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Business Officer Magazine

Postcards From Online

From "Business Briefs" department in February 2011 issue of Business Officer

By Karla Hignite

There are many ways to portray what's happening in the online learning sector. (See related article, "Going the Distance.") Here are several point-of-interest snapshots.

Course content. Nonprofit colleges and universities are partnering with for-profit providers for a variety of services, including market research and program marketing; student recruitment and retention; faculty recruitment and training; course development; and designing, and managing online classrooms. While survey data from the Instructional Technology Council's 2009 distance education survey (Trends in eLearning: Tracking the Impact of eLearning at Community Colleges ) show that more community colleges are outsourcing hosting services for online classes to a third party (36 percent) or as part of a consortium (20 percent), the overwhelming majority (75 percent) still develop their own course content, compared to 18 percent that use content offered by a textbook publisher and 5 percent that contract or license materials from a content provider.

Program oversight. Distance education programs are migrating from IT operations to oversight by the academic side of the house. The 2010 Managing Online Education survey , a collaboration of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies and the Campus Computing Project, reports an indicator of that trend: While "chief information officer" is the most common title of the senior operating officer for online programming (for 42 percent of respondents), 49 percent of these CIOs report to the institution's provost or chief academic officer.

Faculty training. Among participating colleges and universities in the 2010 Managing Online Education survey, half report that training is mandatory for faculty who teach in online programs. Required training averages 22 hours, reflecting a significant investment of institutional resources. That finding is similar to ITC's 2009 distance education survey data, which show 60 percent of respondents saying faculty training for distance education is mandatory, of which 80 percent indicated that eight or more hours of training are required.

Technical support. According to the 2010 Managing Online Education survey, technical support remains a big issue for students and faculty. The survey data revealed that 15 percent of campuses limit support to the regular Monday through Friday workday hours, 20 percent offer some limited evening support, and another 32 percent provide some evening and weekend support beyond the workday. Only one third of participating campuses indicated that they provide 24/7 technical support.

ADA compliance. With all the progress made in improving online course quality and student retention, one area that seems to have slipped is accessibility compliance. According to ITC survey data, while 73 percent of respondents in 2008 indicated that most or all of their online classes were in compliance, among respondents in 2009, only 54 percent reported this as being the case, reflecting a nearly 20 percent drop from the previous year. A lack of strong policies and effective oversight may be to blame. According to the 2010 Managing Online Education survey, a number of institutions could be vulnerable to complaints, because responsibility to ensure compliance often resides with individual faculty members (34 percent) and academic departments (23 percent), rather than with a central office familiar with Americans with Disabilities Act mandates. Only 16  percent of institutions reported having a central office that examines each course for ADA compliance.

Key challenges. As reported in the most recent ITC survey, among the greatest challenges identified by community colleges for administrators of distance education programs are support staff needed for training and technical assistance, adequate student services for distance education students, and adequate assessment of distance education classes. With regard to faculty, top challenges include addressing faculty workload, and recruitment and training of quality faculty. Meanwhile, the top three challenges respondents noted for students enrolled in distance education classes were preparing students to take classes at a distance, assessing student learning and performance, and providing computer and technical support.

Online reorganization. Even as enrollments grow, the organizational arrangements for managing online efforts are in transition at many institutions. Close to half (44 percent) of the 2010 Managing Online Education survey respondents report that their campus has "reorganized the management of online education" in the past two years, while nearly a third (31 percent) have done so and anticipate another reorganization within the next two years. Why the upheaval? Survey participants  cite budget issues (52 percent) and efforts to coordinate instructional resources (39 percent) as major contributing factors, followed by changes in institution leadership (35 percent) and senior program officials (29 percent), and centralizing management of online education (27 percent).

Growth hazards. Beyond organizational concerns are challenges to program expansion. According to the 2010 Managing Online Education survey, faculty resistance to teaching online courses (73 percent) accounts for the primary impediment to expanding online education programs. Nearly two thirds (61 percent) of survey participants cited "lack of key resources" (instructors and support personnel) as a factor affecting program expansion, while more than half (56 percent) acknowledge that institutional budget cuts hamper program development and growth. These top three impediments—all internal challenges—far outweigh external concerns such as union agreements (26 percent), federal student aid regulations (22 percent), state regulations (17 percent), or accrediting issues (16 percent).


Ongoing Online Issues

No matter your institution's location on the online learning curve, certain challenges are ongoing. It's smart to keep the following issues in mind as you move forward:

  • Course content. While some institutions outsource content development, 75 percent of community colleges that offer e-learning still develop their own course content.
  • Program oversight. Distance learning programs are gradually migrating from IT operations to oversight by the academic side of the house.
  • Faculty training. Half of the participants in the 2010 Managing Online Education survey report that faculty training averages 22 hours, reflecting a significant investment of resources.
  • Technical support. This remains a big issue for students and faculty. Only one third of campuses participating in the 2010 Managing Online Education survey indicated that they provide 24/7 technical support.
  • ADA compliance. In 2009, results of the Instructional Technology Council's Trends in eLearning survey showed that only 54 percent of participating institutions indicated that most or all of their online classes were in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.


SUBMITTED BY Karla Hignite, contributing editor for Business Officer 

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