under the auspices of the original Virginia Degree Completion Network. My guess is that the Governor signs the bill, though maybe with some small amendments.]

At the hearing at the General Assembly about the OVN that I attended, the only speakers were representatives from ODU and GMU. The legislative committee asked them a few questions, and throughout the short hearing, there were some numbers thrown around about “the market” for the OVN. One person said that there are 1.1 million Virginia residents with some college credits and no degree; another person said the number is more like 600,000. SCHEV’s Tod Massa, wrote about this last summer and estimates 648,000 such residents, and even breaks it down by how many credits they actually have. However we slice it, there are LOTS of Virginia residents with some college credits but no degree.

Related, as part of my “reassignment” this semester, I’ve been doing some research about the distance education landscape in Virginia. I’ve been asked to gather data and produce some information about VCU’s standing relative to other institutions. My starting point has been IPEDS data which yielded the following charts.

There’s some interesting information in those charts2, most of which I already knew. For example, at the undergraduate level, the Virginia Community College System is the dominant player. And, particularly among the 4-year publics, ODU is the big kahuna. Looking at the data also reminded me that Virginia, as a whole, is not considered a big distance education state. In fact, according to the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), Virginia’s percentage of instruction by e-learning is ranked 15th out of 16 SREB states.

So, if by the logic of the OVN, there is such a big “market” of people with some college credit but no college degree, why such a small percentage of instruction offered through distance education? And, if that’s the case, maybe Virginia is ripe for the plucking by outside providers?

For that last question, we now have some data. As part of the national State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), participating institutions have to report the number of distance education students served from outside their home state. And, the fine folks at NC-SARA have made those data publicly available.  Somewhat to my surprise, those data show almost 35,000 Virginia residents involved in distance education at out-of-state institutions. We don’t know the extent to which they’re enrolled (single courses? A whole program?) or at what level (undergraduate? graduate?), but we can see which out-of-state institutions are enrolling the most Virginia residents. The table below only lists the top 7 states in which institutions serving Virginia residents are domiciled, and the top 3 institutions within those states.

WV 8899 American Public University System (8588) (for-profit)
West Virginia University (108)
University of Charleston (71)
AZ 8788 University of Phoenix (5718) (for-profit)
Penn Foster College (1480) (for-profit)
Grand Canyon University (1127) (for-profit)
MN 3944 Walden University (2282) (for-profit)
Capella University (1519) (for-profit)
Rasmussen College (58) (for-profit)
CO 1985 Colorado Technical University (695) (for-profit)
College for Financial Planning (295) (for-profit)
American Sentinel University – Aurora (257) (for-profit)
NH 1625 Southern New Hampshire University (1625) (for-profit)
IA 1575 Kaplan University (1575) (for-profit)
AL 1508 Columbia Southern University (1073) (for-profit)
Troy University (197)
The University of Alabama (80)

Notice anything? It’s almost all for-profit institutions domiciled outside of Virginia, to the tune of probably close to 30,000 of the 35,ooo Virginia residents involved in distance education. For sure, many of these students are military personnel, as we have some big military bases and I’ve seen firsthand how aggressively the for-profit providers recruit military personnel to their programs. But, is this a big “market”; is this a lot of potential in-state tuition money lost to out-of-state (mostly for-profit) providers?

Well, I looked at SARA states closest in size to Virginia. First, I looked at Washington, a state slightly less populous than Virginia. According to the NC-SARA data, just over 20,000 students are enrolled in distance education offered by out-of-state providers. Proportionally, that’s a bit lower than Virginia. I also looked at Georgia, a slightly more populous state than Virginia. Almost 58,000 Georgia residents are enrolled in distance education offered by out-of-state providers. Proportionally, that’s a bit more than Virginia. These are back-of-the-napkin calculations, but I’m guessing that, ultimately, Virginia is about typical in this realm. Tens of thousands of our residents are enrolling in distance education at out-of-state, mostly for-profit institutions.

Are we making up for that lost tuition by enrolling out-of-state students in our online courses and programs? Well, according to the NC-SARA data, the answer is not really. There are 58,917 out-of-state students being served by Virginia institutions. However, the vast majority of those are students attending Liberty and/or other private institutions. In fact, by my calculations, 1,187 out-of-state students are enrolled in some form of distance education through a public institution in Virginia.

What does this all mean? Very roughly, for every 1 student who pays out-of-state tuition via distance education to a public institution in Virginia, we lose 35 students to out-of-state (mostly for-profit) providers.

This doesn’t include Virginia residents enrolled at institutions in non-SARA states at the time SARA conducted this first round of data collection. North Carolina, our neighbor to the south, wasn’t in SARA at the time and I’m certain some of our residents are enrolled through UNC Online. Furthermore, this doesn’t include the number of Virginia residents getting a degree from Liberty University via distance education. I can’t immediately find how many in-state students they have, but their own website says their online enrollment exceeds 94,0003. I have to figure that includes tens of thousands of Virginia residents. Ultimately, though, the 1:35 ratio above is probably a conservative estimate.

So, back to the Online Virginia Network… if my rough calculations are correct, as a state, we’d do well to figure out ways to serve our residents better. We’re not going to keep every student in state or enrolled at one of our public institutions, but I’m certain we can recoup some of the tuition lost to out-of-state and/or private providers. And, this is where I think and hope the Online Virginia Network (OVN) can come into play.

This all, of course, doesn’t get into issues of quality. I can’t speak to the quality of online courses and programs at Liberty. I have heard some unconfirmed rumors about their criteria for hiring instructors and they worry me.  And, frankly, as much as I have my suspicions, I don’t *really* know about the quality of online courses and programs offered by the for-profit providers. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s new book, LowerEd, is a brilliant, insightful look at the practices within the for-profit education industry. Tressie’s book is more about practice and policy (and sociology) than it is about educational quality, but she does report on the less-than-stellar outcomes for students served by these providers. These outcomes include high dropout rates and poor job-placement rates while students have taken on massive amounts of debt. That’s not what we want for citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  So, I also hope that the Online Virginia Network is truly attentive to issues of quality. I’ve written about the rules of engagement for online learning and the thicket of guidelines and regulations that bound the world of distance education. Despite those guidelines and regulations, we know that crappy online courses and programs abound. Thus, my dearest hope is that the Online Virginia Network (OVN) is truly attentive to issues of educational quality and not just a mechanism for funneling citizens into programs of limited quality and poor outcomes.

  1. sounds a bit like an evangelical TV network to me []
  2. NOTE: I did not include Liberty University in any of the charts. They’re too much of an outlier. []
  3. Yes, 94,000. That’s not a typo… []

Posted in Online Learning Tagged with: , , , ,

January 19th, 2017 by Jon Becker

There is a significant amount of legislative and policy activity here in Virginia to try to centralize, to varying degrees, post-secondary online learning. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, so let me offer some history and context as I know it1.

In the 2015 legislative session, House Bill 1400 (Chapter 665), added/included the following language to Title 23, Chapter 9.1, of the Code of Virginia:

G. In consultation with other institutions, George Mason University shall develop a plan for a comprehensive on-line course offering in Virginia. As part of the plan, George Mason University shall (1) research similar programs in other states; (2) evaluate the need for adult completion programs; (3) identify the academic programs to be included; (4) develop an appropriate scheduling model; and (5) recommend an appropriate pricing model. George Mason University shall submit the plan to the Governor and the Chairmen of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees by September 1, 2015.

Sure enough, in September 2015, in partnership with Old Dominion University, a report was issued and the concept of the Virginia Degree Completion Network was birthed. It’s not a terribly comprehensive or detailed report, but it included a purpose for the Network:

requirements for implementation

and a timeline.

My contacts and “insider” sources say the Network plan didn’t exactly take off and there was much foot dragging. Furthermore, by my account, at this point, there’s no way that timeline could be achieved.


Well, the month after the report about the Network was issued, and while feet were dragging around the Virginia Degree Completion Network, Virginia Statute §23.1-909, was enacted (thus codifying House Bill 2320) and it stated that:

The Secretary of Education and the director of the Council [SCHEV], in consultation with each public institution of higher education and nonprofit private institution of higher education, shall develop a plan to establish and advertise a cooperative degree program whereby any undergraduate student enrolled at any public institution of higher education or nonprofit private institution of higher education may complete, through the use of online courses at any such institution, the course credit requirements to receive a degree at a tuition cost not to exceed $4,000, or the lowest cost that is achievable, per academic year.

This “$4,000 per year cooperative online degree” idea got considerable attention around the state, and those of us involved in online learning in higher education across the Commonwealth were eager to see the report that was due on October 1, 2016. I don’t know how much consultation there was with institutions of higher education, but I do know that some of us were offered an opportunity to comment via a listserv maintained for the Networked Learning Collaborative of Virginia (NLCVA). Well, sure enough, dutifully, Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Virginia Dietra Trent and SCHEV Director Peter Blake submitted the legislatively required progress report on October 1, 2016. The comments from NLCVA members are included in that report as Appendix D. I can neither confirm nor deny that I am the first commenter.

The tl;dr version of the good report authored by Trent and Blake is “This cooperative degree idea is a good idea, but it’s complicated. Also, there is already this idea for the Virginia Degree Completion Network, so let’s combine those efforts into something called the Online Virginia Network (OVN). And, let’s be planful about this…oh, and $4,000 per year is not realistic…But, again, good idea!” Well, that’s my interpretation; you’re free to read the report and offer your own interpretation.

I do like that the report relies heavily on State U. Online, a report done by Rachel Fishman of the New America Foundation. That report has been influential in my thinking around these matters and I referenced it in my comments through NLCVA to SCHEV. I don’t know if I introduced SCHEV to the report via my comments, but I like to imagine I did 🙂


So, that’s where we were as of October 1, 2016. Fast forward to last week, January 11, 2017, and here comes House Bill 2262 which would establish The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority). Essentially and effectively, the bill would enact the recommendations of the report from Trent and Blake.

§ 23.1-3134. Online Virginia Network Authority established; purpose; governing board; staff support.

The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority) is established as an educational institution in the Commonwealth for the purpose of providing a means for individuals to earn competency-based degrees and credentials by improving the quality of and expanding access to online degree and credential programs that are beneficial to citizens, institutions of higher education, and employers in the Commonwealth.


§ 23.1-3135. Scope; duties; funding.

A. Each public institution of higher education and each consortium of public institutions of higher education that offers online courses, online degree programs, or online credential programs shall offer any such course, degree program, or credential program through the Authority.

B. The Authority shall:

1. Act as the coordinating and administering entity for the delivery of each online course, degree program, and credential program identified in subsection A;

So, that’s kind of a big deal. There are additional parameters in the Bill, but you can read through those yourself. I have lots of random thoughts about these developments, so, in no particular order, here they are:

  1. I’ve long said that I’m an advocate for recognizing that online learning is a different animal and where issues of time and space are essentially out of play, we ought to be able to work better together and across institutions of higher education in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Within limits, there are real efficiencies that we can realize by collaborating on online programs. So, I suppose, ultimately, I’m not opposed to the overall concept of the Online Virginia Network Authority.
  2. That said, it’s important to echo part of what Trent and Blake write in their report: “Delivery of online instruction is expensive to undertake and to continue… Dr. Trent and Mr. Blake have concerns about the statute’s expectation regarding tuition at public institutions of higher education. On the practical side, they are concerned that a cut-rate tuition will imply that the online education being provided is low quality, or that the on-campus education being provided at a higher cost is vastly overpriced, or worse yet, that both implications are true. They believe that a college education – regardless of its delivery method – is a college education. An online degree program must be – in fact and in perception – just as rigorous and high quality as an on-campus program; otherwise, it should not be offered.” Amen.
  3. As with any policy idea, the devil is in the implementation details. Per my comment in Appendix D of the Trent/Blake report, higher education in Virginia is very decentralized. There is no “system” of higher education, and purposefully so. There are pros and cons to that. But, one downside is that in trying to develop and implement something like the Online Virginia Network Authority comes with significant hurdles due to the lack of any centralized infrastructure. The Bill goes to great lengths to spell out how the Authority should be governed by a board and who should comprise the board. But, the authority will need much more than a board. It will need leadership and personnel. The Bill states that “The Council shall provide staff support to the Authority. All agencies of the Commonwealth shall provide assistance to the Authority, upon request” but there’s no way this Authority could be run just by a board with some SCHEV staffing and assistance. And, if by “The Council shall provide staff support to the Authority…” means that SCHEV needs to fund new positions to run the Authority under the guidance of the board, I don’t know where SCHEV will get funding for such positions.
  4. I note that the Bill states that “The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority) is established as an educational institution in the Commonwealth for the purpose of providing a means for individuals to earn competency-based degrees and credentials…” That very specifically mentions competency-based degrees and credentials. So, is the Authority limited to ONLY the realm of competency-based degrees and credentials? If so, that changes everything…
  5. I’m not that tuned into the Virginia legislature, so I asked around to others who are more tapped in about how likely this Bill is to pass. From what I’ve been able to gather, there is serious influence behind the Bill in general and the concept in particular. Kirk Cox, a co-patron of the bill, is the majority leader of the House of Delegates in Virginia. He has been in that position for over 6 years. I’m told he’s well-respected and influential. Thus, this Bill will be given serious consideration. I mostly feel like the Bill may not pass as is, but that this is an opening salvo and negotiations and testimonies will ultimately lead to some form of centralized control of online learning in Virginia. In the K-12 world, Virtual Virginia has been around for a while now and has been a valuable resource to students and school divisions across the Commonwealth. Also, Governor McAuliffe is a proponent of online learning even if he did veto a bill to create a statewide K-12 school overseen by a newly created state board.  So, there is some precedent in the K-12 sector and real support from key legislators and stakeholders. I’m not counting this Bill out.
  6. Ultimately, I hope institutions of higher education can come together to work with each other on this and not just resist out of fear of losing potential revenue. We are a COMMONWEALTH, and if we can do right by our citizens and provide high-quality and cost-effective postsecondary options via some form of centralized or collaborative efforts, we should.
  7. I note that the board would include “… three nonlegislative citizen members to be appointed by the Governor.” Hey, Governor McAuliffe, give me a call? I’m available…

So, I don’t know that we’ll get Virginia Online U (per the title of the post which is a nod to the aforementioned New America Foundation report I like so much), but we may very well get The Online Virginia Network Authority (the Authority). I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts on this in the coming days, weeks and months and I hope I can share those as I can.

  1. which probably contains some inaccuracies or misstatements as I’m not completely plugged in to the legislative scene. Apologies if I misstate anything and I’m happy to clarify and update should anyone point out any problems with what I’ve written. []

Posted in Online Learning Tagged with: , , , ,