Loyola Magazine

Between a MOOC and a hard place

Communication faculty share insights from new book on developing online master's program

What are the five most intimidating words for colleges still confounded by the distance learning revolution?

Technology is the easy part.

From advancement to student services and everything in between, the operational implications of online education reach nearly every corner of traditional brick-and-mortar institutions. It’s not what Elliot King, Ph.D., and Neil Alperstein, Ph.D., expected when they were given the opportunity to create Loyola’s first online education program—an M.A. in Emerging Media—four years ago.

Both communication professors adjusted quickly, but they faced a more daunting problem shared by all Jesuit colleges and universities: How do you preserve the promise of offering a transformative educational experience when students could be thousands of miles apart, connected to their classmates through chatrooms and video software?

King and Alperstein outline what’s needed to develop and deliver an online educational program, including the optimum ways institutions can avoid the pitfalls of online program development, in their new book, Best Practices in Online Program Development. Loyola’s Emerging Media program launched in 2013, giving King and Alperstein time to reflect on what they’ve learned from concept to implementation, and compile their most compelling insight into prose.

King shared some of that insight with Loyola magazine.

Why did you write this book?

As we went through the development process for the Emerging Media program, we had to interact with various stakeholders in the University with whom we, as faculty, generally did not consult much and who were not thinking about the implications of online education for their operations. For example, how do verify an online student’s identity? As we did research about how other universities handled the various issues that surround creating and implementing successful online programs, we saw a need to put all the answers that we discovered regarding how an institution can create a successful online program into one place.

The book is not about creating online courses per se; rather, we take a comprehensive view about the impact of online education at the university or institutional level. Launching an online program is not just about teaching and learning. It has an impact on every aspect of the university—from recruitment to enrollment and retention and student services to alumni affairs, among other aspects of university life.

Who should read this book?

We want to reach all the stakeholders involved in online program development and implementation. This includes senior administrators and boards of trustees—the people now most responsible for the nuts and bolts of online program development and administration, who often work in units with names like the Center for Distance Learning—and faculty, who we believe have to be much more involved. In addition, we hope that the people working in other areas of universities such as development may take a look, too.

You argue the current discussion about online education is too limited. How so?

Right now, the conversation about online education focuses mainly on teaching and learning, reducing costs, and expanding access. Can online education produce the same student outcomes as face-to-face education? Can it make colleges and universities less expensive? And will it open the doors of higher education to more students? But online programs touch much more than just the classroom. For example, online students have weaker emotional ties to universities than those who live at a college for four years. That will have an impact on alumni affairs and fundraising.

Online programs allow universities to experiment with terms of different lengths (some online course run for eight weeks; others only for a month). What is the implication of more flexible schedules on the records department and registration? How can the library most effectively serve online programs? How can online students participate in service-learning opportunities? Online programs are going to transform the university experience in many ways, but most people only focus on teaching and learning.

Is there a “right way” to do online education? Is there a wrong way?

I would answer your question with a question: Is there is a right or wrong way to do face-to-face education?

The answer is that there are many right ways and many wrong ways to offer face-to-face and online classes.

Without diminishing the complexity of online program development, the use of technology is just a delivery system. If the focus of creating an online program is just to reduce costs and increase revenues (which, unfortunately, is the focus for many programs, particularly for those in the for-profit higher education sector), the results will be a thinning out of a university education. But if the focus is on using the new communications tools available to create a rich educational environment that is different than the traditional classroom, but as dynamic or potentially more dynamic, online programs can dramatically improve student learning.

You are concerned the faculty voice is absent from the debate. Why?

To date, in most of the public discourse about online education, generally faculty has been on the defensive. The proponents of online education are enthusiastic proponents of change and disruption. Too many professors have basically said something along the lines of, “We are not interested in that.”

But the faculty has to be interested because, like it or not, online technology is transforming education in the same way that it has transformed retail journalism, entertainment, and many other fields. If faculty do not guide the way online programs are created and implemented, other stakeholders in the university will. I spent 15 years studying the Internet’s impact on journalism, and in the 1990s, most reporters and editors took the same position professors do today—that is online does not meet traditional standards. It did not turn out well for reporters and editors, and I think the media did not benefit from losing its most senior journalists, which is what happened.

What’s your evaluation of online education options available to U.S. students today?

I would like to put that question into context. The residential college has been the predominant form of higher education at the undergraduate level only for the past 50-60 years. Prior to that, most students commuted to college. You can look at Loyola’s own history as an example.

The residential model gained popularity because it was clearly more transformational than the commuter model in most cases. Right now, online education can provide some experiences that the residential campus cannot. For example, Loyola runs a couple of classes in travel writing and reporting for students who are on junior year abroad. What could be better than to learn travel reporting when you are traveling? You can only do that online.

But in many cases, specific online offerings fall short, in my opinion. For example, the Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that have gotten so much attention are really more like glorified correspondence courses with video. And I say that even though I have taken a couple that I have really liked. Not only is there minimal interaction; it takes a lot of discipline and patience to successfully work through material online.

What are the implications of moving toward a higher education model that eliminates full-time faculty?

The increased use of adjunct and affiliate faculty goes well beyond online education, but in some places online programs are accelerating that process. Since the creation of the modern university more than 500 years ago, the faculty has been at the center of the institution. In fact, John Cardinal Newman defined a university as “a place for the communication and circulation of thought” among teachers and learners from all branches of knowledge. The primary role of the university over time has been to conserve, disseminate, and create knowledge. While part-time faculty, who almost by definition have more important priorities than the one or two courses they teach each semester, may be able to effectively communicate some specific knowledge, their jobs are not structured in a way that they can effectively conserve or create knowledge.

Without wanting to get too hyperbolic about it, without a permanent, tenured faculty, the 500+-year-old idea of a university will have run its course. Loyola, by the way, should be saluted for adding new tenured/tenure-track faculty members over the past couple of years when other universities have been moving in the other direction.

How is the M.A. in Emerging Media program a model for effective online education? What makes it different from other online education programs?

Our program is completely based on Jesuit values and designed to apply the Jesuit approach to education to online programs. Our classes are small. Using new but low-cost and accessible technology, we foster a lot of student-student and student-teacher interaction—usually more than what happens in the traditional classroom. The program’s content reflects the Jesuit concerns with training students to have practical skills as well as to better understand the impact of emerging media on the world in general. We like to say our program is not about distance learning, but about how to shrink the distance between teacher and student and among students using new communication technology.

Where is online education ultimately taking us? Are brick-and-mortar universities going extinct?

Online programs represent the latest major shift in higher education, and since some universities have been around since the 1400s, I am not a big fan of the extinction metaphor. Universities are not dinosaurs. In fact, despite the popular image, over the centuries universities have proven to be remarkably nimble. Like in retailing, where Amazon has not killed Wal-Mart, by and large I don’t think online will kill the residential experience, particularly at the undergraduate level.

That said, every college and university needs to develop an appropriate online strategy to be able to compete. If one doesn’t, not only will it have significantly limited the number and kinds of students it can serve, it will have turned its back on providing a new kind of deeply rewarding educational environment. Personally, I think even if a school wants to stay primarily residential at the undergraduate level, it would be negligent if it did not offer its students at least some online experience. Undoubtedly, students will need to be able to learn online after they graduate for continuing education and certifications, and it is our responsibility to teach them how to learn online.

Learning online isn’t always easy, and it takes different skills and techniques than traditional education. At the graduate level—particularly at the professional Master’s level and even more so for part-time Master’s programs—online is quickly becoming the educational platform of choice. Students in those programs are generally older, more focused, and better disciplined than undergraduates. Why would they opt to go to a class in the evening after work or give up their weekends if they could get just as robust an education without leaving home? Increasingly, online education can deliver that. I honestly believe that universities and colleges that can provide a deep online experience to both undergraduate and graduate students and maintain a suitable residential experience will thrive in the years to come.