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Spurred by Coronavirus – Colleges Rush to Move Online!

Study explores online learning trends at community colleges

Dear Commons Community,

With the coronavirus still looming for the fall semester and probably beyond, some colleges are deciding to move programs online.  The Chronicle of Higher Education had a featured article yesterday describing how colleges are protecting their futures and limiting their risks by moving popular programs online permanently. Here is an excerpt.

“Like campuses across the country, the University of Colorado system is running short on time and money to prepare for the academic year. Now, faculty and staff trying to adjust to changes wrought by the coronavirus have something new to put on their agendas for the fall.

President Mark R. Kennedy announced last month that the system is moving forward with a plan to make its four campuses bigger players in online education in its region. The system, which includes the state’s flagship university in Boulder, enrolls just a small fraction of the students enrolled in online programs at colleges in the state.

But the plan will most likely not capture a significant share of the online college market in the near future, and in the short term the campuses are struggling with how to cut costs and prepare for a semester unlike any other they have encountered.

Numerous other colleges are trapped in a similar dilemma: whether and how to move ahead with long-term plans for an uncertain future while the demands of the immediate crisis eat up valuable time and money. In many cases, both long- and short-term plans include eliminating jobs and academic programs, such as a major restructuring announced by the University of Wisconsin system. But a few places, like the University of Colorado, are adding new online degrees with the hope of serving a student body that may not want or be able to return to campus in the fall.

Justin C. Ortagus, an assistant professor of higher education administration and policy at the University of Florida, said that offering high-quality online degrees is not a quick or inexpensive solution. “In the short-term most universities are battening down the hatches, and the University of Colorado is trying to build a new fleet of ships,” said Ortagus.

Kennedy, who was named president of the system a year ago, said there are costs for the plan, but a higher cost for not following through. “There are finite resources, no doubt, and finding these resources will not be easy,” he said. “But understanding the benefits will drive this. Covid makes it harder, but also makes it easier for people to understand why it’s important.”

An ‘Insurance Policy’

Online learning, long associated with for-profit colleges, is now widespread among both private nonprofit and public institutions. Nationwide, enrollment in online-degree programs has ballooned since the Great Recession, increasing nearly 60 percent from 2012 to 2017 at public four-year colleges, and more than 66 percent at private nonprofit institutions.

But there remain many campuses where online degrees constitute a small portion of a college’s offerings. The disruption caused by the coronavirus has convinced some that it is time for change.

Thomas College, for example, which enrolls about 1,000 students at its campus in central Maine, will start its first three fully-online master’s-degree programs, in business administration, criminal justice, and cybersecurity.

The college had already been planning to offer some programs online before this year, to serve working adults and others who wanted more flexibility. But the pandemic accelerated that process, said Thomas S. Edwards, the provost. Many of the college’s current graduate programs rely on hybrid models, said Edwards, so putting the programs online is not a major initiative.

Simmons University, too, will be offering its entire undergraduate catalog online this fall — about 350 courses just for the coming semester — as a sort of “insurance policy,” said Helen G. Drinan, president of the institution. There is little chance that the campus will be fully open, she said, so this will give students the ability to take all of their courses designed and delivered on the technology platform that the university uses for its graduate programs.

At the University of Colorado, the push to develop more online degrees may help the system attract new students or retain existing ones, but the motivation is more about catching up with the competition.

Nearly 86,000 students from across the nation enrolled in exclusively online-degree programs at Colorado institutions in 2018, according to a study completed by the consulting firm EY-Parthenon for the system. Less than 5 percent of those students are enrolled in online programs at one of the University of Colorado’s four campuses.

In comparison, Colorado State University Global enrolled nearly 12,500 students in fully online programs in 2018, according to federal data, more than double that for all of the University of Colorado campuses combined.

“If you look at just online degrees, we are trailing significantly Colorado State University,” said Jack Kroll, a member of the Board of Regents. “We’re not where we should be as the flagship for the state.”

For the coming fall semester, each campus will choose at least three degree programs to be marketed under the CU Online portal that is now serving only the Denver and Anschutz campuses. At the same time, a systemwide committee will consider ways to offer a broader range of programs for the fall of 2021 and beyond.

The digital education group, which had 15 employees at the Denver campus, has now expanded to 40 employees to assist with the online programs at all four campuses. Kennedy has said his office will cover the added costs of marketing, recruitment and enrollment for the programs.

While the degree programs being developed for fall are already online, the Office of Digital Education, another unit developed at the Denver campus, will assist faculty in further designing their courses for a high-quality student experience, said Sheana Bull, one of the leaders of the new initiative.

Long-Term Play

The question now is whether any of these efforts will provide enough financial success to make it worth the time and investment.

“To some extent the timing is right, because many classes may have to be online for the next six months,” said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University.

“Will it be a way to grow market share? That’s a different question,” Kelchen said. Colorado, in particular, “shouldn’t have delusions of grandeur that if they build the online enterprise everyone will come.”

The immediate challenges include the amount of time needed for staff and faculty to plan for enhanced online courses while also preparing for the demands of trying to open a campus in the fall.

“The vast majority of time and energy is being spent on whether it’s remotely safe to open at all in the fall,” said Drinan, at Simmons University. “We have an enormous challenge in front of us.”

At the University of Colorado, faculty members are worried that a centralized effort will water down the curriculum or cannibalize from the campus-based programs, said Mary Coussons-Read, a professor of psychology and the president of the faculty assembly at the Colorado Springs campus.

“This is a conversation and the intention is good,” Coussons-Read said. “My hope is that faculty will come to the table and make the best of a difficult situation for everyone, including administrators.”

The University of Colorado, too, must try to learn from its past efforts to increase online-degree programs. Since 2013 the Board of Regents has sought to push the campuses to collaborate in efforts to increase online degrees, said Stephen Ludwig, a former board member and one of the key proponents of those measures.

What undermined those initiatives was a lack of commitment from then-President Bruce Benson, too little cooperation between individual campuses and less-than-stellar management of the online programs, Ludwig said.

This time around, the system president is leading the charge, Kroll said.

Chancellors of the Colorado Springs and Boulder campuses, too, say they are on board with the president’s priorities, for now.

“Even though we are facing a pandemic, we need to build universities for the long run,” said Venkat Reddy, chancellor of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “I look at this as a long-term play for us,” he said.

But the chancellors also want to make sure that developing and promoting the programs can be handled better by the system than on their individual campuses.

“It would have been possible to do this on our own,” said Phillip P. DiStefano, chancellor of the flagship campus in Boulder. The advantage of using the system is “bringing in other programs to attract a wider audience,” he said.

“What we want to see is how effective is the marketing of these courses and what’s the interest of the target population,” he said. “That will help us see how much of this we want to do in the future.”

I think this makes great sense and a smart move on the part of these institutions.

Tony

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