Sunday, July 24, 2005

How do alumni learn?

On the second full day of the WebCT conference Jack Wilson, the new President of the University of Massachusetts, was the featured speaker. Jack has had many other jobs in higher ed before this one, most recently as the CEO for UMass Online. One of the themes of his talk is that the historic “contract” with students, a four year deal starting when they come through the gates at age 17 and then out four years later with a handshake and a diploma, is no longer. Most of the hundreds of thousands of alumni from the University of Massachusetts live within the state. Many will change jobs, several times in their career, indeed they’ll have to do that to stay employed and earn a good income. Globalization has mandated that. Jack’s argument, one that I’ve heard others articulate, is that the new contract is for a lifetime of learning and that these alumni will keep coming back to the university, virtually if not in person, to renew themselves and keep themselves current for the challenges that must be faced in the workplace.

This sounds good. And, of course, it has a message that we want to hear inside higher ed because it means the demand for our services will increase in the future even if population growth and immigration are limited. Moreover, it seems to jive with current predictions about the growth in e-Learning enrollments, which are quite bullish. Are we to have the renaissance in e-Learning that was predicted in the late ‘90s but didn’t materialize then? If so, how do we position ourselves for it?

A very long time ago when I was a graduate student, this is when the Econ department at Northwestern was till situated mostly in houses that bordered Sheridan Road, I can recall talking with Frank Brechling, then a Macroeconomics Professor. He argued that if there was a relationship between variables then it would invariably show up in the regressions, no matter how the model was specified. Is there a relationship between alumni and e-Learning? If so, how is it showing up? I note here that there are more than a few similarities between the University of Massachusetts, with Boston the dominant city in the state, and the University of Illinois, with Chicago likewise dominant. If Jack Wilson is right, we should be seeing the symptoms too, shouldn’t we?

Where would those symptoms show up? I don’t know but here are some guesses.

1) Faculty would hear from their former students who are working or looking for work about additional education needs.
2) Likewise, the Alumni Association would hear the request from alums and pass that along to appropriate members of the administration.
3) Since we have much fund raising done within the colleges, the various fund raisers find similar requests.
4) Gifts to the university are targeted to support online education aimed at alumni students.
5) Early adopter schools that initiate online programs aimed at alumni experience surprisingly high uptake.
6) Among the current wave of online students, there is a substantial number who have self-identified as alumni.

Quite possibly there are other important indicators that I haven’t mentioned.

I bring this up for a few reasons all that make me skeptical. I’ve no doubt about the need for retooling in the labor market. But I’m unclear on the role of higher education in that retooling. Doesn’t the bulk of it have to be employer supplied training that is quite specific to the particular job? I’m also unclear on the tightness of the alumni bond. With distance not a barrier online, why not attend the program with the best reputation for its online offering? Certainly, if there is a bond it is to the campus, not the university. But if the bulk of the online offerings are coming from a different campus of the university, that would seem to be only a very weak bond.

Jack Wilson argued further that each campus in the system would hire additional faculty according to its current profile. The Amherst campus has mostly tenure tracked faculty, while the Boston campus has many adjuncts. My assumption is that it is easier to expand online programs with adjuncts. This has me scratching my head.

There may be some easy wins here and if so we should see some rapid progress. I’ll be paying attention to UMass for the next couple of years to see how this plays out there, both the growth of online programs in general and things targeted at alumni in particular. If this area does grow disproportionately it stands to have a substantial impact on the character of the university.

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