Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Virtual University Conundrum

My campus is the Land Grant University for the state. We have a still new president, B. Joseph White, and one of the things he’d like to see is for the University (which currently is a 3-campus system) to be doing online learning big time via a fourth campus that is totally online. I’ve heard him speak about such efforts as being 21st century approaches to address the original ideal of the land grant university, providing educational services to all citizens of the state and indeed projecting our university and our state on a global stage. This is a noble vision.

But there is a difference between providing an education program for all citizens, such as with basic information about gardening, that traditionally has been the mission of the campus Extension service, and providing degree programs or certificate programs to students where tuition covers at least part of the cost and where these students are at least partly motivated by the degree or certificate improving their prospects in the labor market. My campus is highly selective. We don’t admit anyone out there for such a degree. Indeed, we turn away a lot of people. (And to the extent that admission has gotten even more competitive over time, this has rankled many who feel they or their offspring should be entitled to enter the university.) So issue number one with a virtual university is which one is it, a 21st century version of Extension or an online alternative of a prestigious degree granting institution? In other words, does it let everyone in or does it have selective admission?

Issue number two, which I believe applies to professional education in general but may be exacerbated in the virtual university case, as I elaborate below, is on the relative importance of having research faculty versus clinical faculty doing the instruction and indeed how much the curriculum is tied to research versus how much the curriculum is tied toward current practice in the field. This matters in several ways. It affects the cost of the instruction particularly with respect to whether tenure track faculty or adjuncts are doing the teaching, the market value of the degree or certificate, the extent to which the program can scale, how student centric the instruction will be, and how much competition there will be from other virtual universities.

A crass view, which I myself can slip into fairly easily, is that my university’s reputation is built on its research success (we take every possible opportunity to mention the Nobel Prize winners on the faculty when we promote the place) and for marketing purposes the research tie to instruction may be emphasized, but for practical reality and having programs that make business sense, courses that are part of a program will be designed by a team and then will be taught by adjuncts who get trained in the approach of the course. The adjuncts may very well have been researchers once and now have moved on to teaching or they can be folks who’ve already had a career in industry and have now moved on to online teaching. But they are not engaged in current research and they are not actively in communication with the faculty who are doing current research. In other words, there is a severance between the research and the instruction in deed but not in the marketing of the program.

There are two ways to be less crass. First, be up front that clinical faculty will be used and market the program accordingly. Don’t try to rely on a historic reputation that is based on assumptions not relevant to the virtual university situation. Second, really do engage active researchers in virtual university instruction. I’m agnostic about the second approach so I’ll discuss the first.

I believe one can get quite good instruction with clinical faculty doing the teaching and I know within the MBA world that some have argued for that type of instruction being more useful to the students than what they are taught by the research faculty. But I’m far less sure that such instruction should be done by not-for-profit universities and particularly public universities. The biggest argument for, that I can see and so far I’ve not heard many people make this argument, is that clinical faculty are a good thing not just for professional education but also for residential, undergraduate instruction. To date, the arguments I’m seeing are that having research faculty teach undergrads is the ideal, but for cost reasons we need to go the other way on occasion and then, maybe, in some make or break large intro courses people who teach those courses perhaps should know more about student issues in transitioning from high school to college rather than know about current research issues in the field. Otherwise, the clinical faculty idea hasn't really come up in the undergraduate context.

If clinical faculty are and remain mostly outside the culture of the R1 type of university, however, what mechanisms are there for these institutions to assure quality in instruction, both curriculum-wise and delivery-wise? Doesn’t one need a setting where the clinical faculty member is a main part of institutional culture to get the requisite quality? And if so, what type of institution can provide that culture? It looks like University of Phoenix can, but I'd bet we cannot.

Issue number three, particularly in my state which is seeing declines in state funding of higher education, is that any new virtual university will require substantial start up funds and if one looked from where those funds might arise, an obvious answer is that the money would come from funds already earmarked for higher education and in that sense would be a tax on existing programs. I believe many on my campus view the possibility of the fourth campus this way and hence feel angry about the initiative because it seems so insensitive to current residential campus needs.

The obvious solution to this, and I’ve heard President White talk directly on this point, is for the virtual university to be a for profit venture that can raise capital in other ways. I do believe that the fourth campus would be perceived in a much more welcome light on my campus if it went this route for the start up funds. But, as with the clinical faculty issue, I don’t then understand why then the affiliation with the University of Illinois is needed and why not, instead, be an entirely separate private venture.

Issue number four, which is the one I’ll close on, is defining the real goal of the university and asking whether it is something that we can expect to achieve, or if instead there is some wishful thinking acting as the driver and that is creating an unreality about what might be delivered. Consider these two distinct alternatives. First there is a high tuition, restrictive admission approach. Second there is a low tuition, open to all approach. My economics knowledge tells me the first is one that can produce high value in the labor market for the graduates while the second can produce a scalable solution that enrolls thousands and thousands of students. But, there is no free lunch. You can’t get both. Certainly, you can’t get both easily. However, the rhetoric behind the fourth campus seems to be saying that we want to produce both outcomes. I find that troubling.

I’ve not said one whit about learning technology in this post. I really don’t think that is the issue. From my perspective the technology used in online instruction and in on ground instruction is converging if not altogether identical at present. But on these non-technology issues, there seems to be a big gap. I hope those involved in the planning for the fourth campus can be more explicit about what is likely to emerge before the fourth campus becomes a done deal. I’m not wanting to block the effort. I’d just like to see these issues thought through and brought out into the open.

No comments: