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Going the Distance With John F. Ebersole

Going the Distance With John F. Ebersole

Excelsior College’s president discusses the untapped potential of distance learning

John F. Ebersole
Title: President, Excelsior College, Albany, N.Y.
Previous Title: Associate Provost and Dean,
Extended Education, Boston University
Education: Bachelor’s, U.S. Naval War College,
MBA and Master of Public Administration,
John F. Kennedy University

That we live in a brave new world of higher education technologies is an understatement. As the demographics of the postsecondary market continue to change, the essential issue is whether traditional colleges and universities are prepared to keep pace. Online education has been considered ahead of the curve in recognizing, adapting to and accommodating the oncoming technological, demographic and economic trends. Yet it is still not as widely used or accepted in higher education teaching and leadership circles as one might expect. In January, John F. Ebersole was named the second president of Excelsior College, a world leader in distance education. Ebersole recently sat down with Diverse editor in chief  Frank L. Matthews to discuss the challenges and opportunities to be found in the constantly evolving environment of distance education and learning. 

DI: Do you see the digital divide as being a barrier to distance learning colleges, particularly in accessing poor and minority communities?

JE: I think that the so-called digital divide is a reflection of the economic divide. I think that if young people have access to the technology, to the Internet particularly, whether they’re in inner-city communities or rural communities or urban communities or suburban communities, they master it very quickly. So it’s the economics of being able to afford the equipment, being able to afford the software, being able to afford the Internet connectivity.

I talked to my friend, who is the president of Capella, an institution that is also exclusively online, and over 30 percent of his student body is of color. The online format benefits them because they can stay fully employed, which again is an economic consideration. They can move time around as well as transcend distance with the asynchronous formats that we use in good online learning. They also say that nobody knows that they’re a minority student.

DI: Isn’t there an issue and concern about the credibility and quality of an online education?

JE: Yes, you’re absolutely right. Ed Adventures, an educational research firm, reported that a majority of academic administrators were acknowledging the quality and the benefits of online education, and that a majority of employers were making no distinction between them. However, of potential students, 70 percent said that they did not feel that online education was of the same quality as classroom or traditional education. Now, that’s a concern to us. One of the things I would ask them is, “If you can study at a time of your choosing, and a place of your choosing, when you’re maximally ready to learn and in a format that is tailored to your style of learning, why shouldn’t you expect that you’re going to learn just as well, if not better, than in a classroom?”
DI: Who do you think should bear the costs of online accessibility? Is this a public policy issue, or should we rely on the Bill Gates of the world to do it?

JE: It’s probably a case where we all need to make a contribution. I, as an administrator of an institution, have an obligation to keep that cost as low as I can. By the same token, I do think that it’s going to require the contribution of both business and government. The good news is that the cost of access is coming down every month. Access to the Internet is down to a couple of Big Macs. The equipment itself is down to the cost of a television. So there has been progress made, but I do think that it’s a shared responsibility on the part of society, as well as the individual to some degree. I’m one of those that believes that if you don’t have some of your own money at risk, you probably don’t value it as much as if you did. 

DI: Do you see online education as being a major panacea for the demographic imperative and all that it portends?
JE: It is going to be a major contributor to addressing that problem. I absolutely believe that. Ninety-seven percent of the public institutions in America today are now offering something in distance education. There is tremendous resistance within higher education to accepting any innovation, yet online learning, in a matter of only 10 or 15 years, is virtually in every school in the country. We’ve got two million students who are studying today, at least to some degree, online. So, I really do think that it’s going to be one of the ways in which we can address this need that you’re describing.

DI: You have the free-market theorists who seem to have quite a bit of support, that the market will always correct inequities. The University of Phoenix is thriving. And then you have institutions like yours that are not for-profit but have found a very big niche in the higher education market.

JE:  I think they want to see the same free market principles applied in education that they see in business.  I think the [Bush] administration strongly supports removing as many barriers as they can from education and allowing education and educational institutions to compete for students. I think they genuinely believe, and to some point I agree, that this has been good. It’s not a zero-sum game. The University of Phoenix has grown to over 250,000 students. Only 25 percent of the adult population of this country has a degree. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I think there’s room in the marketplace for all of us. The key is whether those who are in it primarily for profit are following the rules, and are they delivering a quality product? I think that’s where we need to focus.

DI: Who sets the rules? 

JE: I think there has to be some external review, whether it is coming from regional accreditors, national accreditors or program accreditors. I think there’s a role for all of them. But they’re very focused on a traditional yardstick. And I think that as we get more experience in online education, those rules are going to undergo some change. The federal government, the state government, the accrediting agencies, all of them are involved to one degree or another.

DI: Do you see concerns about online education as a long-standing impediment or a temporary short-term impediment to the kinds of things that you are talking about?

JE: I think that it has evolved over time, and I do believe that it presents us with some short-term concerns that we’re going to have to come together within the higher education community and address. The fact is that online learning is growing in acceptance, not just by people like me, but also by traditional academic administrators. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed by Sloan indicated that within 10 years the quality of what they were doing online was going to equal or surpass what they were doing in the classroom. And something like 50 percent said we’re already there, that it’s already surpassed what we are doing in the classroom. That kind of acceptance is going to help us in addressing some of these issues, but we have a ways to go.

DI: How do your nurses fare on national exams and assessments?

JE: Our nurses do five points better than the national average on the examination, and that’s because we have really perfected, I believe, the combination of experience that we admit into our programs, combining it with quality instruction from practitioners. And we put a whole lot of emphasis on outcome assessment. A lot of people don’t realize it, but the state of New York was doing high school placement testing in the 1920s. They predated the College Board. The outcome assessment and testing that is done by Excelsior College, going back to when it was Regents College of the State of New York, is a direct descendant of that line. So we have one of the finest assessment units of any school in the country. We’re not just looking at somebody’s scrapbook and saying that’s deserving of academic credit. What we’re doing is we’re administering examinations and saying, “Do you have the knowledge and the competencies required in order to have credit awarded for it and to make a contribution towards an academic credential?” And we’ve got 35 years of history and 110,000 graduates who have found that to be an extremely valuable model to their own growth and development. 

DI: Do you find an audience when you start talking about environmental issues? For example, people aren’t on highways going back and forth to schools, etc. Is that a part of your pitch?

JE: It hasn’t been, but it should be. We are concerned about petroleum reserve depletion. We are concerned about the quality of the air and whether or not we have global warming. If people do not have to commute over long distances in order to partake of education and gain the skills and knowledge necessary to advance their careers, we can take hundreds of thousands, if not millions of cars off the road over a period of time. We want you to have the opportunity to study at a time of your choosing and a place of your choosing. Typically, our busiest time is after 11 p.m. You can be in your pajamas in your bedroom taking your class and you don’t have to pay for child care. You can continue to be fully employed. So we’re starting to address the economic barriers to education by allowing people to continue to make a living; taking away the cost of commuting; taking away the cost of child care. Those are things that offset the fact that you have to spend $9 a month for Internet connectivity.

DI: One of the things that companies are saying is that they want students who have worked with diverse groups of people. How do you compensate for this need? 

JE: I don’t believe that we have, frankly, scratched the surface in terms of the potential of online learning. I think that it provides us with an international party line. We can interact with students all over the world today. The Internet has become a culture, and how you interact and communicate on the Internet has become a universal culture. We’re going to want to partner with academic institutions in those countries, for multiple reasons. We think we can give a better quality experience, they can help us in terms of serving the student, and we can share with them knowledge that is going to help them become providers of online instruction in their own right. That is one of our objectives.

DI: Could you envision a situation where you could partner with a Black or Hispanic-serving college?

JE: I’m absolutely a believer in joint programs, and I would absolutely welcome the opportunity to bring our expertise in online learning and outcome assessment to a more traditional institution. So if there was interest on the part of a traditional institution to work with us in that way, we would be receptive.

DI: There is this tremendous opportunity for profiteering because of all of the money that’s going into homeland security and cybersecurity. What are some of the barometers that you use in terms of deciding which of these opportunities you are going to go after?

JE: I want to bring good business principles to the delivery of quality higher education. I want our new programs to be preceded by objective third-party market assessment. I want to make sure that just because a group of faculty think this is a good idea that there’s really a need in the marketplace for what it is we’re offering, and that we include those particular aspects of our education that are really addressing needs in the marketplace. I want to make sure that we don’t discount the cost of marketing. It’s one thing to have the most wonderful program in the world, but if nobody knows you have it, what good is it?

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