A Post by Michael B. Spring

(A list of all posts by M.B. Spring)

Online Education (August 21, 2008)

Online education is a topic surfacing more and more frequently in graduate professional schools at universities like the University of Pittsburgh. I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the topic and about the push to "make it so." My ambivalence comes from some history. First, while I have been programming since 1969, and have been on the technical faculty in Information Science for more than two decades, my academic preparation was in education, specifically in the area of structured curriculum design. Second, for about 15 years I served as an administrator and director of the distance education program at the University of Pittsburgh. The unit was responsible for delivering more than 150 courses per year to more than 2000 students across forty departments and three schools. Third, some of my early research was on assessing the relative quality of face to face and distance education. I served as an evaluator for the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association with particular attention to non-traditional institutions. Fourth, I have experimented with a number of systems and techniques for delivering the content of my courses using various forms of technology that are not time or space bound -- a number of online lectures are mounted on my website in various forms of completion. This is all to say that at heart I am conversant with the various formats and technologies for distance and online education. Further, I would like to believe that I understand both the theory and practice of making it work. Yet I am resistant to some of the administrative mandates to "make it so".

The source of my resistance comes at two levels. The first relates to focus and commitment. The second relates the demands and rewards of technology. I discuss both of these points below in more detail.

Focus and Commitment

While we build new dorms and classrooms at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars without any let up, our investment in cyberspace is minimal at best. Yes the money spent on cyberinfrastructure is increasing, but seldom do we talk in terms of a five year or ten year plan in the same way we talk about physical infrastructure. Granted, it is hard to do plan far in advance given the rate of technological change, but it is possible to think about the future in terms of alternatives. I foolishly suggested to our Chancellor almost a quarter century ago that we should make an investment in technology equivalent to the investment we were making in buildings. If we begin to offer all of our education in selected areas -- graduate professional programs to select a target, we need a dramatically different physical infrastructure complimented by a significantly larger technical infrastructure. We also should consider that not all online education is equal. Our model should be Amazon, or Google. What I mean to say here is that Amazon is not just another bookstore, it is THE bookstore. Google is not just another search engine a.k.a. library, it is THE information source. At the risk of offending my professional colleagues, most of us are not good enough to be an educational Google or Amazon. There are faculty who are good enough, and they should be the focal point of the prototypical online courses. Again, I am reminded of some history. When I was director of External Studies, the composite rank of the faculty was the highest teaching undergraduates anywhere on campus. It was because we targeted full professors as those best able to express their lectures in writing. It should be no different with online education.

I would suggest that a strategy for mounting a successful online education effort should be more than offer courses online. There are at least four first targets for online education.

Use of Technology

I have said more than I intended in this post, but not quite as much as I feel needs to be said. You may have an inkling from what I said about world class courses that a really good online education course is not simply some video and notes online with a periodic discussion. There is a lot of technology that can be brought to bear, and while some of it is new, some of it is actually quite old.

Last night, teaching e-business, I reminded the students that e-business is not simply about the use of technology. It is more about improving the bottom line via technology. This means one of several things, but the two most frequent goals are increased sales and improved productivity. If you spend $1,000,000 to offer new online education programs and simply shift your population from the classroom to their home, you have lost -- increased cost without increased revenue. Similarly, if you install course management software that decreases faculty productivity, you are not engaged in good e-business. So, it should be the case that effective online education is better, easier, faster, more efficient for both faculty and students. It should open new markets, or DRAMATICALLY improve customer satisfaction -- leading to increased donations from alumni, etc. Seldom do I see these assessment criteria applied. Our course management system must be great because it is costing us X million dollars a year. As best I can tell, few people are asking if it is making the faculty and students happier, more productive, or more efficient.

With no effort to be exhaustive, and because I am getting sleepy -- as you may be -- here are just a couple of the dozens of ways we could make online education better than -- not just as good as -- traditional education.

Online education is in our future, but we have not yet taken the time to plan an articulate set of goals, or made the investment to build the kind of infrastructure that makes this next generation of quality educational experiences a reality. It is not sufficient to say "make it so" unless the money, incentive, infrastructure, and most importantly vision are in place.