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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Prestige and the Online Institution, Part II - The Digital Gold Standard

Podcast, Part 2
Podcast, Part 3

This is Part 2 of a two-part article which explores attributes and characteristics of prestigious universities, and evaluates how, when, and where the online institution is gaining cultural status and prestige ... and where the opportunities lie. (You might be surprised.)

Link to Part 1 of this article -- the article (not the podcast)

Here is where the paradox begins, in my opinion. After all, the idea of access presupposes a democratic ideal; the voices of all can be heard, their e-mails read. And yet, prestige often associates itself with exclusivity, to the point of secrecy. Could one have a Skull and Bones Club online? Instead of rituals and secret gatherings, the digital elite represent the "gold standard," the ideal to which others aspire. To continue from Part I, here are a few elements that characterize an elite college or university, and here is how they translate into the "digital gold standard."

*Collections of Rare Digital Resources
The university that enjoys prestige and high cultural status must have something unique that sets it apart from other colleges, universities, institutes, and think tanks. It should have at least one major collection of digital resources in which it exercises exclusive control and management. Obviously, there would be extensive sharing of the repository, and/or individuals would be able to subscribe. Examples could be an extensive collection of unique nature photos, scanned documents from a rare book collection, scanned images of historical manuscripts and journals, rare data collected from research, etc. The digital resources could also consist of software and cutting-edge programs.

Will sharing the resources detract from their status, and the belief that they are of high quality? Clearly, in some cases sharing, or making things available via open-source software actually enhances the status. Cases include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare project ( and Stanford's LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe) program, which is a distributed digital archiving system

The common denominator is philanthropy, and the desire to be a leader in funding and implementing initiatives that provide access to educational technology and digital resources to at-risk populations. There are a few echoes of noblesse oblige, and this is, without a doubt, the digital equivalent of volunteerism and the "charity work" of the past. To state the obvious is not to be judgmental, simply to say that if it is not an update of a tried and true formula, the attempt probably will not work.

*Partnerships with solid, well-rounded organizations with depth and breadth
The online institution that aspires to achieve the level of "prestige" is cognizant of the fact that it cannot be done alone. Resource requirements are too steep. Further, to attempt to rise by means of solitary efforts is ultimately futile because success requires partners, not only in terms of resources but also in areas of expertise and technical know-how. Partnering also allows the sharing of infrastructure and informational resources.

*Endowments and scholarship funds
The university that enjoys prestige, status, and high cultural value is notable for the way that it inspires individuals to contribute to the shared vision, and to support the making of a better world via a unique education. Prestigious universities are distinguished by their devotees - passionate alumni and true believers who are willing to endow scholarships, research, travel for students as well as for faculty.

In addition to private university grants and endowments used to support distance education endeavors, the American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC) ( provides resources to support online program initiatives. Further, they publish lists of grantmakers, both federal and private, where competition is quite keen, and only high-quality proposals are awarded funding.

A robust digital library is an obvious requisite. It is important to possess not only subscriptions to databases, e-journals and indices, and other information products, but also digitized versions of rare books and statistical archives which can be used in research. Effective data-mining tools need to be in place as well, to help students and researchers effectively utilize the materials. Joining library and digital repository consortia when the materials truly enhance one's collection is an effective strategy. Working with government collections and having compatible systems is important, as is having well-trained staff who understand the nature of classification, intellectual property rights, etc. Learning object repositories are often useful components, but this area should be regarded with caution, since it is fairly easy to develop a repository of unusable, unmanageable, and unshareable digital objects without realizing it.

In addition to privately held digital repositories, or subscriptions to e-journals and databases, online programs may partner with independent virtual libraries such as Questia ( and Highbeam ( Such partnerships give the institution a distinct advantage over ones that do not have the same level of access to digital information.

*Foreign Dignitaries and Captains of Industry Faculty
The faculty who teach are experts in their fields. The highly prestigious university prides itself on offering courses taught by renowned luminaries in the field. In the past, teaching online was seen as lacking in status, and research by O'Quinn and Corry (2002) listed that as the main detractor. In 2006, perceptions have changed, and the ability to teach individuals who are distributed across the world is considered a way to gain prestige, as well as to share one's life experience with others (Universal Class, 2006).

For example, Pakistan's Ambassador to the United States, Ahmad Kamal, teaches "The United Nations and International Corporations" through DePaul University's School for New Learning (2005) ( Conducted via video conferencing from the United Nations, the course features video conferencing and asynchronous interaction via e-mail.

*Self-Supporting Financially Viable Business Model
An online university that has achieved prestige within its social group does not have to rely on state support. It will have established profitable online enterprises that will be used to help support some of its programs.

*Program Design
Flexibility, multiple delivery modes, high levels of interaction and support (with faculty, administration, and fellow students), and high quality, up-to-date curriculum and instructional materials form a part of the program design. What differentiates a run-of-the-mill distance program from a prestige program has a great deal to do with the design. The program should be designed in a way that creates conditions in which students learn to think in new ways, apply their knowledge to demonstrate both competence and a deeper understanding by being able to synthesize, problem-solve, innovate, and develop clear, well-written papers. The program and the design are continually analyzed, reviewed, and updated.

*Committed Faculty and Faculty Support
Even online programs that use only adjunct, part-time faculty must eventually face the fact that in order to achieve and maintain high quality, it is important to have continuity. If this is achieved by means of a core governing faculty board, then it is necessary to meet more than once a year. Ideally, the governing faculty would have activities that keep them engaged with the institution on an ongoing basis. Contact should be made at least once a month, in the form of updates, e-mails, and action items. Discussion board areas should be available for posting ideas, discussing issues, proposing changes, and resolving conflicts.

*Residency options / flexible approach
The prestige distance education institution of the future may have a bricks and mortar component, although the buildings will be not necessarily be in a single place. Face-to-face residential instructional opportunities will take place throughout the world. Relations will be forged with the ministries of various countries so that, for example, a group could take a class from the prestige online institution on Mongolian yurts and horse culture. The Mongolian Ministry of the Exterior would host a reception and the course would be taken under the auspices of the joint venture - the prestige university and the government. Online components and resources would be offered before, during, and after the face-to-face elements.
*High-quality writingAn online university writing center with extensive resources is available for students. Individuals use it in order to become better writers and to obtain one-on-one mentoring, often available at a very reasonable price, since the writing tutors could be located overseas. In addition, remedial services are also be available.

*Career Placement Services
The prestige university partners with strong, brand-recognized employment search and mentoring firms. For example, the institution could partner with and develop a unique, powerful partnership that would also provide career experience, job openings, and loyal, enthusiastic alumni.

*Internship opportunities
Virtual internships are available where needed. Payment to interns is made as needed, and students receive college credit for their work. The prestige university guides the internship endeavor, and maintains a mindset of partnership and collaboration with the companies and organizations it works with.

*Research - focus on innovation / virtual teams
The prestige university prides itself in high quality instruction, academic counseling and guidance. However, it realizes that the world is not a static place and it endeavors to adapt with the times. By encouraging research and creating the conditions that allow significant innovation to emerge, the run-of-the-mill institution, or, more pointedly, the institution that has been scrambling just to keep its head above waters of change, will pull ahead of the competition. The institution transforms itself into a leading-edge prestige university that is recognized the world over for its innovation, quality, and capacity for far-reaching, inclusive change.

*And finally, FOOTBALL.
It is my fondest hope that some day, the University of Phoenix buys the NFL team, the Arizona Cardinals, and then changes their name back -- no, not to the St. Louis Cardinals, but to the Phoenix Cardinals.

Imagine the possibilities. To associate a college with a pro team immediately connotes professionalism, focus, and success. "We're not amateurs doing this, we're pro's." Granted, one would be giving up the return to innocence on football Saturday, and the autumnal opportunity to revisit one's coming of age, which softens with nostalgia each time one takes that tailgate-weighted stroll down memory lane.

On the other hand, every jersey, every helmet, and every cut to the scoreboard would be a golden opportunity to burn the University of Phoenix's logo (accompanied by theme song or jingle) into the consciousness of a million viewers at a pop. With HDTV and satellite control, one could even be paid as an affiliate to run advertising on your television at home. Looking for a way to subsidize the chips and salsa for the guests? Run a few 15- and 30-second spots during commercial breaks. It's Google Adsense for television.

If the Phoenix Cardinals make it to the Super Bowl, imagine the pay-off for the University of Phoenix. That alone could be worth the price of the team.

anyway -- I'm interested in your thoughts.

Works Cited
Aboud, S. R. (2005). "Online Education Gets Accolades" Back to College. Accessed Jan 6, 2006.

Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2004). Sizing the Opportunity: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2002 and 2003. Sloan Consortium. accessed Jan 6, 2006.

American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC). (2005). Accessed Jan 3, 2006.

Cornell University. (2005). eCornell. Accessed Jan 5, 2006.

DePaul University School for New Learning. (2005). "The United Nations and International Corporations, Ambassador Kamal." Accessed Jan 5, 2006. (2005). Highbeam Library Research. Accessed Jan 6, 2006.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2005). MIT Open Courseware Project. Accessed Jan 3, 2006.

O'Quinn, L. & Corry, M. (2004) "Factors the Deter Faculty from Participating in Distance Education" Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume V, NumberIV, Winter 2002. Accessed Jan. 6, 2006. (2005). Resources. Accessed Jan. 6, 2006.

Sloan Consortium. (2005). Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the United States, 2005. Accessed Jan 6, 2006.

Stanford University. (2005). LOCKKS Program. Accessed Jan. 4, 2006.

Thunderbird Garvin School of International Management. (2005). Master's Degree in International Management. Accessed Jan 6, 2006.

UniversalClass. (2006). "How Do I Teach Online?" Accessed Jan. 6, 2006.

Webber, T. (2005). " Accessed Jan 4, 2006.

Upward Mobility in the Distance Institution: Factors Influencing Prestige and Status in Online Programs


The college degree earned either partially or fully online has ascended in stature to solid respectability, as college administrators have come to believe that online courses as well as online master's programs can be more rigorous than face-to-face. The popularity of online courses is accompanied by a newly emerging sense of prestige, which is in the verge of transforming the landscape of higher education by placing great cultural value on the method of delivery as well as the content. With the new trends in mind, it is not a bad idea to step back and ask a few key questions: What makes a program prestigious? Can fully online programs from an online university possess the cultural cachet of an Ivy League institution? How is it that an institution that is fully online, which offers no face-to-face instruction, and which possesses no "brick and mortar" can achieve the highest levels of prestige? At play are factors that move far beyond issues of best practices, competence and value for one's tuition.

(This is Part I in a two-part series. Click here for Part II.)

In order to achieve prestige as an online institution of higher education, one must understand the inner workings of status production in a society, and what constitutes cultural value. Social class determinations must be kept in mind, as well as the reasons for social stratification, and beliefs about upward mobility. Having a clear understanding the relationship between education and social class has helped distance programs groom themselves to achieve higher levels of status. At the most basic level, however, the online program must contain a solid foundation of programs, as well as a coherent vision.

*A Vision That Begins and Ends with "Legacy"
Most institutions of higher learning have a vision statement that focuses principally on the here and now: what kind of classes, services, and experiences will the students have, and how will they prepare them for a useful working life within a respectable community?

In contrast, the institution of higher learning that has achieved high status and prestige in society will tend to spend more time envisioning the distant future, clearly implying that individuals who have earned degrees from their institution are imbued with sufficient power and influence to bring about tangible change in the world. Without the proper context, the assumptions and articulated views will seem unrealistic, even narcissistic.

However, when one realizes that a number of the graduating class will be influential policymakers and stakeholders within a specific social group, the underlying attitudes and assumptions seem less grandiose.

For the traditional high-prestige university, the academic year begins with a moment dedicated to envisioning the future: who will receive honorary doctorates, and who will be the perfect commencement speaker - one to communicate, almost as though by osmosis, that this is an institution that not only prepares its students for a successful future, but also for powerful friends and influential connections.

What does the culminating moment look like for an online institution that has gained prestige and cultural status? The graduation ceremony should be seen for what it is: a rite of passage, a "launching" of graduates into the world. The influential speaker is the embodiment of achievement, influence, and deeply cherished values. For Thunderbird Garvin School of International Management, the MBA in International Management ( is a degree program that prides itself in continuing relations. Even as the graduates are launched, they are encouraged to keep in touch and to open doors for each other. Before the advent of the Internet, Thunderbird graduates were well-received throughout the world. Their online program reinforces the notion that their perspective is truly global. The legacy is assumed to be a Thunderbird philosophy, an imprint on international business practices and policies, and a story of successful graduates.

For an online institution, the challenge is to communicate the same values and beliefs, but to do it in a visual manner. Careful attention must be paid to the visual details, with an eye to the semiotics - the coded non-verbal visual messages that convey complex messages.

While online programs have not existed for enough time to say that they are a part of a long tradition in and of themselves, it can be said that they are part of a continuum, and that the only difference is that of delivery method. For example, the University of Oklahoma has not offered an online graduate degree in museum studies for more than three or four years. On the other hand, two of the Southwest's largest and most prestigious museums -- the Sam Noble Natural History Museum and the Fred Jones Memorial Art Museum - have been mainstays of the university for decades. Thus, one can legitimately say that the online museum studies program is a part of a tradition. The fact that the courses are taught by University of Oklahoma curators and faculty also supports the case.

*Curriculum PLUS
In the new online universities, the curriculum is not only equivalent to traditional face-to-face programs, it exceeds it in terms of rigorous and regular review, and adherence to best practices. Online institutions take advantage of the distributed nature of course development and subject matter expertise, and bring together a collaboratively-created curriculum which incorporates elements from many sources, from many places. There is clear alignment with learner needs and desired outcomes.

The Sloan Consortium's report, Growing By Degrees, published in 2005 contains data that supports the growing perception that online education can be more rigorous and can contain more quality controls than face-to-face instruction. Despite the fact that most administrators believe that the quality of online instruction is more difficult to evaluate than face-to-face (2005), institutions continue to incorporate online instruction in their strategic plans. In 2005, fully 56% of responding institutions reported that online education was a critical component of their overall strategy (2005).

In the case of Cornell University, a decision was made to focus on professional and executive development certificate programs through a new arm, eCornell. The University leveraged its reputation to bolster the credibility of the online programs. After successful launches of the program, several large, nationally known entities such as YMCA of the USA and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts selected eCornell for employee development. ( Further, the programs have received national awards and commendations. Now it could even be said that the traditional part of Cornell University is benefiting from the reputation of eCornell.

*Instructional Materials in Multiple Formats
Instructional materials reflect the underlying values and defining vision of the institution. Instead of being dependent on the skill and passion of the face-to-face professor, the online institution dedicates resources to a team of developers who integrate content, vision, and values. The developers then adapt the material so that it can be delivered in a number of ways, which include text, audio, multimedia, and blended approaches.

To most effectively distribute the materials, the online program staff seek innovative ways to take advantage of the flexibility of the Internet, and develop materials that are deliverable at any time and at any place, using methods respected and recognized by others for their innovation. For example, online institutions can take advantage of mobile computing and have materials playable on portable mp3 players or video players, as well as readable on small devices including laptops, palms, handhelds, and enhanced phones. Delivery options should keep actual user needs in the forefront.

An example is Duke University, and its use of mobile computing and iPods to deliver content for students. While the iPods are used on campus and in hybrid settings where face-to-face instruction is blended with distance delivery, the audio files are also accessible for students in their online courses. The iPods are used to listen to lectures and to record shareable content. A Description can be found here.

Continue to Part II

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