How Is the Recession Affecting Online Higher Education?

John SenerBy John Sener

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched the 11 o’clock news on television. My recollection is that it consists of an endless series of deaths, accidents, and other disasters, relieved only by the commercials and an occasional human interest story. Ray Schroeder’s blog “New Realities in Higher Education” is the 11 o’clock news for higher education — except without the heartwarming human interest stories or commercials. The stories are pretty much one hair-raising signal of impending doom after another — make sure you’re in a reasonably good mood before tackling this one.

Once the train wreck/auto crash voyeuristic feeling wears off, inevitably when reading New Realities I find myself wondering: Is the recession helping speed the adoption of online higher education, or slowing it down, or some of both? On the one hand, many community colleges are reporting the increases in enrollment demand that economic downturns typically bring, North Carolina being one example. On the other hand, many (often the same) community colleges are also reporting budget cuts which force them to cancel classes and otherwise reduce offerings, North Carolina also being one example.

One school of thought is that the recession will drive adoption of online learning as a cost-saving measure or as a way to provide access to education for cost-conscious students. A counter-argument is that initial implementation of online education requires investment in infrastructure, faculty development, culture change, etc. and that such funds are not available, hence online education adoption is being slowed down.

So far, I haven’t been able to find anything other than speculation about this topic. By contrast, one of Ray Schroeder’s previous blog efforts, Fueling Online Learning, showed pretty clearly that last year’s astronomical gasoline prices had a strong correlation with increased enrollments in online higher education. (The causal connection is less clear, but a case can be made that there was one.)

Anyone have any concrete evidence on the recession’s effect on online education?

3 Responses

  1. How about the ever increasing student fees?
    At most colleges all the students pay a per credit fee to support the on-campus labs and classroom technology. But, often, students that never use the labs and don’t attend classes are also charged an additional online education fee when they enroll in an online class. This has always seemed unfair to me. This is especially true when the college is not using the collected fees to actually support and extend the online educational services that you noted above:

    “i…initial implementation of online education requires investment in infrastructure, faculty development, culture change, etc.”

    However, IMHO, the big expense is not the “initial implementation” but rather the continuing process of training the faculty and students to use software that delivers the learning. Learning Management Systems, like all commercial and open source software, are constantly being updated to be cooler looking faster products that work on all operating systems and in all browsers. It has been said that the Learning Management System is “commodifcation of learning.” However, the true cost of using this software is not reflected in the purchase price or the software hardware maintenance (IT) but the cost of the disruption of faculty and student learning. The instructors are spending uncompensated time learning the new or updated software resulting in less time to revise coursework and to teach and the students are paying fees to teach themselves how to use the updated management systems. This is not a pretty picture!

    If online education is going to function as a viable alternative for student learning, the college administrators will have to sacrifice efforts to enhance their careers and beautify their campuses and begin doing the unglamorous work of fully supporting their online programs.
    my (less valuable every day) 2 cents,
    Bob Bell
    Retired – community college faculty support & instructional design

    • Hmmm — I wonder if anyone else is seeing signs that student fees for online education are increasing as a result of the recession (vs. being a long-standing issue as Bob has pointed out). Likewise, I wonder if anyone else is seeing signs that online education implementation costs due to LMS “churn” and the resulting training costs have become more of a factor in HEI’s online education implementation decisions during the current recession…

  2. Initial implementation of online learning infrastructure, faculty development, culture change, etc. must be of online education, this is the time savings.

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