Why small colleges should take the plunge into online education
- Though the future does not look bright for small, private institutions — which have seen a growing trend of closures due to a decline in enrollment and revenue — they may be able to stay afloat by tapping into can online courses and avoid a 'precarious' reliance on residential students, writes Robert Ubell, the vice dean emeritus of online learning at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering argues for EdSurge.
- While many small schools view online courses as impersonal with the lack of mentoring and close relationships between educators and students, it's inevitable schools ignoring digital opportunities will end up falling behind, he writes — especially as that pool of student enrollees becomes increasingly nontraditional and flexible online programs become more in demand.
- Understanding the shift may be daunting, Ubell suggests modest investments in the right staff, online designers and recruiters, as well as a forward-thinking innovator and digital advocate on campus who can support the idea of online learning. He also suggests partnerships with third-party online program managers to handle technicalities, as sometimes such companies also commit to handling much of the initial cost.
Whether educators like it or not, digital is here to stay, and as Ubell notes — failure to invest in online services could mean falling behind the competition, especially as older, more nontraditional and distant learners seek more flexible options from institutions. While only few small colleges and universities have bought in, experimenting with digital and making small upfront investments in the technology, which is shown to be cheaper and good for revenue, could pay off in the long run, given that Moody's predicts closures of these types of schools is going to triple in the coming years due to low revenue and enrollment.
Leaders should be aware educators elsewhere are gradually becoming more accustomed to their use; the survey found that 42% of educators who responded to the survey indicated they had taught an online course last year, a 12% jump from four years earlier. But to make sure the transition goes smoothly, it's important to get faculty buy-in and work with IT services on campus, as the general attitude toward online education is that it goes against the norms of the traditional educator-student relationship and poor tech roll-out could end up costing more in the long run. And, buying into services that take up too much bandwidth could also end up being more expensive, if the Federal Communications Commission's proposals to rollback net neutrality move forward and internet service providers can charge fees for faster websites and make access to online educational resources more difficult.
So to mitigate these risks, and the accompanying difficulties in making sure classes will run smoothly, it's important for ed tech decision makers to communicate and collaborate with other parts of the administration, especially the CIO. It's also absolutely important that institutions set aside the right amount of funds to make sure they are still paying online teaching faculty the right amount for their time, as preparing for online education can be just as demanding, if not more, than in a traditional classroom setting. Another option, as Ubell suggests, is for institutions to hand off more of the technical aspects to a third party that may be able to handle it better. For instance, there are many third-party companies host online remedial courses for students, along with some colleges; results have been mixed, but online primers could offer prepare students who may not be academically struggling prior to arriving on campus a chance to prepare. Programs like this could enable schools to attract a wider array of student applicants.
The time may be right for renowned private universities to expand their online potential, especially as many for-profit institutions that specialized in online education like ITT Tech faced and are still facing closures — leaving room for small institutions to step in. New students may be more willing to trust an online option run and endorsed by a renowned, established and historical school like many small colleges and universities are. So, if such schools can feel confident in the online programs they are offering, they should leverage the reputation of the school's physical campus and classes in attracting online learners with a wider array of options.