Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Getting Started with Online Learning: Business Planning Issues

Developing a meaningful business plan may be the hardest part of getting started with an online learning initiative.  At many institutions, the idea of using technology to deliver complete degree programs to new groups of students who may never set foot on campus is a truly unique idea.  In that case, there may be no financial models to follow.  Here are some ideas.

1.            Treat the online initiative as a new cost center.  That is, identify all costs associated with the initiative, with the goal that these costs will be recovered through tuition and fees. The online initiative should be expected, when it matures, to recover all of these costs through tuition and fees.   Revenue from traditional programs should not be expected to cover costs of the online program; nor should students in the online program be expected to pay for services that they do not use.

2.            Identify all new costs that will be incurred as a result of the online initiative:

  • Technical Infrastructure—This would include the learning management system and other computer-based resources.  If this infrastructure is to be shared with other functions (i.e., online activities for on-campus students and faculty), then calculate a share of that institution-wide infrastructure that should be borne by the online initiative.
  • New Demand on Existing Units—This might include the increased demand on core services such as the Registrar, Financial Aid, library, the central IT unit, marketing, etc.   Estimate the specific new demands that the online initiative will place on these units.  In some cases, the best solution will be to fund new positions in these units. 
  • New Costs Directly Tied to the Online Learning Unit – This includes all costs that will assigned to the central unit that is coordinating the initiative.
  • Academic Unit Costs – This would include all new costs incurred by the academic units that develop and offer courses through the online initiative.  In some cases, these costs will be covered by the central online learning unit; in other cases, the academic units will bear these costs but will expect to recover them through tuition and fees.

2.            Understand how achieving scale over time will affect cost efficiency and revenue distribution.  Different kinds of costs contribute differently to achieving scale.  For instance:
  • Infrastructure costs—technology, website management, licenses, library services, “brand” marketing, faculty professional development, etc. – will be recovered through each enrollment.
  • Program costs – the cost of developing and offering degree and certificate programs (program design, faculty leadership, program-specific marketing, academic advising, etc.)—will be recovered through enrollments in those particular programs.   
  • Course development and maintenance (faculty and instructional design costs, etc.) are incurred every time a course is developed or updated and will be recovered through enrollments in those particular courses 
  •  Student services (registration, pre-enrollment counseling, financial aid, etc.) occur for each enrollment, regardless of the program or course involved.

3.            Using the above, estimate how many programs, courses, and student enrollments you will need to break even.  Also, decide how after-cost revenue will be used.  For instance, to what extent should after-cost revenue be reinvested in new program development, new student services or co-curricular services; returned to the academic units that offer the programs for their own use; or returned to central administration?

4.            A revenue sharing formula, based on the above considerations, should be developed early and shared widely with the administrative and academic units that will be involved in the initiative.  It is important that everyone have a common understanding of how costs will be handled—who will take the financial risk if a program does not succeed—and how financial returns will be distributed.   My own experience was that it was best to share gross revenue—ensuring that sponsoring academic units will receive a percentage of gross tuition in addition to cost recovery--rather to wait until all costs are covered and share whatever remains.  Risk should be with the central online learning administrative unit rather than with each individual teaching or support unit.

The business plan should be treated as new institutional policy and applied uniformly across all units. 

Ultimately, each institution’s revenue and cost model will reflect the organizational culture and needs of that institution.  There is no single model.  However, I hope these principles will help guide the discussion at institutions that are beginning new online learning initiatives.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

GM's $35 Million Fine: The Right Punishment?

General Motors received the largest fine that the federal government could levy as a result of corporate lawbreaking that resulted in more than 30 deaths of U.S. citizens.  The amount sounds large, but it is a pittance against GM multi-billion-dollar annual revenue and it certainly is not enough to compensate the families of the dead.
     I wonder:  The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that corporations, like General Motors, are considered as "people"--associations of individuals--for the purposes of being able to invest in political campaigns.  Perhaps, then, they should be considered as"people" when they commit crimes.  In this case, this particular association of individuals has been responsible, thus far, with the deaths of more than 30 other individual citizens through recklessness and purposeful hiding of information about the danger their product represented.  Perhaps, in a case like this, individuals responsible should be charged with criminal negligence resulting in 30+ deaths.
     Corporations should not have it both ways.

G.M. Is Fined Over Safety and Called a Lawbreaker -

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Lessons from the Old Media: The Value of Sharing

My career in media-based education began well before the arrival of online learning on the scene in the mid-1990s.  When I started in this field in the late 1960s, the media of choice were print and video.  Correspondence study had long been established as a way to deliver credit and noncredit courses.   Public broadcasting was the new kid on the block in terms of distance education, but both media promoted collaboration and sharing in ways that might be instructive as online learning moves into the mainstream.

Correspondence study shared some of the qualities of online learning.  Like online learning, it eliminated geography as a factor in the relationship between the student and instructor.  As a result, one might have thought that institutions offering “independent study by correspondence” would shy away from collaboration.  Quite the opposite happened.  It was not unusual for institutions to license a correspondence course package from another institution and teach it with local faculty.  Most of the correspondence providers were land grant universities.  They formed a community through what is now the University Professional and Continuing Education Association and together contracted with a commercial publisher to create an integrated national catalog of correspondence courses.

Sharing was even more evident in video courses.  Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, video-based distance education was nominated by “telecourses.”  A typical telecourse might include 30 half-hour television programs, usually lectures, accompanied by a printed study guide and a commercial textbook.  The delivery system was the institution’s local public television station and, increasingly in the 1980s, an educational channel on the local cable television system.  At best, institutions could deliver on a statewide public TV network.  In this environment, sharing course packages was a distinct financial advantage to the producing institution, since delivery was geographically limited.  Several community colleges formed the Telecourse People to cooperatively market their course material to other institutions.  Other, similar collaborations followed. As a result, many institutions were able to offer a regular schedule of telecourses without the need to produce their own video locally for every course.  The decision to adopt a telecourse was similar to the decision to adopt a textbook for a course.

Early in the satellite era, the University of Kentucky, with funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, created the Appalachian Educational Satellite Program.  AESP used an experimental satellite to deliver teacher education, nursing education, and other professional programs throughout the Appalachian region, working through universities in the region and regional K-12 educational support offices to coordinate with local schools and hospitals.  AEASP demonstrated the power of satellite—and, later, cable television—to reach and serve professionals in rural communities.
In 1978, the Public Broadcasting System shifted its national program service—which delivered programs to local stations for broadcast—from land lines to satellite.  The result was not only a new way to deliver programming to local stations, but a new national public satellite network that could be used for other, related services.  The impact on course sharing was significant:
·      PBS created the PBS Adult Learning Service as a centralized national distribution center for telecourses produced by local PBS stations and higher education institutions around the country.  A collection of courses was fed by satellite to local stations every semester.  Local stations worked with the colleges and universities in their viewing area and broadcast those courses that the local institutions licensed.  PBS collected a fee (typically a standard $300 per course, plus $15 per enrollment) which it shared with the telecourse producer.
·      The Annenberg Foundation gave the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (a federal corporation that distributed federal funding for public media) $150 Million to support the development of new telecourses for national delivery.  The result was a collection of telecourses built around major public television documentary series.
·      The University of Maryland University College established the National (later International) University Consortium, which worked with the Open University of the United Kingdom to adapt their materials to the North American curriculum.  The resulting course packages were licensed to institutions throughout North America, as well as Australia Asia, and Latin America.  IUC also produced new courses, working with its member institutions and the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting.
·      The PBS satellite system also opened the door to other, nonbroadcast innovations.  One was the National University Teleconference Network (now the National University Telecommunications Network), a network of colleges and universities that used the PBS satellite uplink and downlink network to deliver live teleconferences nationally.  An institution that wished to originate a teleconference would schedule the event with NUTN, which would announce it to its members.  Members that licensed an event would arrange for a downlink and schedule a live viewing in the local community.  
·      AG*SAT used the satellite system to create a network of Agriculture schools at land grant universities, historically black land grants, and Hispanic serving institutions, with the goal of sharing local expertise nationally.  AG*SAT later became ADEC—the American Distance Education Consortium.

Collaboration in the Digital Learning Era

Thus far, resource-sharing and collaboration have taken a somewhat different path in the online era. 

Some new models for sharing have emerged that focus on sharing students and faculty rather than materials.  One example is the Great Plains Inter-Institutional Distance Education Alliance (IDEA)  in which participating state universities work together to offer graduate degrees that include online courses from multiple participating institutions.  This kind of collaboration ensures that students have access to the best content in a specialized discipline, while opening new doors to collaboration among faculty.  Another example is the CIC CourseShareinitiative in which participating institutions aggregate students in highly specialized courses to ensure a financially viable course offering that serves small groups of students at multiple campuses.  Both of these initiatives allow partner institutions to give their students better access to courses that might not otherwise be taught locally on a reasonable schedule.

Other partnerships have focused on sharing online content.   The Open Educational Resources movement is a longstanding international commitment by institutions in developed countries to make their online content available to colleges and universities in developing nations.  OER Commons is one example of the Creative Commons, an effort to allow institutions to make online content more widely available for noncommercial use while maintaining copyright control.

These are important initiatives that set the stage for future partnering initiatives as online learning moves into the mainstream.  Still, given that more institutions today are involved in online learning than were ever involved in video-based distance education, it seems reasonable to ask:  Should we not begin to share organized curriculum packages more widely, reducing the cost of course development at each institution?   Especially as institutions adopt the “flipped classroom” philosophy—in which content resides on the web and class meetings (physical or virtual) are focused on interpretation of content rather than simply transfer of content—it seems reasonable that idea of licensing content at the course level might be a good thing.  Just recently, Tidewater Community College in Virginia demonstrated the potential for this kind of sharing.  It developed a complete associate degree in business administration using OERs.  As Creative Commons reports:

Tidewater identified 21 courses and signed up faculty members to design the curriculum.  They started with the desired outcomes for each of the courses, and then built the curriculum with OER materials that would meet those outcomes. Developing the curriculum took about 12 months. One year into the program, the early results are highly positive.

The OER degree program had two goals – to eliminate cost as a barrier, and to improve teaching impacts. The textbooks for an associate’s degree in business administration normally cost $3679, which is about a third of the cost of the degree from Tidewater.  Adoption of OER reduces these costs to zero. Students and instructors alike are happy with the quality of the OER materials used in the classes. 96% of the students enrolled in the courses have rated the quality of the OER content as equal to or better in quality to the textbooks used in other classes.

This may signal a new level of institutional commitment to the OER concept that will reduce the cost of course development for individual institutions and greatly increase faculty access to content in order to serve students. 
Sharing at this level might best be done within families of institutions—community colleges, private liberal arts colleges, etc.—or within academic discipline communities.  ADEC has demonstrated the power of sharing content within agriculture disciplines, for instance. 

Ultimately, I can see at least three benefits to sharing at this level:  (1) to ensure that high-quality content is widely used, especially in specialized areas,  (2) to reduce the cost of new course development, thus increasing the number of institutions that adopt online learning for their students, and (3) to increase access to higher education.

I would be interested in knowing about other examples of sharing at the course level. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

TIme to De-Politicize the Climate Debate

The latest report on global warming--summarized in today's Washington Post-- is that the impact of climate change is already being felt.  It is time for us to de-politicize this issue.  We cannot allow corporate interests--like the Koch brothers and other one-percenters who use their oil money to control politicians and sway public thinking--to continue to keep us from addressing these issues.   This is not about preserving wealth in the oil industry.  It is about everyone.

U.S. climate report says global warming impact already severe - The Washington Post

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Getting Started with Online Learning

This week, Inside Higher Education reported on an online collaboration that was voted down by faculty after the first year of operation.  It got me thinking about some critical success factors that institutions should make sure they address as they start an online learning innovation.  Here are a half-dozen that I have found to be important across different institutional types:

1.            Define Terms – Over the past couple of years,  MOOCs have received a lot of attention.  Institutions new to the field may assume that all online learning is about attracting very large numbers of students to free programs.  In fact, over the past two decades, online learning has grown around the idea of transforming traditional on-campus courses to serve both traditional and nontraditional student populations.  Frank Mayadas and I have developed a set of definitions for the vast majority of online courses.  These can help institutions better define their goals.

2.            Target Your Student Population Online learning can be used to serve a variety of different student populations.  Initially, many institutions targeted returning adult students who otherwise lack access to campus programs.  Others use online learning to innovate with new pedagogies for traditional students.  Still others focused on building partnerships with a particular industry or professional community or on collaboration with peer institutions.  It is important, as a very early step in the planning process, to define your target population. 

3.            Define Your Mission – Articulate the purpose of the online learning initiative—who will it serve and why do you want to serve them-- and how the initiative will complement your overall institutional mission.   Then, create a vision that will help the institution judge progress toward that mission.   Both the mission and the vision should be developed in consultation with a broad spectrum of the institution’s leadership and shared widely.

4.            Create a Governance Structure – Higher education is a complex cultural organization that has a tradition of shared governance that ensures a balance between academic freedom and initiative and administrative oversight and management.  Online learning is both an administrative and academic initiative.  It is important that it operate within the shared governance principle.  Institutions should create a governance structure that involves all academic and administrative units that will be affected by it and that will have a role in its success or failure.   Any new academic or administrative policies should be approved through the institution’s normal pathways for new policies.

5.            Guarantee Early Success – One can anticipate that not all faculty or academic departments will be enthusiastic about online learning at the beginning, so early programs should be those that are very likely to succeed.  Initial programs should combine two features.  First, they should be led by academic departments and faculty who are enthusiastic about the program.  Second, they should be programs that are likely to succeed.  Once faculty have expressed interest, the program should be tested against several criteria, including:  (a) the suitability of the program for online learning, (b) the program’s reputation for quality, (c) similar programs offered online by other institutions, (d) the existence of an identifiable target student population that can sustain the program’s cost over multiple years, and (e) the institution’s ability to reach that population to promote the program.

6.            Create a Business Model  It is important to create a business model that ensures that all new costs associated with the online learning initiative can be recovered through tuition and fees without weakening other, ongoing priorities at the institution and that any excess revenue is appropriately reinvested.  As with other aspects of the program, it is important that the business model be openly shared with both administrative and academic leaders. 

It is important to remember that online learning did not begin with MOOCs.  Institutions have been developing online learning programs for the past two decades.  Many early initiatives were supported by grants from the Sloan Foundation.  Other on-campus initiatives were supported through the National Centerfor Academic Transformation.  There is a growing community of institutions that have gone through the start-up process and that are now institutionalizing online learning as an ongoing strategy for realizing their mission in the Information Society.  Organizations like the Sloan Consortium provide a meeting ground for this community and can help institutions get off to a good start.