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Staying Connected

Staying ConnectedGetting retention right is high priority for online degree programsWith a busy career and an active church life, Bonita Harris has gained considerable experience in balancing work and academic studies. Over the years, the Charlotte, N.C., resident has accumulated college classroom credits at three different institutions while having to work full time. When Harris decided last spring to complete a college degree to enhance her career prospects with her employer, the IBM Corp., she chose an online degree program in computer networking offered by Strayer University, a for-profit higher education institution based in Arlington, Va.
“This is my first experience with online education, and so far it’s been great,” she says, noting that she gets the individual attention of both an academic adviser and a financial aid adviser to help her prepare for enrollment each quarter. 
It’s estimated that the online distance-learning market is growing 40 percent annually with approximately 350,000 students, or 2 percent of total U.S. higher education enrollments, and generating $1.75 billion annually, according to the Boston-based research firm Eduventures. Research on retention is scarce mainly because of the newness of online education, but individual schools and organizations are reporting that their online programs have as high or higher rates of retention as their traditional classroom offerings.
However, Dr. Steven Jackson, chair of the political science department at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and online education expert, says the conventional wisdom is that online courses and degree programs generally have higher dropout rates than that of traditional higher education classroom settings. 
“There just hasn’t been much research done to determine how online retention rates really compare to those from traditional classroom-based environments,” Jackson says.
Sean Gallagher, an analyst with Eduventures, says the online distance-learning market is defined heavily by its focus on non-traditional working adult students, such as Harris, who are looking for consumer-friendly degree programs. He says students flock to the online programs because they offer a consumer-oriented approach that places a high priority on student retention.  
“The model is one based on flexibility and convenience,” Gallagher says of the successful online education providers.
Oakleigh Thorne, chief executive officer of the Denver-based eCollege company, a major provider of online education services, agrees that the research on online retention in comparison to traditional classroom retention is inconclusive. However, he adds that among the 260 institutions that eCollege serves, the company has found a 90 percent online retention rate compared to a 75 percent traditional classroom rate among the sampled clients. Thorne says eCollege services nearly 220,000 enrollments annually among its 260 clients. Finding the right ingredients for
During the 1990s, American higher education officials had grandiose visions for online education. Among the rosy scenarios attributed to the promises of online education would be the alleviation of projected overcrowding on public institution campuses, elite schools would lead a global continuing education boom, and big profits would accrue to any institution that got into the online distance-learning market. 
 What actually happened was online distance education took flight in institutions that had the most pragmatic visions for its use. While a number of high-profile online distance-learning ventures, including those of some Ivy League schools, flopped in recent years, online education has boomed at the for-profit enterprises, community colleges, and many state schools that have long served geographically-dispersed populations.
Academic officials had dreams that online education would make it unnecessary for state university systems to spend millions of dollars constructing new campus facilities to accommodate the student population boom expected this decade. It was widely believed that hundreds of thousands of teen-age first-time undergraduates would attain their education via the Internet, thus leading to a major transformation of the college experience for the traditional 18- to 25-year-old student population. 
While the Internet has allowed campuses to enhance traditional classroom instruction with Web-based content and course materials, the virtual colleges for first-time undergraduates, embodied in the plans of the California Virtual University and other similar efforts, have failed to live up to original expectations. Instead, community colleges, four-year state colleges and state-run educational consortiums have developed undergraduate online general education and specialized undergraduate online degree programs that have largely attracted working adult students. Nevertheless, IUP’s Jackson estimates that as many as half the students in online courses are from the traditional 18- to 25-year-old student cohort who normally take campus-based courses. He says the traditional students enroll in the online courses to take advantage of the flexibility and the usable academic credits they offer.
“For example, a student at a Kentucky state institution may take a course through the Kentucky Virtual University to fulfill requirements for his or her major. This happens a lot in states where academic credits from online programs are accepted by the particular state institution,” Jackson explains.  
Beyond the general education courses, state schools and community colleges have often developed undergraduate online programs in coordination with specific industry partners or programs tied to specific job training, according to officials. “Community colleges have access as their mission and their programs are very job-oriented,” says eCollege’s Thorne.
In North Dakota, Bismarck State College, a two-year state institution, has been offering online associate degree programs in energy industry operations and human resources studies since 1998. Lane Huber, director of distance education at Bismarck State, says high retention rates in those programs reflect the fact that they are closely tied to regional work- force demands. Energy corporations have collaborated with the college to offer five separate programs that teach students skills qualifying them to take jobs in the region’s numerous coal energy plants.
“There’s a lot of experimentation going on,” Huber says. Class size, faculty training presents challenges
Institutions that have developed online education initiatives have paid close attention to achieving optimal class sizes and to training instructors and professors to teach online courses effectively. Despite their being limited research correlating retention to online class sizes and to instructor proficiency, schools and organizations have given these areas top priority as the basis for improving the quality of their online programs.
When officials first talked about online courses in the 1990s, many believed it would be possible that individual professors would easily teach hundreds of students in an online class just as professors do in large lecture hall courses. It was quickly recognized that effective interactive online classes required instructors to teach students in small sections from 10 to 25 students.
IUP’s Jackson says it’s fairly standard in public four-year institutions that online classes be limited to 25 students. He says community colleges, which have high demands from students wanting online courses, are struggling to bring down their class size numbers. It’s common to find as many as 45 students in community college online courses, which are being taught by a single instructor, according to Jackson.
Developing instructor proficiency in online teaching remains one of the greatest challenges in online education, according to observers. Jackson says there’s some research that shows a high correlation between online teaching quality and retention. In one study, a school showed that student persistence in courses increased as instructors attained more training. The courses that had the highest dropout rates were the ones where the instructor had little or no training on how to teach online, according to Jackson.
There’s still wide variation among schools and organizations as to how they address instructor training. Institutions often face a difficult time in getting their existing faculty to undertake online teaching assignments because it’s believed that online work demands more time for preparation and teaching than regular classroom courses. Issues of compensation, ownership of the intellectual property in courses, and online workloads have made online programs a source of conflict between faculty and administrators.
Officials at Webster University, based in St. Louis, have worked diligently to ease the transition between classroom and online teaching for its faculty members. Webster University, a private not-for-profit institution that has 100 campuses worldwide, has cultivated a deliberate go-slow approach with the online MBA program it introduced in 1999.   
Instead of heavily marketing the online graduate program, the school has been content to attract students already in their campus-based MBA program to the online courses and students who live close to Webster campuses, including nearby military bases. Dr. Brad Scott, director of the online MBA program, says Webster has yet to deliberately market the program to potential students living far away from Webster campuses.
“What has happened is that we may have a student who is in the military and she begins her program at our Jacksonville campus. The following year, she may transfer to Germany but she’ll be able to continue the MBA program by taking the online courses,” Scott says.
Webster’s carefully cultivated approach to its MBA programs, which is one of three online programs offered by the institution, has grown from 107 students taking online MBA courses during the fall of 1999 to 887 students in fall 2001, according to Webster officials. Scott says the school has yet to determine how many students are completing their degree fully online, but adds that the online courses have an 85 percent completion rate. Webster has a total of 5,000 students in their MBA programs worldwide.
Scott says Webster’s go-slow approach allows the institution to provide a significant level of training to faculty members who volunteer to teach the online courses. Among its 1,500 business faculty members, roughly 80 have been trained by Webster officials to teach the online courses, according to Scott. Taking the lead online  
When it comes to online education, for-profit institutions are forging a path that differs significantly from the approach taken by the nonprofit state and private schools. Eduventures’ Gallagher says that for-profit organizations are big winners in the online distance-learning market. Outfits, such as the University of Phoenix and Strayer University, are reporting impressive enrollment growth in their programs. While the for-profits enroll just 2 percent of the total U.S. higher education market, they serve 20 percent of the total number of students who are in online degree and certificate programs.
In one significant respect, the for-profits have often established separate organizational units to handle online education, an option that public institutions don’t always have. These units, which handle the technical, academic and student support services, typically hire and train faculty members solely to teach online courses.
The University of Phoenix, for example, employs more than 3,500 faculty members who teach 40,000 online students. The University of Phoenix has more than 125,000 students. The institution places tight control on the number of students in online classes, limiting class size to 13. Instructors teaching online courses are required to undergo 10 weeks of training before they are given assignments. 
Craig Swenson, provost of the University of Phoenix, says that in 2001 students in their online programs had a 64.1 percent retention rate compared to 56 percent of students attending NCAA Division I schools.
“We think we have one of the highest retention rates in the industry,” Swenson says, noting that the school assigns each online student a team of three advisers, which include an academic specialist, an enrollment services provider and a financial aid counselor.
Like their counterparts at the University of Phoenix, students in Strayer University’s online majors are assigned to an academic adviser and student support specialists. Although it’s possible for online students to never have to step foot on one of Strayer’s 20 campuses, students can meet with advisers in person and can have telephone access to them. Textbooks can be ordered online.
“You have to be customer service-oriented in the online environment,” says Pam Bell, director of Strayer Online.
It’s estimated that online learning may eventually capture as much as 15 percent to 20 percent of total U.S. higher education enrollments. With research on online retention still in its infancy, it’s still anyone’s guess as to how the distance-education market will shape up. There’s no doubt, however, that providers will have to carefully design and establish online education programs in a defined and competitive space. 

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