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Both Universities And Students Benefit From Online Education

posted May 19, 2009  |  Appears in the May/June 2009 issue of EdTech Magazine.

Online courses offer cost savings and efficiencies to colleges and universities, but that’s not the main reason for the growth in online education.

Online courses offer cost savings and efficiencies to colleges and universities, but that’s not the main reason for the growth in online education. Michael Cornell, deputy chief technology officer at the University of Illinois Global Campus, and his colleagues at other universities are responding to an inexorable force: their students.

It’s the students who are asking colleges to offer more online courses. Financial pressures are forcing many of them to work longer hours at part-time jobs, so they need the flexibility of being able to take at least one or two online courses a semester. Midcareer professionals also like the convenience of fitting online courses into their busy work and family schedules, a service that community colleges deliver well.

“The growth in online courses and programs is fostered by student demand, rather than an assumption that online courses reduce the institutional cost of instruction,” says Kenneth Green, founder of the Campus Computing Project.

In fact, at least initially, Green says colleges should plan on some up-front costs for additional training, computing infrastructure and technical support, on top of the cost of converting curriculum to an online format.

But the investment in security may be the most important of all. Gaining the trust of your students and faculty that the online courseware and collaboration systems are secure is essential. Everything else crumbles if you can’t build that trust. As a result, many institutions are investing in back-end servers and storage infrastructure to build secure interfaces and collaboration tools that make it easy for students to learn.

Green says college IT departments also need to do a better job of mining available transactional data so faculty and administrators can get a more precise read on whether online learning is producing the positive results it promises. The data exists in your systems; you just have to present it to university stakeholders in a meaningful way.

Cost Savings

Ten years ago, most professors would have balked at the idea that they would be expected to teach at least one course a semester online, says Gartner analyst Marti Harris. But attitudes are evolving as colleges and universities adjust to challenging economic times, changing student demographics and greater acceptance of technology among faculty.

93 percent of community college presidents reported increased enrollment in online courses in the past year.

Source: The Campus Computing Project

This transition is made easier because online learning helps schools save on classroom space and allocate scarce faculty resources more efficiently. Cornell says his university’s online school has seen significant savings in capital expenditures compared with its brick-and-mortar counterparts because of its 100 percent online presence. He adds that the relatively low cost of ownership of hardware and software lets them offer a more affordable education with the high-quality experience the university provides.

“We also save by having a lower staff-to-student ratio, again without impacting the quality of the education,” Cornell says.

“Once we build a system or process, it can serve larger and larger populations with minimal incremental capital investment,” he says. “Another benefit is that students looking for a college experience that does not include the physical presence on a campus save even more on housing and transportation.”

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