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E-Quality Means Equality: Why Online Students Deserve the Same Practices as On Campus

The same support that on-campus students get must be given equally to online students.
The same support that on-campus students get must be given equally to online students.

As online classes soared in popularity over the last few years, accessibility in higher ed reached an all-time high. 

EvoLLLution (Evo): Why was now the time to write Staying Online?

Bob Ubell (BU):  Staying Online is a collection of a couple of years of articles published in Inside Higher EdEdSurge, and elsewhere. Looking them over, I thought there might be a sufficient number of ideas in them, with many that might be good enough to deliver to a broader audience. I approached Routledge, my publisher, who had issued my earlier book, Going Online, a companion to Staying Online. My previous book largely covered the early days of remote learning, when most of us were unsure what virtual instruction was. For many, it was a scary territory, with some not knowing exactly how to go online and not knowing what might be found there.

With Staying Online, now seven years on, things have changed pretty dramatically. By the time the book came out, nearly half of all U.S. faculty had taught at least one course online. As I was writing it, more than half of all U.S. students had taken at least one online course, too. In just seven years, online went from emerging stealthily in a sort of a whispering campaign to finally being present in full force in American colleges and universities. To give my previously published articles more currency and force, I updated and combined three or four together under various headings–academic digital economy, outsourcing and insourcing, and online theory and practice–among other themes.

Staying Online opens with emergency online learning because it was on everybody’s mind and still is. What happened in the pandemic is still present and is still fraught. It is followed by a chapter on how one teaches online, revealing the theory that underlies it, while exposing my own experience teaching online at The New School in Manhattan a number of years ago. Perhaps the most serious chapter covers the importance of online learning for nontraditional students, many of whom must work to attend college. I call remote education an ethical practice because it gives working class and poor students perhaps their only chance to earn a college degree. While the book covers a number of other themes, its overarching lesson is how online is more than just a practical, technical solution in higher education, but an essential ethical practice, giving students who might otherwise be left out of our uneasy post-industrial economy, the chance to participate as full members. 

Evo: As you look at folks who are teaching online today, and folks who are managing online divisions and programs today, what are some of the most common challenges that online education leaders are facing?

BU: I think their major challenge is money. Many senior executives and veteran faculty at most universities believe that entering the online arena is very expensive. And because they’re very worried about their current economic position, hobbled by scarce resources, they don’t think they have sufficient funds to go online in a forceful and academically powerful way. Many academic leaders in the U.S. are skittish about what to do. Those who have already entered the online landscape have often done well and many have proliferated. The two biggest institutions in the last years in the U.S., Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire, enroll more than a hundred thousand online learners each, an extraordinary achievement, especially if you look back just a few years when the only really big schools were for-profits, now mostly reduced by U.S. federal efforts to rein them in. Only a few for-profits are left, few boasting less than a hundred thousand students each. 

What’s on the minds of senior people at the nation’s colleges and universities? Well, money, of course, but also, what road should they take? Should online learning be synchronous or asynchronous? Or a mix of both in hybrid learning? Should they do deals with online program managers (OPMs), commercial vendors that help finance and deliver online programs in exchange mostly for about half of tuition revenue? 

Those are the top issues facing senior faculty and other leaders at the nation’s universities today. If they don’t go to OPMs, can they go it alone, delivering online degrees all by themselves? If they do it alone, who will help them? Most higher ed institutions have few skilled faculty and staff who know what to do online. I don’t feel happy for the nation’s academic leadership, especially those who haven’t taken the online plunge yet.

Evo: What are some of the considerations that a leader should take into account when they start to grapple with these strategic questions about what online learning at their institution is going to look like?

BU: A chapter in Staying Online covers “Outsourcing and Insourcing” in which I remind us that even though we think OPMs are a new invention, universities have outsourced many functions for years. The school cafeteria is often not an in-house operation, now commonly managed by a commercial organization, brought in from the outside. Sometimes cleaning facilities are not performed by university employees either. Over the last 20 or 30 years, most universities have decided to do what they do best–teaching and research–turning over ancillary functions like food, cleaning and security services to commercial vendors. As a university leader, are you willing to give up half your student tuition revenue for a potential 20 or 30% increase in enrollments? You’ll have to go to your financial office to help you figure that out. 

Even before a president, provost, or online learning senior leader makes that decision, they must do a lot of deep thinking into the potential dangers and opportunities facing the university. Does your institution have sufficient resources, especially in marketing and digital recruitment to perform these critical services on your own? Since many believe that online is the future of higher education, if a university farms out its core academic resources to a third party, is it hollowing out its digital future? 

Evo: How do we overcome the possible negative connotations that these students will have with online programming?

BU: I was somewhat disturbed by how irresponsible many universities handled online teaching and learning in the pandemic. Most just turned on Zoom and other interactive software and that was it, thinking everything will be fine once they introduced this surprisingly magical system. But it didn’t turn out that way because we know that to teach effectively online, you don’t have to be an elegant speaker, a compelling actor, or a  dramatic lecturer. Those skills may work face-to-face, but being a standup comedian is not as effective online as it is in an on-campus classroom. All the things you learn as an on-ground faculty member, all your performance tricks, can be pathetic in a digital environment.

Active-learning techniques, peer-to-peer learning strategies, and other interactive methods are the ways in which competent and serious online instructors have been teaching for more than 30 years in universities all over the world. It was necessary to call in those skills and place them at the front lines during the pandemic. But that didn’t happen. Most university leaders did not seek out their most progressive, most resourceful online instructors to lead the movement to remote instruction. They just trusted Zoom to do the job. 

The experience students had was less than the best. First results of student response to emergency online instruction during the pandemic were very poor. The first survey I remember seeing revealed that merely 3 percent of college students thought online instruction was okay. Another early survey reported that only 7 percent of students thought their virtual experience was good.

But life always confounds us; it’s always mysterious, always surprising. Seeing those first results led many of us to conclude that emergency online instruction was a great failure, that students and faculty hated it and will turn their backs on it. But in the end, it didn’t quite happen that way. Recently, survey results show that the majority of U.S. students are eager to go online and that even faculty have experienced a turnabout. While most faculty hated it all along–now, guess what? Faculty don’t hate it so much anymore. 

What has changed since those early poor results is the recognition that our present economic stress makes it even more important than ever that students acknowledge the crucial value of online convenience. In the U.S., 80% of online students and 40% of on campus students work full time. For that huge student population, students who must struggle to come to campus or can’t come to campus at all, the marketplace is online. 

The digital world has made convenience a central feature of our economy. Our universities are not outside the demand for convenience. Convenience has made online learning very powerful, especially for working adults. For the health of the future of the university and for the benefit of our working students, online has become a requirement. 

Evo: What are a few of the key takeaways that a higher education leader can expect to learn from your new book, Staying Online?

BU: Online must be as essential to the university as on campus. In the minds of senior faculty, presidents and provosts, online must be equal to on-campus services and infrastructure. Resources that are devoted to on-campus education must be devoted equally to remote learning–faculty and student services and training, quality education, tuition discounts–all of it. The same effort, the same thought, the same intensity and the same financial backing that’s given on campus must be given to online students and faculty. Everything that is delivered on campus must be delivered equally to online students. On-campus lectures and other activities available on campus must be delivered equally to online students. We must provide remote students with exactly the same services, exactly the same resources, exactly the same financial support and training that we give our on-campus students. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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