April 30, 2020 4:10PM

A Little Advice for Efficient, Effective, Online Higher Ed

I’ve worked in higher education since 1987 when I started as an Assistant Professor of Management at Oklahoma State University, with a focus on strategy, innovation, and entrepreneurship. About 15 years ago I narrowed my research to one industry—education. Then, about eight years ago, I became intrigued by the potential of online and blended education as a tool to drive improvement.

My experience with distance education started well before I became a professor. Fifty‐​two years ago I took my whole sophomore year of high school from the University of Nebraska while living in Oshogbo, Nigeria. Educationally it worked great. The only problem was the communication time delay caused by the Nigerian mail system. It took longer for mail to travel the 121 miles between Lagos and Oshogbo than the 6,448 miles between Lagos and Lincoln.

As a result of my positive student experience, I’ve regularly volunteered to teach distance courses using the communication method of the time—from mail correspondence, to compressed video, to online. Over the last several years, half my teaching was done online in a recorded video/​discussion board/​major written project format, and the other half blended.

Over time I became convinced college costs could be dramatically cut, and quality improved, by moving to online and blended delivery. I discussed this a bit in my 2011 Cato Policy Analysis “Federal Higher Education Policy and the Profitable Nonprofits.”

Three years ago I took emeritus status at Oklahoma State and started TEL‐​Education, a non‐​profit educational publishing and technology organization. TEL’s goal is to make affordable, high‐​quality education available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. We develop courses for colleges and high schools to use in providing general education and early college high courses.

In our three years we’ve gone through several iterations of business and instructional models, publishing processes, and technology solutions, and have worked with multiple colleges and high schools. Here are some things we’ve learned from our experiences so far, and from other providers of distance education, that could be of help to more traditional colleges and universities as they move into a COVID-19 era that may force them to deliver more education long distance:

Online courses must be highly engineered in order to scale. As with traditional face‐​to‐​face courses, online courses should be designed to maximize learning. At TEL we design individual lessons to provide a clear context for each course concept, and then move students through the learning stages of information elaboration, relevance, agency, and mastery. This design allows students to absorb the information more readily and apply it in meaningful ways. Good course design is vital no matter the delivery method. As many students may be experiencing this semester, a bad face‐​to‐​face class doesn’t’ suddenly become good when moved online.

Unfortunately, you can’t simply move a good in‐​person class online, particularly if you are wanting to scale. You also need an online learning system that reinforces learning and has processes and technology that are easy for students to navigate. This requires a technology platform, like EdX or Coursera, that is built specifically for the delivery of large‐​scale online courses.

Self‐​paced, online courses can be delivered at an extremely low cost. For example, Straigtherline offers an a la carte, on‐​demand program that costs $50 per credit hour, while our Courses on Demand are similarly priced. These courses allow students to earn college credit that can be used towards degrees at most American colleges and universities, including big public research universities and most private colleges.

Colleges have begun offering their own self‐​paced courses at discounted prices. York College is a leader in this regard, allowing students anywhere the ability to earn an A.A. degree while in high school for $67 a credit hour.

Online early college high school (concurrent or dual enrollment) works well in any setting. Early college high school isn’t just for high schools located close to a college or university. Self‐​paced online programs can serve high school students anywhere. The traditional public high school in Pawhuska, OK, offers such a program to its students. Pawhuska is a small, rural school (50 graduates a year) with a diverse student body. (It’s the Pawhuska of the Killers of the Flower Moon book and upcoming movie).

They currently offer 16 different courses to their students in both semesters.They can do this because an accredited college, not the high school, provides the instruction. What the high school provides is the support system most students, particularly the economically disadvantaged, need. Their role is providing a mix of encouragement and accountability to every student.

There is a cure to the college cost disease. Self‐​paced online means that college costs can be radically reduced. While residential college will remain more expensive than online, its cost can be also be radically reduced by moving to blended delivery over pure face‐​to‐​face, and mixing in some self‐​paced online courses.

Most dramatic are the savings from online early college high school. Online early college high courses can be delivered for less than the cost of regular high school courses. With online early college high, an associate’s degree achieved in high school is possible for any good student. That enables them to shave two years off their educational journey, a dramatic savings in both tuition and opportunity cost.

The Post‐​Crisis Future. While relatively short‐​term in nature, the current COVID disruption in education highlights huge future trends, including: 1) The first part of college will be pushed down into high school, so students will be buying fewer years of “college experience”; and 2) students will become more demanding buyers of education, both in terms of quality and cost. Colleges must adjust their services and pricing accordingly.