When millennials come breezing into Deb Bauer’s online business finance classes offered by the University of Oregon, some of them think that, because they’re away from a classroom and on a computer, it’s going to be easy.
“I try to blow that out of the water right away, because online classes are harder,” Bauer said. “You have to be really self-motivated. You have to keep yourself on-task. And you don’t have someone explaining every little thing to you.”
In the rapidly evolving universe of higher education, professors and instructors, such as Bauer, are trying to assert their online academic expectations.
If online courses are to be legitimate, accredited and worthwhile, students must gain the same knowledge as do their counterparts in the bricks-and-mortar classroom, faculty across the country are saying.
But their voices may be getting lost in the clamor for online education — which is seen as a way to deliver elite coursework globally, control the cost to students of a college degree and educate young people for whom the screen is the thing.
Interest in online higher-education courses exploded two falls ago, when Stanford University enrolled 160,000 students in an artificial intelligence course. It was the first, major example of a massive online open course, or MOOC as it is called.
Since then, universities, some with venture for-profit partners, launched three major MOOC websites: edX, Coursera and Udacity.
Long-existing state university “distance learning” programs rapidly are rebranding themselves as online education, and they’re offering full-fledged degrees to students who never set foot on campus. Colorado State, Washington State and Arizona State are among the examples.
“There’s a surge of interest throughout all of higher education institutions of all types. The tools to do it are a lot more robust now and barriers to entry are much, much lower,” said Andrew Bonamici, UO associate university librarian for media and instructional services.
In Oregon, Oregon State University’s Ecampus is leading the virtual stampede, offering 34 degrees that students logging on from anywhere in the world can take as long as they enroll and pay for their coursework.
Ecampus enrollment growth has averaged 22 percent a year for the past three years, OSU Associate Provost Dave King said.
OSU’s Ecampus generated $25 million in tuition revenue last school year, according to a university memo.
UO takes it slow
The University of Oregon, meanwhile, seems ambivalent about online education, particularly when it comes to granting virtual degrees.
Compared with OSU, the UO’s online presence is far less robust. While OSU has 34 full online degrees, the UO offers only one. OSU’s Ecampus students can choose from more than 900 courses, while the UO offers 87.
At OSU, 11.4 percent of all credit hours faculty teach are online, while at UO the number is 2.3 percent.
“I don’t know where we are yet in terms of online degrees,” said Doug Blandy, the UO senior vice provost for Academic Affairs. He is leading an effort to determine the UO’s direction.
Lisa Freinkel, UO vice provost of undergraduate studies, said the UO is moving at its own deliberate speed.
“The fact that there’s not this huge University of Oregon online venture is part of the thoughtfulness, the kind of multiplicity of this huge complex research university where a lot of people are doing a lot of different things,” she said. “There’s a richness to that.
“It’s not ‘go slow.’ It’s go thoughtfully and carefully.”
Despite the booming enthusiasm for e-courses nationwide, some faculty at universities from coast to coast are rebelling, from graduate faculty at Rutgers University in New Jersey to philosophy professors at San Jose State in California.
Faculty fear they’ll be supplanted by substandard online courses. They worry that professors will lose their control over curriculum, that universities will cut tenured jobs and rely, instead, on canned instruction.
They wince, especially, when lawmakers tout online courses as a low-cost alternative to an on-campus college education — and then use that as an excuse to cut state higher education spending.
When will the advocates of online university education placate these wary faculty in Oregon and elsewhere?
“Never, candidly,” King said. “I don’t think we’ll ever do that.”
Visiting OSU’s Ecampus
In 2002, OSU converted its Distance and Continuing Education program into Ecampus and began building full-fledged online degree programs.
Ecampus students choose from more than 900 online courses offered by OSU, and they can earn any one of 16 undergraduate degrees and 18 graduate degrees.
“When you graduate, you have an OSU degree,” King said. “It says ‘Oregon State.’ Nobody would know if you took the courses on campus or off.”
This fall, 3,767 degree-seeking students enrolled in Ecampus, a 19 percent increase from fall 2012. That doesn’t count thousands who take a class or two to add to their otherwise traditional degrees.
Seventy percent of OSU’s Ecampus students live outside of Oregon, mostly in nearby states. Ecampus’ most-sought bachelor’s degrees are: fisheries and wildlife, natural resources, environmental sciences and human development and family sciences.
Other undergraduate degrees are: anthropology; economics; German; political science; psychology; sociology; and women, gender and sexuality studies. Top graduate programs are: computer science and natural resources.
Ahead of the curve
Ecampus students pay the same tuition as OSU on-campus students plus an $80 per credit distance education fee. Ecampus students can save on living costs.
Annual board and lodging for a student living on or near campus can run $10,000 or more.
OSU biochemist Kevin Ahern has been an Ecampus instructor for four years. He calls himself an “ardent advocate” of the use of technology in the classroom who began videotaping and posting his lectures more than a decade ago.
Ahern said he essentially created MOOCs before MOOCs became the rage by uploading his courses — and a free textbook he wrote — to YouTube and iTunes U.
“There I’ve got 12,000 students. It’s monstrous in terms of numbers of downloads.”
Ahern loves it.
“To me, reaching out to people who can’t go to college, who can’t go live on a campus — maybe they’ve got a family, maybe they’ve got a job they don’t like and they’re trying to improve themselves — to be able to help people like that is just fantastic.
Ahern said he was sceptical, at first, about whether students could learn the same as they do in classrooms and whether their knowledge could be measured adequately by computer-graded multiple choice tests.
“If we talk about the ideal student experience, the ideal student experience is one in which the student is engaged with the professor, is benefiting from interactions,” he said. “Can that happen online? Yes it can. Is it as easy? No it’s not.”
Ahern gives all of his students his cellphone number and email address. He gets 200 to 300 emails a day.
One of Ahern’s online students, Portland resident Ania Pavitt, said she appreciates that Ecampus allows her to limit her trips to Corvallis while earning her bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
She’s 40, and she’s hoping to switch careers from being a second assistant director for a film company to doing forensics for the FBI.
Pavitt said she’s found little to distinguish online courses from on-campus courses. In each, some professors are inspired and others aren’t, she said.
About 25 percent of Ecampus courses are taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty, King said. About half are taught by OSU instructors, and another 25 percent are adjuncts that the university hires specifically to teach online.
“This is an integrated part of the university,” King said. “The likelihood of you getting an online course taught by an instructor who would have taught it face-to-face on campus is pretty high.”
The state of Oregon has an official goal of having 40 percent of its residents hold bachelor’s degrees, and Ecampus can help, King said. Today, about 250,000 Oregon residents have earned some college credit, and they would like to finish — if given the chance.
About 85 percent of Ecampus students are working adults, stay-at-home parents, members of the military and others who can’t get to campus, he said. Their average age is 33.
Ecampus will continue to grow, King says.
The program offers incentives for OSU faculty to get involved; it pays a college or department $4,000 to $6,000 to develop a single course or $200,000 to $400,000 to create a new online degree program.
In addition, “The real enticement for this has been the business model,” King said. “Of the tuition that’s collected per course, per student, 80 percent goes directly back to the college.
“It’s money they use to pay for instruction.”
When Ahern stared teaching biochemistry classes online, he said the leaders of his department saw it as a bit of a lark, he said.
“My Ecampus classes are growing 30 to 40 percent a year. I’m the biggest revenue generator in my department right now by a long ways, so people say that’s pretty serious stuff.
“The period of time when people didn’t take it seriously has completely vanished.”
Meanwhile, in Eugene
The UO has no comparable, streamlined policy or practice regarding online education. In fact, the UO’s efforts are so decentralized, it’s hard to find any one person on campus who knows about the efforts of the scattered academic departments and faculty.
It took the Undergraduate Council, made up of 10 elected faculty and appointed administrators and students, a term to put the picture together. The UO’s 101-year-old academic extension is offering about 50 courses online the coming winter term through its distance education program.
Other university units, meanwhile, hire their own technical specialists and put up their own courses. Within the College of Arts and Sciences, for instance, faculty taught 42 classes online last school year, said Ian McNeely, a UO history associate professor and associate dean of undergraduate education college of arts and sciences.
“Economics is by far the largest,” McNeely said. The department faces huge demand for macro- and micro-economics survey courses, and the online version has allowed the department to serve as many as 700 additional students a year.
“We have a classroom crunch (on the UO campus),” McNeely said, “so one solution to that is to provide an online equivalent for those who can’t schedule or don’t want to schedule at the 10 o’clock time, or whenever it might be.”
The School of Architecture and Allied Arts was an early online producer, McNeely said. And College of Education professor Yong Zhao has created and deployed global online education software called ObaWorld.net.
Faculty pay for teaching online courses varies by department. In some, they are considered part of the professor or instructor’s regular teaching load; in others, it’s a way to earn additional pay.
Four years ago, the UO offered a stipend to faculty willing to spend the summer months bringing their classes online and learning how to teaching there. But that program was cut the following year.
“There isn’t a push (to go online) from the top, currently,” said Bauer, the UO instructor who teaches online. “It’s more an individual’s choice.”
Because the UO’s multimedia developers and instructional designers are scattered in units across campus, individual faculty members have no clear path to follow when they want to try teaching online.
The Teaching Effectiveness Program in Prince Lucien Campbell Hall, the Center for Media and Educational Technologies in the Knight Library and the Academic Extension in downtown Eugene all have a piece of the puzzle.
“If you are entrepreneurial enough you can ask around and figure it out,” McNeely said, “but if that’s not the way you’re already inclined you may say ‘Forget about it. I’m not going to go out of my way to master the technicalities.’ ”
How to centralize
A year ago, Blandy led a 16-member group to Corvallis to study how OSU’s Ecampus works. King said he explained, “We centralize the instructional designers, the student support, the financial aid, the marketing program.”
Today, UO officials are figuring out how to pay for the centralized support for course development and the necessary technologies by diverting some of the existing online tuition revenues, McNeely said.
“Right now, the incentives are too much in the direction of letting departments go it alone for their own uses and not enough is being centrally pooled so that we can build this intake center or invest in video cameras or whatever is needed.
“This is the way the University of Oregon works,” McNeely said. “We’re very decentralized because we’ve got a lot of very energetic entrepreneurial people. After a while, someone says ‘Oh wait a minute, we’ve got to coordinate.’ That’s the moment we’re at now.”
UO President Michael Gottfredson, at a recent meeting with The Register-Guard editorial board, said he’s ready for the UO to “get involved” with online education.
“I would anticipate degrees,” he said. “I think every quarter, every semester, every year, you’ll see greater penetration of online education (at UO).”
Gottfredson praised the faculty who have forged ahead.
Bauer, the Lundquist College of Business instructor, spent the summer of 2009 putting her finance classes on line. Four years later, she’s still a pioneer.
“To my knowledge, I am the only person in the business school teaching online,” she said.