How to Turn Your Online Program into a Net Revenue Generator

John SenerBy John Sener

A recent listserv discussion elsewhere prompted me to ask participants to share their opinions/knowledge on what factors enable online programs to become net revenue generators (while avoiding becoming “cash cows”). I’ve been asking this question in various venues (Facebook, Twitter, et. al), and now I’ll ask it here. Responses I’ve received to date on this question focus on several areas.

Since they are net revenue producers by definition, a relatively easier path is to do what the for-profits do: cherry-pick program offerings (no physics or Greek literature here); reduce costs by outsourcing services, sener27apr09futilizing physical space efficiently, etc.; cut out additional functions (e.g., research) and amenities (e.g., sports and entertainment complexes); use adjuncts extensively, etc.

However, administrators of successful, revenue-producing online programs cite several other factors as well, such as using online learning to extend established programs; reach out to find new audiences; offer programs that are different from other available ones; use economies of scale, and plan for the long term (see this posting for a more complete list ).

Although no doubt there are some “secrets” for generating net revenue from online learning which are being held proprietarily, I believe that there are many people who would be interested in a more public description of this information. So, care to share your ideas? If you were to write a document that describes strategies for turning online programs into net revenue generators, what else would you include?

59 Responses

  1. John,

    Good question! To really move online programs forward, one of the first things I’d include is a moratorium on construction of new physical facilities such as classrooms, offices, parking lots, labs, etc. I’d also reduce, in yearly increments, the budget for maintenance and begin phasing out physical facilities that are underused or inneficiently used. I’d then shift the funds formerly allocated to these items to upgrade the hardware and software infrastructure so that it’s capable of supporting a dynamic and expanded web service.

    I’d incrementally phase out learning labs and gradually shift learning support to online services.

    I’d do away with offices for online staff and have them work from remote locations of their choice. Geographical proximity or commutes to the “campus” will not be required. Thus, staff can reside anywhere on this planet. Of course, all F2F meetings would be eliminated.

    I’d gradually shift the IT department’s focus away from hybrid or blended strategies to completely online strategies. I’d do away with f2F IT faculty workshops ASAP and switch to completely online services.

    I’d insist that IT departments abandon current instructional support models that require constant handholding or support, which can easily double, triple, or quadruple the real cost of blended or online instruction. Instead, I’d ask them to develop strategies that turn instructors into active and independent IT learners capable of developing and maintaining their own technology.

    I’d also insist that IT departments encourage teachers to use web services that are already available for little or no cost to all web users — instead of trying to provide all the services that are needed.

    This is a very rough list, and I realize that I’m just skimming the top of ideas. I’ll have to return to this question in a day or two. Hopefully, in the meantime, others will have jumped in with their two cents.


  2. Good ideas, Jim — many of these are what the not-for-profits are doing; others appear to be fairly radical in the current flow of things (e.g., moving away from hybrid/blended strategies). I look forward to hearing what other ideas you and others have…

  3. Hi, John. I’m convinced that online and blended strategies belong to completely different models of instructional technology. We can see this when we envision best practice. For each, the ideals are different. This separation also becomes obvious when we examine assumptions about learning and teaching.

    Thus, they are not in competiton. Each is viable within its own framework or paradigm.

    Institutions need to be clear about the model they’re pursuing. If they want to develop a completely online program, they need to move away from blended models toward online models. For most traditional campuses, this would mean two separate models: one for blended, and one for online.

    The blended model is well established and thriving — and it is the model that dominates the IT scene.

    Where we’re failing, though, is with the online. And the reason is that blended models aren’t suited to the growth of online approaches. When you observe the two from the perspective that they’re different, you begin to see that best practices for one are often worst practices for the other.

    The problem is that developing and supporting online models is extremely difficult when IT programs fail to distinguish between the two. When the distinction isn’t made, “progress” is defined by what works best for blended approaches. It’s no wonder, then, that online efforts fail to thrive in the context of these blended approaches.

    The point is that what’s best for blended isn’t necessarily best for online.

    If we’re serious about growing completely online programs, we need to take a really close look at what’s best for online and not simply rely on approaches that are terrific in blended models.

    My comments above (April 27) should be viewed from this perspective of separate models. When the goal is a successful online program, then these are the steps that I’d suggest.




    Jim is saying–and I of course agree with him–that there is a profound difference between “near learning”–instruction organized around the “metaphysics of presence,” the belief that good instruction requires “presence,” “nearness,” the proximity of teachers and students–and “distance learning,” which assumes that good instruction can occur when students and teachers are scattered in time and space.

    “Blended” learning keeps unchanged all the assumptions–and expenses– of “near” learning, and adds to near learning the values–and additional expenses–of technologized learning.

    My binaries above mean to suggest that we need some new ways of thinking and talking about the relationships between traditional “near” learning and the new possibilities of “far” learning.

    And I think that’s what Jim is trying to do.

    If revenue saving or new revenue generation is the motive for change, “blended learning” would seem to be exactly the wrong path to take.

    • Steve, I like these dichotomies:




      They tell us that we’re dealing with two very different approaches to instructional technology (IT).

      A good place to start to see the difference is goals. Ask blended-learning instructors about the goal of IT and few if any would say that it’s to transition to completely online approaches. In other words, they don’t see blended as a transition to online. Instead, they’ll say that its purpose is to enhance or facilitate F2F instruction.

      Online instructors have a totally different view. For them, blended is a transitional phase, a stepping stone from F2F to online. Blended is not an end but a means to gradually move faculty from F2F to online.

      And as Steve says, adding technology to F2F without without simultaneously phasing out F2F expenditures increases the cost of education.

  5. Jim and Steve,

    Many interesting points about the relationship between online and blended courses/programs. I believe that another important reason for the conflation of the two is the difficulty of making a clear distinction between the two. It seems (and I have long thought this way) that the two are on a continuum which is spectrum-like rather than discontinuous. In particular, where is the transition point between the two? For example, the percentage of the course which is delivered online is commonly used as a criterion to distinguish between online and blended. SACS uses (or used to use) 50% as the magic transition point for designating a distance learning or online learning course; the Sloan Consortium uses 70%; the state education agency in my state uses 80% for its K-12 courses. Which illustrates, of course, that the distinction is arbitrary unless one uses 100%. But that excludes all of those online programs which require some sort of f2f presence, e.g., for exams, science labs, etc. So my first question is, where do you draw the line and why?

    Secondly, does including blended elements always mean higher cost? I’m thinking of designs such as Univ. of Phoenix’s “FlexNet”, which is simply a 1/3 f2f/2/3 OL model but which allows them to achieve great cost savings by utilizing a given physical classroom for 3x as many classes/week; or a “sandwich” design with f2f meetings at the beginning and end of a course sandwiched by OL work. Or are these not OL courses/programs in your view?

    Relative to my original discussion question, it seems that a simple summary recommendation of your points is ‘avoid using blended delivery/models’ — simple and even definitional at first glance, but perhaps not depending on how “online” and “blended” are defined.

  6. John, let me suggest that a slight shift of perspective allows for the conclusion that synchronous/asynchronous, distance learning/near learning are usefully viewed as being by their nature sharply discontinuous.

    Thus: this educational dialog you and I are engaged in is a) distance learning; and b)asynchronous.

    Suppose it was proposed that it would enrich the learning if was “blended” with required face-to-face meetings from time to time: say in San Francisco, or Kumasi in Ghana.

    For some that “blending” would be an enrichment, since they have the time and the money to go to San Francisco and would welcome an opportunity to visit West Africa.

    For others the “blending” is radical: radically discontinuous, indeed destructive of the possibility of continuing to engage in the dialog.

    Same for “enriching” the dialog by adding occasional synchronous events: events which would exclude those not available at the time. Again, radical discontinuity: either you’re available at that time or you’re not, no continuum.

    If you look at those percentage arrangements you cite you’ll probably find that the underlying assumption behind all of them is that the beginning point is the “campus”, already in place and requiring attendance. Now we add technologized instruction, and decide on the relationship between the two.

    If, however, you begin with despatialized education–students can be anywhere and profit fully from the learning–and then announce you’re going to add a spatial requirement, you are introducing for many students a radical and disruptive discontinuity. No 80-20 for them: it’s all distance or they can’t participate.

  7. Let’s begin with the realization that pure online learning aready exists for students from kindergarten through the Ph.D level. Many thousands of students already receive their entire education this way. I myself first worked in a pure online environment 7 years ago, and it has been my primary work environment ever since. Most of that time was spent with an organization looking to make it a profitable venture.

    This means, first of all, that there is no such thing as a course that “requires” a F2F component, as was suggested earlier in these comments. Many programs do indeed have such a requirement, but it is a requirement of a program’s policy or the way a specific course was created, not of the general concept of the course itself.

    Next, it means there are ways to deal with the most costly components of the complete educational package. Since it was my primary job over the years to build the highest possible online curriculum that would best meet the needs of the students, it was usually my job to fight many of these plans, since I often felt they came at the expense of quality learning.

    The biggest expense in online education is the teacher. Most attempts to minimize costs are therefore designed to minimize the role of the teacher. Many of these efforts are laudable, for they use technology to replace the teacher in teaching mechanical skills, drill exercises, grading multiple choice type quizzes, etc. Other instructional devices, such as a well designed Flash multimedia tutorial, can also do an excellent job without taking a second of teacher time.

    In theory, this frees the teacher’s time for more meaningful interaction with higher order thinking skill activities, projects, etc. In practice, though, that is not what usually happens.

    Decades ago B. F. Skinner created “teaching machines” to do much the same thing, and he was accused of trying to relace the teacher with a machine. He was greatly misunderstood when he replied that any teacher that could be replaced with a machine should be replaced with a machine. He meant that his machines replaced the teacher in rote learning exercises only, and teachers should not be limiting instruction to rote learning. But too many of them were then, and too many of them are today.

    Many of the full time online programs are doing the same thing. There are teacherless online programs that limit instruction to those kind of activities, and school administrations, seduced by the low cost of these programs, pretend that they are actually teaching the thinking skills that they obviously are not. Yes, there are actually writing classes out there with no teacher, teaching writing entirely through the memorization of grammar, spelling, and usage, as if that were all it takes to compose engaging prose.

    I hope we can focus not so much on profitability but on a middle ground that does what skinner tried to do years ago–eliminate the part of instructional time that does not require instructor expertise and allow that instructor to focus on the parts that do. That will give us a cost effective and educationally valid product.

  8. John [S], you raise many interesting points, all worthy of discussion, some needing challenge. I think, however, that both Jim and I were confining ourself to the point you made about our “discontinuities.” Here is one version of that point:

    “I believe that another important reason for the conflation of the two is the difficulty of making a clear distinction between the two. It seems (and I have long thought this way) that the two are on a continuum which is spectrum-like rather than discontinuous. ”

    In order to sharpen the difference I’d like to try out a challenge to that position.

    There is no continuum. There is no spectrum.

    There are clear examples of pure and discontinuous types.

    There is in the real world distance learning which involves absolutely no coming to a particular piece of geography.

    And that mode of despatialized learning is not on a spectrum-like continuum with “campus-based” learning, or “blended learning”, both of which require me to travel to a particular place in the world.

    Perhaps what you mean is that “blended learning” is on such a continuum, and can mix near and far learning in varying proportions.

    Not “distance learning” and “near learning”: as soon as you mix them in any proportion you’ve got “blended learning.”

    You want to focus on a “middle ground”, and presumably that middle involves some campus and some not campus. And that keeps intact all the costs of brick and mortar and maintenance crews and heating and lighting, and the work I do now can’t afford to deflect instructional money to those expenses–including dormitories.

  9. John [S], thank you for crystallizing the issue. I agree with Steve that any percentage of required F2F is a blended approach. That requirement, even if it’s a fraction of one percent, closes the door for the countless who can’t afford the cost or time to be present, physically, in a given location.

    The argument for the F2F requirement is usually testing viability or performance (e.g., hands-on lab) that supposedly can’t be managed online. From an online perspective, all objectives for F2F functions can be achieved via virtual alternatives without loss of quality. This is where “progress” or “change” in online needs to focus.

    Cost is a factor only because resources are limited. As long as blended approaches are supported, to whatever degree, we’ll have to factor in travel or commute costs, hotel, meals, etc. for distant students as well as parking, classrooms, utilities, maintenance and support staff, etc. for all students.

    These costs, in addition to technology costs, raise the overall pricetag for the blended model, and this in turn limits the amount that’s available for developing online approaches as well as limits the population of students (and faculty, staff) who are able to participate.

    The whole idea of online is to make the virtual world a viable alternative to traditional and blended models. This means participating from anywhere and using the world as a classroom for all activities.

    I’m in Hawaii, and I have friends who have enrolled in “online” degree or in-service programs that required travel to a mainland campus once a semester. The cost quickly becomes prohibitive, and in the end, only the well-heeled are able to afford these programs.

    The same is true for F2F and blended professional conferences. College budgets are limited, which means that subsidy for travel to the mainland is very limited. Only those who are “well off” can afford to attend them regularly. Unlike many of our counterparts on the mainland, we aren’t within driving distance of numerous conferences.

    I have to repeat, though, that this is not necessarily a blended vs. online issue, an either-or battle in which one wins and the other loses. The point in distinguishing between the two is to clarify change goals. If the goal is to grow a completely online program and a blended program, then the institution will have to be prepared to support and provide adequate resources for two separate models since they are different.

    Relying on one model will automatically exclude the other. In other words, if we continue to use the blended model, we’ll see little or no change in online programs.

  10. John S. (two Johns in the discussion,

    IMHO, unless all educational functions are handled automagicly by the programming and technology, all online learning is “blended”. Ergo, the real issue is one of scale and scope.

    Secondly, none of these replys, though interesting, provocative, and articulate, actually address the original question:

    This seems to be a business question not a pedagogiccal one.

    To this question I pose two clarifying questions:

    1. What distinctions do you draw between “net revenue generators” and “cash cows”.

    2. You seem to assign a value judgment to one over the other. Why?

    • Hi everyone,

      OK, let me work backwards here… First, a response to Reid’s question.

      My inquiry originally arose from a comment from someone describing an online program as a “cash cow;” over time, the topic evolved away from that and toward the broader term “net revenue generators.” I would say that a “cash cow” is an online program which generates net revenue and which is used (milked) by the larger entity (university, corporation, etc.) for its revenue. So to me the term makes sense largely in an internal institutional context.

      The value judgment I placed on being a “cash cow” (as something to be avoided) stemmed from the original conversation in which a program administrator was concerned with avoiding this outcome, so he described strategies for doing this. I suspect that there are many administrators of online programs who would like to know how to turn their online learning programs into net revenue generators, and avoid having their department or university milk their programs of their net revenue (vs. having more control over their program budgets to grow, make improvements, etc.). So that’s the source of the value judgment in my initial comment.

      Of course, there are also administrators who are quite equanamous about having their online programs milked in this way. Many years ago, one of them described how his university had actually taken ~$1M from their online/distance program and given it to the athletic department! My sense is that this was an unusual example and that (for-profits aside) most online programs are not generating vast sums of net revenue, though I’d happily be proven wrong about that. Hence the focus on generating revenue rather than cash cows.

      I also agree that my question is primarily a business one, but that there are many factors (including pedagogical ones) which determine the factors which make revenue-generating online programs possible…

  11. Next, responding to John A.’s comments:

    I agree that, sooner or later, any discussion about generating revenue will have to confront the issue of quality. (Perhaps we can start a separate discussion about that?) A few years ago, I developed a cost/quality matrix for a client to drive home this point to them (which for some reason they were having difficulty grasping). Their organization had successfully implemented an award-winning cost reduction program several years previously, mainly because it had support from the leadership. By contrast, they were unable to find similar traction to support a quality improvement initiative, for reasons too complex to describe in detail here.

    So one reason I was interested in focusing on factors which enable OL programs to generate net revenue. In focusing on revenue, there is always the danger of throwing quality to the wind. John A. described online programs which sounded as if they actually degraded quality; in many other cases, IMO online programs which attempt to replicate classroom experiences simply expose a lack of quality that was previously unexamined or not visible.

    Interestingly, though, most of the specific recommendations offered in the original listserv discussion (see link in my original comment for a complete list) did not require a decrease in quality. Some of them, in fact, suggest that an improvement in quality is required, or at least diligent attention to maintaining high quality standards — for example, the recommendation to offer programs that your institution already does well. Many other recommendations focus on eliminating the costs associated with physical campuses. The other day, I heard a radio story which illustrated a somewhat extreme example of this: the University of Pennsylvania is building a new $14M fitness center for its students, while the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is looking for another of its public universities to offer a no-frills alternative similar to what Southern New Hampshire University is currently offering — courses in an office park instead of a campus, tuition reduced to 1/3 or so of the campus tuition. So this movement is happening with physical campuses as well, and it’s not being directed at generating revenue to my knowledge, but rather to making college more affordable for students. At the same time, I suspect that such alternatives will be expected to at least break even.

    As for changing the instructor role to gain better cost and quality outcomes, I agree wholeheartedly with this in principle. However (as Skinner’s teaching machines, PLATO, integrated learning systems, et al. have demonstrated over the years), the problem is apparently more complex than using technology to free up instructors to spend their time doing higher quality functions. That’s also a much longer discussion… ;-)

  12. Next, a response to Steve and Jim:

    Re the spectrum, I actually think we’re not disagreeing per se. My spectrum* is bounded at each end by “pure” online and “pure” classroom, as defined by % of time spent in classroom. So I agree that there “are clear examples of pure and discontinuous types.” And anything in between is a blend of sorts, so we agree on that as well.

    Where our perspectives seem to differ is the degree of discontinuity between online and blended learning. I agree that there are many instances where the difference makes all the difference to students. Certainly Jim’s Hawaii examples illustrate this starkly, and reminded me of many ‘online’/’distance’ doctoral programs which I rejected because their residential (blended) requirements made them impractical for me. And I agree that space or time can cause discontinuities; a purely online synchronous program with rigid time requirements can be just as inaccessible as a program with a residential requirement thousands of miles and an expensive plane ride away.

    At the same time, there are examples where the difference between ‘online’ and ‘blended’ does not result in discontinuity. For example, many online programs such as the one where I worked at Northern Virginia CC had a requirement for at least one or two exams to be taken “f2f”, so technically it was a blended program. However, the exams could be done locally with an approved proctor, so there was no discontinuity there. Programs such as University of Phoenix’s FlexNet are too inconvenient for some students, but not for others. Various other obstacles — in-person science labs, prisoner students, in-person performance requirements — create discontinuity and eliminate access for some, but not for all.

    At the other end, long-standing blending activities such as field trips, internships, service learning, etc. are now being supplemented by online activities supported by learning management systems, e-mail, etc. In many cases, this is happening seamlessly and even without its practitioners paying that much attention to it.

    And then of course, there are the emerging models of courses which offer students the choice of delivery — online, blended, or in class — sometimes being able to switch modes at any time during the course.

    So I would argue that the degree of discontinuity depends on the scope and composition of the audience one is trying to reach, not necessarily on the distinction between pure online and blended delivery. Also, that the difference in delivery mode may be disruptive/discontinuous for individual students, but not necessarily in the aggregate — it depends on each individual student’s circumstances.

    Now, what does this have to do with factors determining whether or not online programs can be net revenue generators? If we accept your premise that only purely online courses/programs are online, then it appears that your recommendation is simple: avoid blended models.

    If, however, we try to work with other, more commonly used definitions of online courses/programs, then it becomes more complicated. Blending elements can easily add complexity and cost. But can they also reduce cost and actually simplify things in some cases? IMO there are examples out there which suggest that they can, especially if one’s program goal is different from maximizing access.


    *an early version of which can be accessed in a powerpoint presentation at the following link: — except whoops, my web designer who’s working on re-doing my web site just “parked” my current web site, so I can’t find that link or the later version either — sorry).

  13. Perhaps we’ve beaten the “spectrum” to death, or almost.
    Here again , John, is that provacative comment of yours:


    The difficulty in making the distinction is a created one, and not at all intrinsic or necessary. If we define “near learning” as learning which requires learners to assemble at a common physical space at a common time and “distance learning” as learning which requires no such coming together in space and time, we have two pure and discontinuous types.

    We then can posit a third category, “near/distance learning,” or “blended learning” which is your “spectrum”. For analytical purposes it seems much cleaner and clearer to distinguish between 3 pure types than to begin with the notion of “spectrum”.

    • Steve,

      My original reasons for developing the spectrum were that a) most of the action was/is happening within the spectrum and b) to draw attention to the wide range of possibilities between the extremes (pure classroom at one end; “cybercourses” as Forbes magazine called them at the time at the other).

      Although your distinction may be useful in some situations or for “analytical purposes,” relative to the discussion topic (How to Turn Your Online Program into a Net Revenue Generator) I’ve taken a more practical approach, since in practice many key stakeholders (e.g., regional accrediting agencies, state education agencies, leading practitioners, et al.) use different, less pure criteria to define what are online programs.

      So, relative to the topic, your earlier comment that “if revenue saving or new revenue generation is the motive for change, ‘blended learning’ would seem to be exactly the wrong path to take” suggests that “avoid adding (costly, complex) blended elements” is a reasonable paraphrase of this position, correct?

  14. What this censorius program did is to eliminate this quotation from John S:

    I believe that another important reason for the conflation of the two is the difficulty of making a clear distinction between the two. It seems (and I have long thought this way) that the two are on a continuum which is spectrum-like rather than discontinuous. In particular, where is the transition point between the two?

  15. John S. asks, “What factors enable online programs to become net revenue generators.”

    One of the lessons learned from the work of the late W. Edward Deming, is that sustainable profitability is a function of continuous quality control. According to Deming this process starts with the design intentionality of maximum quality that characterizes the entire development effort.

    Unfortunately the “statistical quality control” methods of Deming are alien to the educational community because it requires a level of empirical analysis outside the psycho-social beliefs of most educators. As Steve Eskow says, “I submit that those who want to use the language and the methods of the hard sciences to improve education are a good part of our educational malaise.”

    IMHO, the problem is not the application of empirical methods but impoverished methods in educational research that has had the most damaging effect. This notion is supported by the writings of Anthony Byrk of Stanford and Louis Gomes for Northwestern (Ruminations on Reinventing an R&D Capacity for Educational Improvement –citation withheld by request)

    Deming also asserts that the “perception” of quality is more important than the “actuality” of quality. Given that many educators believe that online or technology driven methods are somehow qualitatively less rigorous than traditional pedagogies, this poses the critical marketing conundrum for those seeking profitability.

    Doing “the right thing the first time” is the central theme of Deming’s proposition. He uses the empirical method to accomplish this. His work is legendary in the post-war reform of the Japanese economy. Yet it is not used, in any meaningful way, in looking at education in general and applications of technology in education.

    Educational systems never seem to have time or money to do the right thing at “first”, but it seems to always have the resources to do it again and again. The examples of “New” math and Chicago’s social promotion initiates provide a window on wide-spread adoption of pedagogies that merely “sound good”.

    In my opinion, Deming’s work provides a framework to achieve sustainable profitability.

    The next part of John S.’s question, “while avoiding becoming “cash cows.” is also addressed by Deming. One of the common problems in the innovation or development of any product is that once the version 1 of a product is achieved the development effort is marginalized in lieu of recovering the cost of development. Deming suggests that a portion of the gross income is redirected to sustaining the development process to improve (qualitatively) the product. This has the net effect of prolonging the recovery of initial development cost, sometime for years. Deming’s theory has had widespread adoption in Japan which has had the effect of creating a longer term view of profitability as opposed to the quarterly view of business practice in the U.S.

    I assert that the longer term view is preferable for the application of education and would defeat the “cash cow” thinking.

    John S. , in another post, suggest that his questions also must consider pedagogical considerations. I could not agree more. If you accept that sustainable profitably is achieved through designing and developing for quality from the onset, one must consider “best practices” in that effort. I suggest that in regards to technology in education, these practices must include cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, and inter-disciplinary inclusions. I further suggest that much of current educational technology is simply the application of new tools to old paradigms.

    As Dr. Gary Sarcozi of VCU’s, head of ed tech program puts it, “Most educators think that a successful incorporation of technology is to use PowerPoint rather than overhead projectors.”

    • Reid,

      So, to boil down your comments into some concise recommendations, how well does this hit the mark:

      1) Apply Deming’s methods (continuous quality control, design intentionality of maximum quality) to the entire development effort.
      2) Strive to assure that a portion of the gross revenue is used to sustain product quality improvement.
      3) Promote, implement, encourage a longer term view.
      4) Apply cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, and inter-disciplinary “best practices” from other fields to the development process.

      Does that summarize your comment reasonably well?

  16. A blended model is, as John S suggests, a continuum — a continuous spectrum that comprises completely F2F (zero online) at one extreme and completely online at the other with blended (ratios of F2F:online) in between. The problem is that, in actual practice, the spectrum is simultaneously continuous and discrete, with a theoretically infinite number of unique blended approaches within the extremes, from 99:1 to 1:99 F2F-to-online ratios, and each becomes, in essence, a distinct, discontinuous submodel.

    Thus, on the one hand, we have Professor Alfa, a 99:1 practitioner, who does everything in a F2F mode and limits his online activity to posting his syllabus on the web; and on the other, Professor Zulu, a 1:99er, who does everything online except for a requirement that students report to a specific geographical location to take a F2F final exam; and smack dab in the middle, Professor Mike, a 50:50er, who splits F2F and online activities into equal halves.

    When we line up blended approaches this way, we begin to see the tremendous amount of variation in the possible approaches and realize that no single set of best practices is possible. And this realization tells us that we’re not dealing with a single model but a whole spectrum of submodels. The question then is, “How do we support this vast array of different approaches?” And the answer is, “At great cost.”

    To cut costs, colleges could play a numbers game and arbitrarily rule that only 50:50 and above will be supported, with half the class meetings held F2F and half online as the bottom line. But this truncated model still leaves a large number of submodels and the savings in classroom costs would probably be offset by support costs.

    In pursuit of lower costs, the numbers could be further manipulated to, say, 30:70 or 10:90, but at this point a trend will begin to emerge — a trend toward 0:100. What becomes obvious is that the closer we get to 0:100, the closer we get to tipping the balance from cost to revenue. When we reach the 1:99 ratio, the question becomes, “Why not go all the way to 0:100? Do we really need the remaining bit of F2F?” Answers will differ, especially now, but as time passes, I think more will reach the same conclusion. “No.”

    The gradual slide from one end of the spectrum (minimal online) to the other (completely online) may be the inexorable natural order of change and no amount of effort will succeed in either speeding it up or slowing it down. In the end, the marketplace may be the final arbiter. In this scenario, online and costs are inversely proportional, that is, as institutions increasingly approach 0:100 (F2F:online) offerings, costs decrease proportionately.

    Thus, returnig to John S’s original question: What factors enable online programs to become net revenue generators? The answer is factors that are associated with movement toward 0:100, or a completely online model.

    Having said this, I have to explain that I’m not passing judgment on the instructional value of one model over another. However, I’m assuming best practice in all models and that, although procedures may vary dramatically, the results are similar. The point is that we’ve let the genie out of the bottle and there’s no way we can stuff it back in. It’s showing us, with every passing day, that there’s another way to go about the business of education, and we’re learning that that way could not only be just as effective but cost effective as well.

    However, we’re faced with a quandary. As long as we remain straddled between the old way and the new, we can’t move forward. We can continue to stretch our foot into the new, but as long as our other foot is still in the old, we’re limited to just how much we can learn. It’s only by letting go of the old that we’ll be able to explore and discover all that the new has to offer.

    I started this post as a reply to the recent posts, but I’ve focused on John S’s comments. Here are some additional replies:

    Reid, in distinguishing between online vs. blended models, I don’t think we’re straying from the original question: What factors enable online programs to become net revenue generators? Models of IT (instructional technology) adoption/adaption are related to cost.

    John S, the distinction that you draw between “net revenue generators” and “cash cows” is a good one. In a way, it underscores the need for separate models: What’s earned in one model stays in that model. The model that’s not sustainable should be allowed to pass.

    John S, re your comment “If we accept your [Steve and Jim’s] premise that only purely online courses/programs are online, then it appears that your recommendation is simple: avoid blended models” — the answer is yes and no, and the explanation takes up the first 9 or paragraphs of this post.

    John S, re your comment “If, however, we try to work with other, more commonly used definitions of online courses/programs, then it becomes more complicated. Blending elements can easily add complexity and cost. But can they also reduce cost and actually simplify things in some cases? IMO there are examples out there which suggest that they can, especially if one’s program goal is different from maximizing access” — the answer is yes, and as I explain in the first 9 paragraphs, cost reduction is a function of increased adoption of completely online practices.

    John A, re your comment about quality, I think that’s the next step, but we need to be clear about the model we’re improving. Obviously, the teacherless online approach you mention is an example of worst practice. It’s the quintessential cash cow (as defined by John S) — cutting corners in one approach (online) to increase revenue and using the profit to sustain other approaches (F2F/blended) that are losing bucks. So, at the brink of a new continuum (a completely online model), what are the best practices?

  17. I believe that John A. has it exactly right. Remove from the teacher all rote and readily automated learning. The teacher then must deliver the higher-level thinking interaction required to learn appropriately.

    As I have worked over the years to make online science possible by providing online science labs that are real and that deliver true science learning with real student-collected data, I have found that some parts can be automated and some cannot.

    We have considered many ways to grade student lab reports, for example. They all fail to notice if the students have extended their thinking. We’ve also looked for reasonable ways to allow students to perform experimental design. While we can imagine a system to do that, such a system would require an enormous development effort and would not be guaranteed to succeed because it would have to be limited in scope. Trivial and cheap hands-on experiments can quite readily allow for great range in experimental design.

    Still, by eliminating much of the routine work from the teacher, the cost of teachers per student can be reduced. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a trend in some online institutions to reduce costs by reducing teacher salaries. This thinking is backwards. Teachers who can do a great job of supporting the development of higher-level thinking in students should cost more, not less. Removing repetitive operations from their jobs means that they can work with more students. Removing the physical plant saves more money.

    There’s nothing wrong with 100% online learning. However, some activities must be physical. As a student progresses in a particular field, the online mode may no longer work. I don’t see advanced chemistry students without a real laboratory. Gymnastics cannot be learned solo. At some point, drama requires a physical stage.

    But all that’s fine. Until you reach some predetermined level of specialization, you can learn totally online.

    Also, consider huge amounts of adult education and even reeducation that can be done online.

    [Sent from Germany at Taubertalweg 103 Rothenburg o. d. T.]

  18. Harry, I think you’re taking us to the edge of the envelope for online learning in three areas: advanced chemistry, gymnastics, drama. Because we can’t do it now with present online approaches doesn’t mean we can never do it. This is where imagination and creativity comes in. Here are some thoughts on how these courses could be “taught” without classrooms and campuses:

    1. Online advanced chemistry:
    Scenario 1: The student receives a package containing the supplies and equipment she/he needs for a particular experiment. He does the experiment on the kitchen counter. He uses a $135 flip digital video camera to tape his performance. He uploads it to his blog to share with the instructor and his classmates. The video contains his audio reports of the procedures he uses to complete the assignment as well as the results of the experiment.
    Scenario 2: The student logs into a highly sophisticated virtual reality chemistry lab (VRCL) that has been developed by teams of subject area experts and software developers from the top science departments in the world with support from national and international science organizations and private sector sponsors. VRCL is open source and free to everyone, and it is being constantly updated and improved by different users, and all upates are freely available. The student adopts a virtual character and carries out the experiment in the VRCL, using virtual renditions of the latest equipment available to the world’s top scientists. Using wiki-type resources, he has access to information from the world’s experts. Using live discussion forums, he can post questions and respond to others. The VRCL is set up to accommodate teams of students who can log in as a group to collaboratively and interactively conduct an experiment. At any point, they can record their performance for review by the instructor or classmates. In online class discussion forums, they can compose and share multimedia reports of their procedures and results. If the report is outstanding, the instructor could suggest submitting it to one of many online science journals devoted to student scientists.
    Scenario 3: Colleges partner with private or public sector organizations with chemistry labs. These partners provide space, equipment, some supplies, and various levels of supervision. Students have access to these after hours, on weekends, holidays, etc. With their laptops and WIFI connections, they have simultaneous access to online resources to complete experiments. They can videotape their performance for later uploading and review or discussion.

    2. Gymnastics:
    Scenario 1: In a time when online learning is widespread, neighborhood public gyms take over many of the physical education subjects. In a given district with many gyms, each specializes in a particular sport. The student interested in basic gymnastics signs up at the closest gym that offers the class. The gym staff provides instruction, training, evaluations, etc. Grade reports are sent to the student’s college for inclusion in her transcripts.
    Scenario 2: Colleges maintain a list of gymnasts qualified to train students individually or in very small groups. The student meets with her instructor twice a week for an hour each time to learn basic routines. They meet in parks, garages or rooms with mats, backyards, etc. The instructor submits grade reports.
    Scenario 3: The student relies on online videos and readings for instruction on how to perform basic gymnastics. She tapes herself performing and shares the tapes online with classmates and the instructor, receiving pointers and encouragement. She is encouraged to get together with one or a few classmates to workout together once a week or twice a month. And these sessions are also videotaped and shared.

    3. Drama:
    Scenario 1: The student enrolled in an intro to drama class is encouraged to work with one or a few classmates. They meet at coffee shops or at each other’s homes or rooms, at public parks or malls. They work on assigned scenes and tape rehearsals and performances for feedback from classmates and the instructor in class multimedia forums. If a student is unable to get together with classmates, he is allowed to recruit friends, siblings, parents, or whoever’s available to play roles that are essential to interactive scenes. If no one is availble, she’s allowed to play the different roles, switching between them. Again, all of these are videotaped for sharing online.
    Scenario 2: The college works with local theater groups and students learn by doing, receiving training from more experienced actors, rehearsing and trying out for different roles and actually performing in a play. Videos are shot of rehearsals, tryouts, and performances as well as training sessions — again, using cheap Flip-type cameras. These are shared with classmates and the instructor in online multimedia discussions.
    Scenario 3: The student rehearses, performs, and videotapes scenes on her own and shares the results with classmates and the instructor online. Her audience provides suggestions for improvement and encouragement. She does the same for her classmates.

    These are just some ideas. I’m sure you and others could come up with many other possibilities that are far more creative and effective. The point is that breaking out of the classroom and campus box could give us many more dynamic and exciting options for instruction — options that would not have been possible without the computer and web technology that’s evolving.

    • Hi Jim,

      You certainly earn a A for effort. Some would work reasonably well. Scenario 3 in Gymnastics is missing a spotter, critical for this activity.

      I’d like to focus on the chemistry to illuminate some of the issues we face here. I have stayed away from advanced science in my work for a number of reasons. Advanced science changes more rapidly than the basics do. People in these courses usually are being prepared for the research world and cannot be sent off to various fake activities. They must deal with the realities of their field. What that means may change by the time they finish their undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral training.

      Scenario 1 is already taking place in a smaller way in high schools. We allow students to upload images now. We could allow vides taken with cell phones fairly easily.

      The problems with this scenario for advanced science relate to the equipment being used. It’s just not available for home students. They don’t have fume hoods or many other ancillary devices required for the sorts of experiments they’re expected to perform. They cannot use cyanide or other similarly dangerous chemicals except in an appropriate facility.

      Even for high school science, home science experiments are quite limited in the depth of science available. They do provide great opportunities for kinesthetic experiences. They also, if the course design is good, allow for experimental design exposure.

      Therefore, this sort of activity will be developed and perfected over time and will be an important component of online science courses. It won’t be sufficient by itself except at the earliest stages of learning science.

      Scenario 2 assumes facts not in evidence, to borrow from Perry Mason. The most important question regarding science lab experiences is the purpose of the time, cost, and effort being expended.

      For basic science courses, the lab experience teaches students the nature of science and helps them to deveop scientific thinking skills. No virtual reality system will do this at all today and none will ever be as good as the real thing. My approach is the only one that i’ve seen that makes virtual science labs at all useful. I do not use simulations or virtual reality environments. It’s not the experimental procedures but the science that counts.

      For advanced science, the number of students taking these courses makes this scenario unlikely due to efficiency of costs even if it were reasonable. However, like flight simulators, I can see that it’s a way to get inexpensive and safe exposure to activities that will later be done in reality. It would not substitute for reality but would prepare for it.

      In this sense, it’s a great idea that is currently being misused. I hope that in the future, simulations and simulators will be put in their proper place.

      Scenario 3 utilizes otherwise unused facilities to give distance learning students a shot at the experiences that would otherwise be missing from their courses. Again, the small numbers involved may work against this idea for advanced science. In upper class and graduate work, students should really have regular access to the real thing and with mentors on hand.

      For basic sciences, the large numbers work in the opposite direction. You have too many students to fit into the limited number of facilities and also have a large number of students not close to these facilities.

      Again, it’s a good idea that is being used in some areas already but that will always have limitations.

      Scenario 4 is my own work that allows students to explore prerecorded real experiments in a virtual setting. This system too has its limitations. By combining it with some stuff from your scenarios 1 and 3, I am building a robust science learning system that will truly provide great science learning at all levels. Today, I limit myself to grades 6 through introductory college science.

      • I should add that the ultimate solution for difficult distance learning subjects will likely combine a number of ideas based on existing practice along with one or two “out of the box” ideas.

        It’s not the individual ideas but their clever combination along with supporting technologies that should result in the eventual success of online learning for all areas.

      • As for science, may I suggest a reading of a document I had a part in creating? It may form an interesting discussion on its own.

        Click to access NACOL_ScienceStandards_web.pdf

  19. Jim’s responses to Harry’s challenge is exactly the kind of thinking we need to encourage before we accept the conclusion that only walled educational systems can accomplish certain educational missions.

    In the 1980’s the British Open University was sending mini-chemistry labs to students, complete with mini-beakers and burettes and Bunsen burners. There is of course no reason why test tubes and beakers and gas cannisters have to be huge, and no reason why a chemistry lab can’t be portable.

    On Deming and “quality control”: we probably can come to some working agreement on what a “quality” automobile is, and agree on the criteria for measuring that quality. We probably can’t agree on what a “quality” novel is, or a “quality” religion, or a “quality” course in sociology. That’s probably why we have different “schools” of thought, different religions, and widely different educational curricula.

    • Here, here to your first paragraph.

      You don’t have to go back to the 80s to find such things. Dr. Stephen Thompson, Director of Colorado State’s Center for Science Math and Technology Education, has developed a small scale chemistry lab that can be contained in an 8″ x 8″ box and where experiments are conducted in a petri dish. I know he would be more than glad to discuss this. see:

      Apparently you missed the point on “design intentionality”. Quality standards, in this case, are measure against these. If thoughtful enough you can measure almost anything and set stardards for quality based on those intentions.

      The fact that we are getting our educational lunch handed to us is indication enough to paying more attention to the quality of our educational systems.

      Dening was very successful in setting quality standards for something as squishy as “service standards”. Since the original subject was about the profitability and profit is define ans, GR- C = P, it is impossible to contain costs in online learning if 4 different leachers want to create 4 different courses based on their theoretical biases. Therefore, design intentionality is imperative.

  20. In the post-war period there was much talk of “the Japanese economic miracle,” which was real enough, and a tendency to give credit for that miracle to Deming, and his version of “TQM,” or “Total Quality Management.

    There was a flurry of interest in applying “tqm” to education in the 80’s and 90’s, and a number of books written on the subject.

    Unless Reid or others here have other evidence, the movement has essentially disappeared.

    It would be interesting to check with some of the institutions that embraced TQM at one time to learn why it has vanished.

    Perhaps one explanation is the widely held belief is that “quality” in education cannot be “designed” and “engineered”: and that the belief that it can is a fundamental misapplication of engineering theory and practice.

  21. Of course it disappeared. TQM cannot exist in the environment of privileging that prevails in the academy. It is a bottom-up approach and we know that is alien in the psycho-social vlues of academia. It cannot exist in an enviroment where each classroom is a fifedom. It requires an institutional commitment that demands more of its instructors.

    I take nothing from history in this case because, it was attempted in an eviroment where the internet, as we know it, barely existed, if at all.

    I agree that there is a wide-spread belief that education cannot be engineered. There is also a wide-spead belief that online education is fataly flawed. I question both beliefs and ask, are not both the precise embodyment of the old paradigms that pose the resistance to the new?

    Even TQM is very different that what it was in the 80s and the 90s. It even has a new name.

    This discussion is about online learning. Online learning (as it exist now) is a fusion of new media, engineering, electronic technologies, pedagogies and hence new paradigms. In other words, our understandings now are a revolution away from where it was then.

    Online learning is about “engineering” education. Current possibilities for technologies in education are very amenable to TQM methods and should be re-explored.

  22. Steve.,

    I suggest that you read Edward Salis’s book “Total Quality Management In Education”, 2002 3rd edition.from Routledge.

    I might ad that he brings 30 years in higher education to the table. Perhaps you won’t be so dismissive with his writing.

  23. Reid, Sallis wrote in 2002: the TQM movement in education was quite dead by that time, with articles like the one below also appearking in that year:

    A violation of assumptions: Why TQM won’t work in the ivory tower

    Lawrence R. Jauch, and Robert A. Orwig

    Northeast Louisiana University, USA

    Available online 29 March 2002.

    This paper argues that the assumptions underlying Total Quality Management (TQM) suggest that implementation of TQM into the academic function of teaching in higher education is problematical at best. The authors examine the assumptions of continuous improvement, customer focus and management systems needed to implement TQM. It’s concluded that those assumptions do not fit the higher education context or culture.”

    Do you know of a single institution of standing that embraces TQM today?

    The notion of TQM, Sallis or no, is erected on the fallacious assumption that “practices” like education or therapy or theatre can be improved by treating them as if they were artifacts or “products” that can have “quality” engineered into them.

    TQM can’t help a composer, or a therapist, or an academic who is trying to design a course that will interest “digital natives” in Shakespeare.

    I may be wrong in this judgment, but as far as I can see the TQM movement in education has disappeared, and there is no point in trying to resurrect it.

    • I think this posting is actually in agreement with what I said about cultural opposition to TQM. Thank you, even though it’s surely an accident.

  24. I was struck by John Adsit’s tribute to Skinner and his teaching machines and programmed learning.

    Both have essentially disappeared, right?

    Do they still have something of value to offer to education?

    Should we use ETC to call for a renewal of interest in Skinner and his work?

  25. Both are alive and well in experimental psychology and the psychology of learning. I’m startled that the questions are necessary, paticularlyl since operant conditioning is one the foundations for associative and natural learning.

  26. Steve, I think that would make a terrific topic for discussion. What are the implications of Skinner’s theories for education in the 21st century? Please consider starting a new thread with a brief article that introduces the subject.

    I can’t recall the last time I saw Skinner mentioned in the context of discussions devoted to blended and online learning.

    His 1948 novel, Walden Two, offers some interesting ideas about education, e.g., do away with traditional schools and allow learning to grow from real needs as perceived by the learner. But this idea, generally speaking, is not new and has taken numerous other forms.

    Operant conditioning (as presented in his 1957 book, Verbal Behavior) may be interesting in terms of the rhetoric of communications in the electronic age, e.g., What are the patterns of interaction that determine the dynamics in a social networking environment?

    His greatest contribution, in my mind, is the work that he did with positive reinforcement, but I think it has become so ingrained in standard pedagogy that we seldom stop to think of its origins.

  27. Jim,

    I agree this would be a terrific topic.

    One minor correction: Skinner’s work in both positive and negative reinforcement are important to our interests.

    You already know that Tony Gardner-Medwin’s work
    is based on principles of operant condition and is specifically designed for online learning. and

    Anecdotally, there is a commune outside of Charlottesville, VA that is based on the “Walden Two”. It t was started by students of Skinner to test his theories. I found out only weeks ago that it still exists and thrives. In the late sixties, I wrote an unread paper on it when I was at UVA .

    Steve, Please take Jim’s advice.

  28. Jim and all, I suspect I’m not the man to write thoughtfully about the heritage of B.F. Skinner: John Adsit, for one, seems better equipped.

    Michael Oakeshott, for one, wrote about liberal learning as introducing students to the “conversations of mankind,” and helping them to join in these “conversations.”

    To such as Oakeshott the very language of “instructional design,” much less such grim terms as “operant conditioning” are pedagogical monstrosities, examples of educational trends that need to be fiercely resisted. Conversations, Oakeshott would insist, can’t be “designed,” they can’t be “programmed”: students learn the conversational style of a discipline by deep and wide reading in the discipline under the guidance of an authority who creates opportunities for them to join the conversation.

    The “social constructivists” seem to be saying similar things in a different vocabulary: students learn a discipline by taking part in the construction of knowledge using its vocabulary and techniques.

    To such as Oakeshott and Vygotsky the “operant conditioners,” the “instructional designers” are the enemy.

    And yet…

    There must be some way of organizing instruction around conversational and constructivist principles while acknowledging the value of creating opportunities for learners to be helped in acquiring the rudimentary skills they need, and the usefulness of programmed instruction for this purpose.

  29. Steve, you can add Noam Chomsky to the list that includes Oakeshott and Vygotsky. The idea of conditioning is an automatic turn-off to most, sounding more like brainwashing than learning. But at another level, approval, a good grade, applause, tenure, promotion, etc. is a subtle form of positive reinforcement. It might be interesting to see where a discussion on Skinner (in light of educational technology) might take us. Perhaps John A (or someone else?) would be willing to post an article introducing the topic? It wouldn’t have to be long, e.g., see John S’s OP (opening post) in this thread.

  30. For the record. My suggestions related to TQM were made in the context of John S.s questions about profitability. It was not a suggested that it would scale to the entire enterprise of higher education.

    My premise was that development at the scale of the development of individual courses is very suitable.

    I have realized, on reflection, that Steve assumed the greater scale.

    I hope this clarifies my opinion.

  31. What’s in a name?

    That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

    So Programmed Learning would, if it were not Programmed Learning called, retain ….

    OK, I’m taking this too far.

    Programmed Learning as a name disappeared long ago, but its children and step children flourish yet. Although none is exactly the same, if you look at Saxon math, Plato Learning, and NovaNet, you will see the unmistakeable signs of that lineage.

    Plate and NovaNet are currently thriving in the world of online learning.

    My comments were not directed to the specific details of a specific program but rather to the general concept of an instructional approach which is still very much alive.

  32. I found the discussion on quality and TQM fascinating. A number of years ago the school district in which I worked became the first major schol district in America to become certified in a somewhat similar program, ISO 9000. I was part of the ISO 9000 leadership team. I have never read any of the sources mentioned for the failure of TQM in education, but I can report very clearly about the failure of ISO 9000 in our school district.

    We didn’t do it for long, and in our brief period we focused on the business aspects of the district, waiting (in theory) until we had achieved success there before moving into instruction. During that time, I was an internal auditor, one of many trained to review departments to make sure they were complying with high standards of quality. During that time, I issued what I thought were a minimal number of “nonconformance” findings, but I later learned that I was the only auditor to issue any at all. The other internal auditors all believed that maintaining friendly relations with their peers was more important than striving for quality, so they let the many violations they found slide.

    I also sat in on the external audits that were performed by the company we hired to certify us as ISO 9000 compliant. I saw the same thing. They issued just enough violations each year to make it seem like they were doing their job, but not quite enough to cause us to lose accreditation. I saw them let major problems slide. I realized that they were afraid that if they failed us, we would go with a different auditing company.

    It turned out that all the other auditors and the external auditing company were far wiser than I. In education, maintaining personal relations is far more important than striving for quality. The two years I was an internal auditor did nothing to improve institutional quality, for no problem I observed was ever fixed. The fact that I had issued those violations, however, left a lasting scar on my relations with those departments.

    Education has no real incentive to strive for quality. The primary reason is that no one can define it. We don’t really know who or what is doing the best job because there are so many complicating factors. We can therefore say anything we want about the quality of our performance without any fear of a credible contradiction. It allows us to maintain a facade of quality without having to put forth the effort to achieve it.

    The next reason is that our customer based is pretty much guaranteed. We don’t have to be any better than we are to get them through the door.

    We also have an annual bailout package from the government. It isn’t as much as we would like, but it’s there.

    The final reason is that we don’t really want it. Oh, we would be really happy if we could get quality, but if we were to make an accurate list of things that are truly important to us, educational quality would not rank very high. We say the opposite with our lips, but that is not where we are with our hearts and our wallets.

  33. John,

    I’m sure that you’ve noticed that NCLB is a federally imposed “quality control” mandate.

    • Yes, but its measurement system is so flawed it is ineffective.

      • You get no argument from me on that point. I have been trying to get information on how c-sap is constructed and standardized for several months to know avail. I do recognize this comment is off topic.
        Sorry JohnS.

  34. John A, the discussion on quality is fascinating, but I think we’re straying from the opening topic posted by John S. Would you consider starting a new discussion by posting an article on the topic: “Education has no real incentive to strive for quality”? Your ISO 9000 post above could provide much of the content. If possible, work ed tech into the picture, even if the reference is minor.

  35. Jim, your comment “work ed tech into the picture” to John A, and his comments indicating that such ed tech systems as Plato are alive and well–astounding to me, who thought them l dinosaurs–suggests another way John could help us.

    The nation’s 3000+ community colleges, and many others, are collapsing under the weight of providing teachers and dollars for “remedial” courses in basic literacy and numeracy: courses that according to most reports don’t work very well, or at all.

    Would such instruction be better performed by Plato than by thousands of teachers?

    If so, why isn’t there a national and global push for enlisting machines in this work of the basic literacies?

    If so, why don’t we start that campaign?

    John A could give us a basic introduction to what these machines are demonstrably able to do, where they are doing it, how we might go about defending turning this kind of work over to programs and machines while defending higher level thinking courses from similar mechanization

    • Man, would that pout me in a tough position, as you will see below.

      Plato and NovaNet are indeed thriving, and they are thriving most in the world of remedial education. High Schools across the nation are engaging them (and otehr similar companies) to provide what is called “credit recovery” classes for students who have failed classes previously. They provide a model in which the students sit in a computer lab that is supervised by someone who does not have any particular content expertise. In theory, every student in the lab could be working on a different course while the supervisor simply keeps order. The courses themselves have no teacher whatsoever.

      The pricing model is based on concurrent enrollments. That means that the school district may purchase, say, 30 seats, which means that at any one time they can have up to 30 students online. In theory, a school district could serve 210 students in a 7 period day with a 30 seat enrollment.

      This makes the system relatively cheap. Companies that try to compete with this model using courses that require a teacher and thus a more traditional class structure cannot compete with this in pricing. (Believe me, as someone who once worked for a competitor, I know this all too well.) They therefore try to compete with quality–“because our courses use a teacher, we include the higher order thinking activities that those courses do not. Your students will learn more. They will learn what they are truly supposed to learn in the course.”

      That means the school districts have to choose between more expensive programs that offer a clearly better education, and much cheaper programs that get the students diplomas without too much fuss or bother.

      It is happening all across the country right now. In the past months I have dealt with two school districts facing this situation.

    • Here is a bit more in response to the question….

      These programs teach basic skills and concepts pretty well. In some areas, such as math, they can teach a great deal of the subject matter. In others, not so much.

      Let’s take writing instruction, for example. Many people think that writing skill is little more than the application of grammar concepts, which can be taught via computer without a teacher easily. I don’t know of anyone who is an expert in the field that believes this is how to teach writing, though. If you check what is probably the most important writing instructional tool being used to day, the NWREL 6 + 1 Traits of Writing, you will see a totally different approach, one that demands a teacher and de-emphasizes an early focus on mechanics instruction.

      The people who are making the key decisions about which route to take are too rarely instructional experts and too often more committed to revenue flow than instructional quality. When I was working in the curriculum design for a major company, we used the 6+1 Trait approach for our instructional model for writing, but when it came time for credit recovery course creation, the mandate from on high was for us to deliver the same course with the same instructional quality (which customers loved), but with 100% multiple choice assessments, like Plato’s writing courses. We said it was impossible to teach one thing and assess another. “Why not?” we were asked. “If Plato can do it, so can you.”

      So, while these programs can indeed take students through all the rote stuff and free the teacher up for higher order thinking skills, I am reluctant to suggest such an approach, since my experience over the years has been that when the decision makers make their decisions, the higher order thinking part of the program gets scrapped in a hurry.

      It is not always the fault of the decison makers, by the way. Many teachers never engage students in thinking skills as well.

      • John [Adsit],

        I assume that the thousands of teachers in our community colleges teaching in the remedial programs are asked to develop the basic literacy and numeracy skills, rather than the “thinking skills” and the other higher order skills. Is that assumption correct?

        Would Plato and NovaNet do that job as well as the squadrons of teachers assigned to this work, at far less cost to the institution and to society?

        If yes, why hasn’t Plato attacked and captured the community college remedial education market?

  36. Steve, that’s a good idea! It’s related to the topic in this thread, but it may also be strong enough to stand alone as the opening post for a new thread: Let CAI (computer-assisted instruction) manage certain basic subjects and use teachers when “higher level thinking” is required. If you’d like to go for it, email me the question/intro using the contents of this message and I’ll post it.

  37. In the meantime, shall we try to resume the original discussion topic in a new direction. There has been substantial discussion about online programs as “net revenue generators” and some on the “cash cow” aspect of this.

    Let’s focus on online programs as “cash cows” for a bit — in my original posting, I proceeded on the assumption (as described in a later post) that being a “cash cow” is something for an online program to avoid. However, is this always the best scenario? When is being a cash cow a good thing for an online program and when is it not?’

    • Cash cowing is not a bad idea–it is a terrible idea.

      The online program I started in Colorado was used as a cash cow. It was given only a tiny fraction of the income it generated so that the finds could be used elsewhere in the district for other purposes. It’s tremendous potential was stunted to near meaningless because its funding was so limited it struggled to survive, let alone thrive. It could not provide the quality service that would have led to its evolution into a first class service.

      The biggest problem is that online education is a rapidly growing and thus rapidly changing field. If all the income it generates is syphoned off into other areas, it will not be able to grow and change as needed–it will always be a relic of an earlier stage of development.

  38. J Sener: In my original posting, I proceeded on the assumption (as described in a later post) that being a “cash cow” is something for an online program to avoid. However, is this always the best scenario? When is being a cash cow a good thing for an online program and when is it not?

    John, good question. In my mind, cashcowing is always a bad idea, especially if it means “killing” or stunting the online program to support unrelated programs. The revenues should be used to support and expand the online effort, to make it even more successful. Market forces are telling us something, and we need to listen.

    Sustainability is the key. Programs need to explore and discover ways to generate revenue on their own and not be a burden on successful counterparts.

    And that exploration must include online strategies — but with an eye toward transferring internal funds from old to new practices (e.g., online) rather than adding additional costs to current practices that aren’t generating revenue.

  39. Sounds as if your Colorado program was more of a sacrificial lamb than a cash cow, John A… ;-)

    Given Jim’s agreement, does anyone want to take an opposing view, e.g., reasons where it makes sense from a practical or systemic viewpoint to allow some milking to take place?

    My guess is that Jim’s last comment in particular would be seen as provocative to some, given the political realities in place at many institutions. So should we talk about strategies for avoiding the milking barn?

  40. We seem to have agreed that, over and above the current practices, quality control is not possible, . For all the same reasons, accounting, at the level of course specificity , is unlikely to be possible.

    So , John, it appears that your attempt to avoid milking the successful course cow is only possible outside the academy. (perhaps an overly broad generalization)

    I know of one University that has addressed this by taking much of their online content creation, software and graphics, into a private venture owned by the academy. As a result, both quality control and accounting practices can be managed.

  41. I was thinking of the entertainment value of online learning perhaps if a 3D visual like that created in a Star Wars movie for distance learning is implemented in centres all over the country or world. It would become less 2D and more real.

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