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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Proposal to Cut Costs and Increase Efficiency in Online Programs


The current model of online instruction which features small sections and a learning management system is expensive. Colleges and universities are finding that, to their dismay, they are faced with staggering cost increases. The initial investment they made in infrastructure and computing capacity software / servers was just the beginning of their investment. Software, hardware, personnel, and outsourced support costs are just a few of those that increase every year. The “cascading software upgrades” effect also leads to unanticipated and earlier-than-budgeted programming costs.

If you’re an elearner in a typical online course in the United States, chances are you’re used to having 20 to 25 students in your course section and you are accustomed to receiving personalized responses from your instructor for each of your papers, drafts, discussion board posts, and emails. In a perfect world, this model replicates the experience of being in a small seminar which results in high-quality interactions, multi-pronged student engagement, and personal mentoring and guidance.

Expensive e-learning program costs matter because the high costs are passed on to you, the student.

Why the current model is not always sustainable:

1) Bandwidth and storage needs that outstrip capacity;

2) Large numbers of individual sections with high administrative overhead;

3) Frequent software or operating system upgrades or changes, which precipitate incompatibilities and the need for extreme patches;

4) Large numbers of adjunct instructors who require the team to develop orientation modules and training courses;

5) Coordination of the large number of adjuncts is no easy feat. It is expensive and time-consuming;

6) Updating multiple small sections is complicated, time-consuming, tedious, and ongoing hands-on work;

7) Complex and time-consuming grading and record-keeping add to costs.

Solutions to the problem could include implementing a new model of online course administration, which would result in

a) increased efficiency;

b) offloaded costs;

c) decreased overhead.

The new model of online course administration could accomplish the results detailed above by following certain new procedures:

1) Optimize section size by instituting a section size minimum (for example, 30 students per section);

2) Optimize and streamline teaching loads and do not exceed the section size maximum (for example, 35 students);

3) Provide low-overhead ways to obtain credit (advanced placement, credit by exam, liberal transfer policy);

4) Offer exam review courses that primarily consist of automated quizzes and reviews, and very little interaction;

5) Use existing digital resources: partner with textbook companies to use their instructional content for your courses, thereby saving time in course development;

6) Use custom texts: partner with textbook companies to develop custom texts / workbooks, with a guaranteed edition life of 3 years, in order to eliminate costly and labor-intensive course shell changes / updates and bookstore stock issues;

7) Incorporate graduate assistant-led discussion sections in order to optimize professor time.

8) Utilize webinars with web conferencing programs such as Elluminate; use audio / phone conference with internet telephone (Skype, etc.).

9) Employ mobile learning where possible. Make downloadable text, audio, graphics, and video available and playable with portable devices, including iPods and smartphones.

This overview is just a basic sketch of possibilities for - the future. Clearly, schools offering online programs will have to continue to become more efficient as they grow, and they will need to find a way to “bootstrap” their way to self-sufficiency in times of rapid growth. After all, most public academic departments have as a primary problem the fact that they are woefully underfunded, particularly if they are relying on state appropriations or tax revenues (where property tax reform is resulting is drastic reductions for schools, particularly community colleges.)

More radical possibilities exist, too, but they are not mentioned here. They will be detailed in future articles. In sum, they discuss ways to partner with existing entities that already offer training and which possess infrastructure that is ideal for offering dual-purpose education and training, for certificates and even for professional development.

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