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The Market Is Sending A Message About Modalities: Are We Listening?

The EvoLLLution | The Market Is Sending A Message About Modalities: Are We Listening?
The growth of online and other alternative higher education modalities reflects the industry’s recognition of the importance of meeting student demands and expectations.

In the first installment of this series, the discussion focused on how research comparing online and traditional courses typically pursues the wrong question and suggested we first understand why alternative educational modalities exist. In this installment, we start to delve into the reasons why alternative modes exist. The main reason for these alternative modalities is not academic; market forces drive the use of alternative education modalities. There are those that recoil at the thought that any member of the academy would fall prey to the inclinations or machinations of market dynamics. However, all institutions function on revenue, regardless of the name we give it (some popular titles include funding, grants, tuition, research awards and donations). One type of institution has positive cash flow and another has profit but both require cash flow of some type to cover costs.

Offering alternative educational delivery modalities is a market-based education fact. The market is sending the message that students (education customers) want options in the product called education. Call it customer focus or providing students with flexibility, it is a market-based approach to offering education. In the past, those that failed to follow trends usually had time to catch up. In the current age, those that fail to respond to trends and market direction will simply fail. This is not to say every school needs to be all online, but every school does need to have technology options. Students today are accustomed to the immediacy of information access, which is a palpable contrast to models of waiting for a classroom time for information. The model and modes have changed, which suggests the research question is not about what is best but how to best meet the needs of the changed (not changing) market.

The issue is not a decision on offering educational modality options but how to best provide the service infrastructure to make the new modes effective as an educational option. Consider how even presentations in the business world are changing and webinars are becoming more popular. However, many schools still focus on speech courses based on face-to-face interactions. Who is training students to understand the vagaries of presenting when you do not see your audience? Market forces are changing the requirements for new employees. Tech-savvy employees are entrance level, while education modalities teach more than technology. Alternative modalities such as online and blended become an education experience preparing students to become employees.

Online programs should have the exact same infrastructure support services. The research on student success would change if service metrics were considered along with student success. For example, an institution should provide well trained staff that understand how to meet the needs of virtual students, assisting in registration, financial aid, library research, counseling and degree planning, and career counseling to name a few. The research on comparisons of building-based to online programs focuses most on student satisfaction, faculty satisfaction or student outcomes. But what if poor service to a virtual student in any of the above named areas (registration, financial aid, library research, counseling and degree planning) was a more controlling factor in the outcome? What if the building-based programs had the full complement of resources and the online option did not?

In market-driven economies, service factors expedite success. Some would even say our service economy makes service the primary driver for business success. If, as posited, education is market driven, then it could also be that service factors are more critical for successful student outcomes. Some foolishly think the new reality of “student as customer” means we give all students an “A” because that is what the customer pays for; this is wrong and suggests a lack of understanding of market-based economies. Students pay for education and the service structure that makes that education possible. In any market, the seller works to build the best product with the best service support structure. What business does not do is allow the customer to come in and dictate the price they will pay: you will not buy a Cadillac for the price of a Chevy Cruse no matter the complaints you file. So, why do educators think student-as-customer discussions mean coddling and delivering inferior products? Most likely because some institutions (like some businesses) deliver inferior products at unfair prices, and we allow unethical behavior and inequity drive the market.

Price is a driver—this is Econ 101—but process efficiency is also a way to control costs, which offsets price, profit and positive cash flow. Are we efficient with college infrastructure services? Do we measure process efficiency costs and work to eliminate waste? The problems of education are incorrectly often laid at the feet of faculty. We hear about salaries and tenure for example. The increase in the cost of education is in infrastructure, and more specifically, the increase is caused by waste due to the inefficiency in infrastructure services.

Educational modalities are not used to reduce costs; they are a cost of doing business, or meeting the market need. In business models we track costs, measure efficiency and work to reduce both variation and waste. The cost of the business of education should be similar.

The market is pushing education to offer alternative modalities. Are we strategically planning on delivering high-quality products with exceptional service infrastructures, or are we forcing the proverbial square peg in the round hole running online options with building-based services?

This is the second part of a three-part series discussing the evolution of online learning in higher education. To read the next installment in the series, please click here.

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