Online University Programs: Opportunity or Competition?

Online university programs have the power to leverage the Internet to transcend distance and time constraints, providing new and expanded ways of teaching, learning, and collaboration on an international level. Unfortunately, these programs can also be threatening to those students, faculty, and parents who may see them only as second-class alternatives to “real” learning. For the uninitiated, the opportunities and positive outcomes offered by online learning may not be readily apparent.

By exploring some ways in which these enabling technologies can be applied to heretofore “brick-and-mortar” activities and by taking a look at some market realities of the business of education, this article will illustrate that online universities and programs are no longer a threat, but are more and more being recognized as strong opportunities for existing institutions to leverage the power of the Web to transcend distance and time constraints, build national and international partnerships, and encourage global collaboration.

It Isn’t Five Years Away Anymore

Savvy academic institutions are starting to recognize that they must expand the traditional definition of “community” from campus, region, and state to national and even international. No question about it, globalization and the realization of a world community of educators is driving the need for institutions to integrate online and Web 2.0 technology tools into the classroom.

With the proliferation of networks, low-cost computing, and students entering the university as end-user experts of many categories of Internet tools, there are opportunities for instruction and interaction that are no longer five years away. They are quite feasible today, and instructors across the country are taking advantage of these online and Web 2.0 technology tools.

Dr. Ricky Cox of Murray State University in Kentucky uses real-time collaboration over the Internet in conjunction with a tablet PC for office hours in Chemistry. With the combination of a drawing surface and a real-time environment, students can join in from across campus or across town to mark up and solve chemistry problems after hours with faculty assistance. Unlike offline, threaded discussions based on text, responses are immediate, knowledge is constructed in real time in front of and with the students, and students help each other as well as learn from the instructor.

Duke University is making a live learning environment available for any student or teacher as part of the University's IT infrastructure. Ben Rogers, project manager for Duke Digital Media Solutions group, recently said, "Duke is a global institution with an immediate need to extend its reach in terms of affecting teaching, learning, and research. We implemented a single solution that would best meet the needs of the entire Duke community, providing functionality for distance education, opportunities for collaboration, and support for outreach activities.”
Examples like Murray State and Duke University begin to show that tools and locations, properly blended, can create valuable realities that both enhance and transcend brick-and-mortar opportunities.

It’s a Small World After All

Globalization and the recognition of a world community of educators are also driving the need for institutions to integrate online tools into academic conferences. George Siemens of the University of Manitoba has started to hold conferences online in a cost-effective and educationally powerful way that should make administrators take notice.

Siemens facilitates 100-percent online conferences by combining one-hour, real-time sessions each morning for a week with ongoing, offline Moodle course management system-based discussions (including recordings of the live discussion) to involve even more people. The result is that literally hundreds of professionals can discuss a topic in a more convenient, less expensive, and more thoughtful way than could be allowed if the conference was hosted in a physical location over one or two days.

Improving the Art of Research
Research methodologies themselves are in flux in reaction to the new kinds of online communications tools available on the Internet. If an organization is not participating in online activities, not only will it lose out on the value of direct instruction, student support, and online conferences, but it may miss out on the opportunity to improve the art of research itself.

Dr. Janet Salmons of Vision2Lead and Capella University and Dr. Lynn Wilson of the SeaTrust Institute are currently editing a collection of 50 contributions where, as their publisher describes it, “previous theories, literature, research methods, and approaches need to be updated to acknowledge the changes now emerging in a digitally connected global economy and society.”  (For more information about their “Handbook of Research on Electronic Collaboration and Organizational Synergy,” visit www.igi-global.com/reference/details.asp?id=8003.)

The Business of Education
Just as important as helping naysayers understand the range of applications possible, there is also a need to help them be aware of the opportunity cost of ignoring the academic business realities of online learning. The numbers in the following examples can’t be ignored, showing that without competitive online offerings, capturing and retaining student enrollments can be at risk.

For example, the United Kingdom’s Open University (www.open.ac.uk/about/ou) has more than 180,000 students who take classes from home. In addition, approximately 70 percent of the University’s 150,000 undergraduate students are employed full-time, 10,000 have disabilities, and more than 25,000 live outside the UK.

According to I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman in the report, “Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning, Western Edition,” published by the Sloan Consortium, the compound growth rate for associate degree students taking at least one online course was 12 percent from 2002 to 2006 in the 14 western United States. And while the total number of students taking at least one online course is far greater at the associate degree level, the compound annual growth rate of doctoral/research students in that category is 28.5 percent, according to the study.

It’s All About Community
However, it isn’t just the ability of online programs to attract students that provides an organizational benefit. Creating a sense of belonging and community is important as well. More than 80 percent of the online faculty at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, PA, is adjunct. Yet it is possible to attract and retain a large number of instructors through the use of the online tools themselves to help them feel more connected to the college. “We want to serve as an example of a distance learning model that appropriately uses technology at the state and community college levels,” said Director of Distance Learning Kelvin Bentley. “We accomplish this in part by using Web conferencing to enhance our online and hybrid instruction as well as our ability to effectively communicate with our students and faculty.”

After graduation, most students who enter the workforce must be ready to work in an international marketplace. Teachers must be ready to provide a global perspective. Academic institutions of all levels must remain competitive and viable as businesses.  One way they can do this is to meet student needs by preparing them to build and support national and international partnerships.  The reality is that these relationships are being built online as well as in person, and the university experience must match that.

Conclusion
The increasingly competitive global economy and advancements in collaboration technology is placing new demands on students, instructors, and schools.

•Students are being required to be ready to work in an international marketplace, and teachers must be ready to provide a global perspective. And to remain competitive and profitable as the business they are, academic institutions of all levels are realizing that they must offer enhanced opportunities to students and employees by building national and international partnerships, creating new course offerings, providing instructor professional development, and developing cultures of collaboration between departments, campuses, and institutions.

•Academic institutions are also realizing that education in the 21st Century must embrace technology, and expand the traditional definition of the classroom from physical to virtual, and the community from campus, region, and state to national and even international. Globalization and the realization of a world community of educators are driving the need for institutions to integrate online and Web 2.0 technology tools into the classroom and beyond.

•If we can work together to help our educational organizations understand the opportunities and possibilities of putting online programs into the mix, we can provide benefits for students, faculty, and institutions alike, expanding reach, increasing retention, improving competitive advantage, and developing a culture of collaboration on a global level.

Gary Dietz is the product marketing manager for Elluminate, Inc. (www.elluminate.com). He can be reached at gdietz@elluminate.com.

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