College officials have to accept that if they don't adapt and expand their online offerings soon, the massive open online course model that offers courses and certifications for little or no cost is much more of a threat to their existence than they ever imagined.
Delivering courses online is the only way colleges can maintain quality while reducing costs. Online courses are also a source of growth. At Drexel, over the past 10 years, our online division grew from a few courses and modest revenue to 100 degree programs fully online that now generate $70 million of annual revenue. Our online division offers the same degree programs a student would get in a traditional environment, with the same professors.
Until now, most of our online efforts have supported graduate students who have to juggle their studies with work and family responsibilities. Roughly 70 percent of our 8,000 online degree students are in graduate school. The average age is 31, and the vast majority live 250 to 350 miles from our main campus in Philadelphia. While these are the demographics today, I expect them to change dramatically in the next three to five years. Except for the top 50 institutions, watch for more colleges to start offering less expensive online undergraduate degrees.
Such dramatic change presents significant challenges. One such challenge is getting faculty members to embrace teaching online. For veteran faculty, the idea of offering a standardized course online — for which they don't fully control the reading list and subject matter — is hard to accept. Keep in mind that for online education to scale, roughly 85 percent of the courses must be "locked down," meaning that professors can't change the questions, reading materials or student assessments.
59% The percentage of college IT managers surveyed who say their institution offers online learning
SOURCE: 2011 CDW•G 21st Century Campus Report
The only way for this to work is to give proper incentives and quickly demonstrate potential benefits. At Drexel, the lion's share of the revenue we receive from online education stays with the academic departments. Once an online program builds up, the department head then has money, for example, to send a faculty member to a professional conference or hire new scholars.
Training is another important issue. We started by having a team of instructional designers meet with the faculty to design courses. Over time, the colleges that built up significant online programs had the money to hire their own instructional designers.
The hardest challenge is to teach faculty members how to engage students online. In my classes, I always try to arrange a live chat with some of the authors of the textbooks we read each semester. With online courses, the ability to communicate with subject matter experts is easy to arrange and much cheaper than flying a guest in for a speaking engagement.
Online education is an awesome opportunity. But change of this magnitude is hard. Pick the disciplines that are likely to more readily accept online learning and slowly build on their success. We started by targeting computer science and nursing students.
The rising cost of college is forcing us to find alternatives to traditional education. Online learning is one important piece of the puzzle.