Stalking Distance Ed Part 2: How will it affect my institution?

A few months ago, I wrote about my initial exploration with Coursera.   After enrolling in several courses and working my way through the free on-line curriculum I’m still impressed.  The courses, ranging from mythology and fantasy literature (courses that I teach) to Gamification and Social Network Analysis (things that I’m interested in knowing more about) have not challenged my initial impression.  Coursera offers courses that are high quality and well designed.  I continue to be impressed with the quality of video editing and the level of communication between the course organizers and the students.  It’s a wonderful way to get access to new material or “study” under a well-known professor and it is a tremendous educational resource.

At the same time, I wonder about how adding distance classes to my university will influence the student experience.  This is a great concern to me, even more so now that I have been stalking distance ed.  What will it mean for the university, and our particular brand of higher education?  There are three issues that I think faculty and administrators will need to consider as we develop a more widespread distance education program.

1) Why should students pick our institution?  This is a fundamental question that all state universities should consider.  If a student has the opportunity to study on-line with a professor from my university or the choice of a well-known professor from a prestigious university, why would s/he pick a our institution?  More importantly, would GMU be their first choice?  What can any state university offer on-line that is more attractive than the on-line lectures from Harvard, Princeton or Stanford?

Students select state universities for a variety of reasons.  They’re close by, perhaps less expensive, or have great campus culture.  Here at George Mason University (GMU) we offer several unique undergraduate programs that provide distinction.  For most students, however, what makes the state university special is that you’re there and you have the opportunity to interact with the professor.  Students can ask questions, or go to the office to chat about future plans.  Certainly a student can email a professor for the same purpose. But many college students probably won’t do that.

2) What is the heart of GMU’s particular brand of higher education?  GMU is unique in a number of ways, but by far our greatest asset is our location.  We are a 30 minute drive to Washington, DC, allowing our students access to museums, theatre, and the a variety of businesses and institutions.  This access allows professors to place students in prestigious internships at places like the Folger Library, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution.  It also offers opportunities for distinct learning opportunities that take advantage of these resources.

It’s not clear what direction GMU will take as it expands distance learning.  Students don’t have to be present to take on-line courses, and if they’re not part of the campus community, the most valuable resource of GMU won’t be accessible or even relevant.

3)  Will distance education be less expensive?  If so, how?  My experience with Coursera suggests that on-line courses can reach a lot of people effectively.  But there has to be a support system in place to set up websites, make and edit videos, and develop on-line tools for evaluation.  The automated paper distribution system that I reference a few months ago  in this blog post is one example.  How much are the start-up and maintenance costs?  Are they truly cost-effective?

If we hope to reach many new paying students it might be possible to make this a money saving venture.  But if not (see #1 above) will it be worth it to go down this path?

As a teacher I am also concerned about student learning outcomes.  I’m convinced if done properly, students can learn this way.  It might not be best for all students, but no one education delivery method is one-size-fits-all.

The question is how an institution can maximize the impact of face-to-face contact in an on-line environment.  I’ll discuss that tomorrow.

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