State U Online

Policy Paper
April 23, 2013

Mention online learning in higher education and the conversation quickly turns to the explosion of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, and the opportunities for delivering quality education to the greatest number of students. Indeed, online learning is increasingly becoming a permanent fixture in higher education. But the nation’s public higher education system--the two-year colleges and four-year universities that educate the large majority of all college students--has been visibly slower to embrace the potential of online education. Many of these institutions were founded with a mission to serve their citizens, including those unable to attend in residence. Yet even as the technological means to achieve this goal reaches new heights, many public universities are shying away from the challenge.

State U Online examines the history of distance learning dating back to the 18th century when the U.S. Postal Service served as the primary platform for administering distance education (See advertisement below for correspondence shorthand course). As the need for distance education increased, so did the innovative ways in which it was administered. State U Online identifies the most common challenges to implementing successful distance-education programs, including cost, quality, and faculty buy-in.

Image: Copy of Advertisement from The Business Journal from September 1910. Image Source: Zaner-Bloser Penmanship Collection, University of Scranton

These historical lessons help provide insight into a path forward for states and institutions looking to build more streamlined, affordable online state higher education system. Many public online efforts can be classified in five steps. These steps are sequential and ensure a more integrated State U Online both for students and higher education students. These five steps are:

State U Online describes how each of these steps works in practice through a series of notable state and system profiles including: University of Wisconsin System’s e-campus, Minnesota Online, Florida Virtual Campus, Georgia’s ONmyLINE, Great Plains IDEA, and others. The report highlights strengths and challenges of each program, and identifies areas of opportunity.

State U Online also makes policy recommendations states can adopt to ensure their online systems are on a strong, sustainable footing. State governments can:

  • Create sustainable, self-sufficient cost structures. Systems and institutions should not have to rely on line-item budgeting from state legislatures. Creating shared tuition structures, for example, can help ensure online systems have staying power.
  • Provide incentives and support for faculty. Although instruction is given significant weight in tenure decisions, there is no added benefit for faculty who develop online courses. Providing such incentives would encourage faculty to experiment with teaching online.
  • Actively promote online efforts.Public universities often cannot afford to spend extra money on marketing. Publicizing clearinghouses and online degree programs helps ensure students are aware of affordable public online options.
  • Collect robust data on online students.With the rapid growth of online education, it’s now a necessity collect better data on these distance-learning students, separate from students enrolled. Doing so can only improve our understanding of online student outcomes.
  • Give college credit where it’s due. Currently, one in three undergraduate students will transfer at least once in their academic career. As the boarders between institutions (and states) blurs, ensuring college credits follow students will be essential for swift completion.
  • Support students. Attrition in online course-taking can be challenging. Institutions and state systems must support retention efforts to mitigate these common problems. Likewise, help students navigate advances in technology and updates to Learning Management Systems they use for their coursework.
  • Experiment with innovative course and credit delivery.States and institutions should incorporate innovative credit models, such as Prior Learning Assessments and other competency-based learning modules that will hasten a student’s time to degree.

At a time when a higher education is more important to individual and collective prosperity than ever before, students need online courses and degree programs that are effective, affordable, and grounded in public values. A State U Online model is achievable, but only if states and higher education institutions work together to share their resources and reduce barriers that prevent students from moving seamlessly through the system—credits in hand.

To read the full report, click here.