The Council of Graduate Schools recently published a monograph titled Online Graduate Education.
Fielding Graduate University is honored to have Charles McClintock, director for the Institute for Social Innovation, represent Fielding as the first author of this important and timely publication.
Online Graduate Education is already receiving national and international distribution. The buzz in this area over the past year has been about massive open online courses (MOOCs), although they are turning out to be less "disruptive" than initially thought. At the same time, innovations in online learning for graduate education that have been occurring for many years. Fielding's master's program in Organizational Development and Leadership was started in the 1990s as a blended learning graduate degree that made substantial use of collaborative learning online.
The past decade has witnessed a strong and continual growth in online enrollment in U.S. universities and colleges. Once the business of a relatively small number of institutions, online education is now commonplace. Initially, the momentum behind this growth was fueled by institutions specializing in online learning. More recently, private and public institutions that had hitherto been highly selective in their admissions practices have entered the world of distance education through open education resources that essentially are in the public domain for individual or institutional use (e.g., “MOOCs,” or massive open online courses). This situation is part of a broader trend in which the technological innovation behind online education has produced significant and far-reaching changes in higher education, more generally. Because the rapid growth of online education has the potential to transform graduate education, it is vital that graduate deans and other senior leaders be aware of broader trends and be actively engaged in shaping how these transformations unfold at their own institutions.
Online Education Growth Trends
Online education has been one of the fastest growing segments of American higher education over the past decade. Most notable has been the growth of online enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment, reaching an impressive 32% in the fall of 2011 (Allen & Seaman, 2013.) The proportion of students taking one or more online course has increased from fewer than one in ten in 2002 to nearly one third by 2010. During this same time period, the number of online students grew from 1.6 million to over 6.1 million—an annual compound growth rate of 18.3% (Allen & Seaman, 2011). The online growth rate for the following year of 9.3% was the lowest recorded since annual tracking began a decade ago, suggesting a possible deceleration (Allen & Seaman, 2013). But online education as a fundamental part of U.S. higher education is here to stay. The dramatic growth associated with online education suggests that every senior graduate leader should be prepared to make informed decisions regarding how their institution will participate.
Such growth has broader implications for access and affordability in higher education that will impact traditional educational institutions. For profit institutions, for example, have doubled their share of the U.S. higher education market in the last decade, and now attract more than 10% of students. The continued growth at these institutions is driving change in public and non-profit independent colleges and universities as they compete around accessibility, especially among working adult and international student prospects. The dominant higher education pricing model in which students pay a single price for a large package of services they may or may not need or use may become less and less attractive to graduate students, especially as so many students incur significant debt to fund their studies.
A Role for Graduate Education Leaders
Many higher education leaders believe that online learning has the potential to improve faculty productivity without sacrificing educational quality and to grow enrollments without having to invest in expensive infrastructure. Educational delivery is being transformed through growth in blends of in- class and online teaching that draw upon unlimited Internet resources and by the demands of new cohorts of students whose lives are intertwined with information technology and social media.
As the pace of growth and interest in online education has accelerated, more and more institutions have felt the pressure to get aboard the online education train. In many universities professional and graduate programs have been targeted for growth. Faced with an uncertain fiscal environment, increasing pressure to make education both accessible and affordable, and declining enrollments in some areas, universities have turned to online education as an answer to these challenges. As a result, most institutions are experimenting with online instruction. However, in many instances, this new world of instruction and learning has raised concerns as well as hopes and has left many faculty and administrators grappling with how best to channel the new forms of teaching, learning, and assessment in an interactive world in order to ensure what we might call productive innovation. In particular, graduate deans are having to address the critical question of how this affects the role and responsibilities of the graduate school.
Graduate deans, directors, and faculty, committed to the principle that graduate programs must be organized and administered in a way that makes their success possible, are now addressing questions concerning quality control, completion and attrition, faculty training and credentialing, outcomes assessment, program review, and accreditation and student support. Added to this by no means exclusive list are questions and concerns about the appropriate balance between online and on campus students, how to maintain a “community of scholars,” and how best to deal with other facets of graduate learning and experience more commonly addressed in an exclusively on-campus environment.
Distance Education and the Workforce
While the growth of online education is taking place in a variety of settings, both alone and in combination with face-to-face instruction, the potential to reap broader public benefits through distance education is particularly promising. The Council of Graduate Schools’ 2010 report, The Path Forward: Graduate Education in the United States, provides an important context for considering the role for distance learning in terms of both access and skill development. For example, distance programming can address the needs of working adults who require flexible access to education in order to balance their concurrent career and family needs. Similarly, institutions seeking to increase international enrollments can make strategic use of distance education.
As important as providing access is the need to educate professionals through the very technologies they will need to use in their careers. Attuning graduate learning to varied post-graduate career paths must take account of the fact that the workplace is increasingly characterized by online information technology and distributed organizational structures. In addition, professional practitioners in fields of education, health, mental health, law, engineering, consulting, and more, will make use of information technology at a distance to conduct their business. Distance education provides direct experiential learning and skill development with virtual work that gives graduates a competitive edge in addressing the changing needs of employers in a global context. Many forms of employment will require skilled online interaction with a geographically distributed workforce to conduct the social and operational aspects of work. Graduate students’ facility with online work at a distance is likely to be considered an essential skill for many post-graduate professional pursuits.
Finally, distance education serves a professoriate of the future that may look quite different from that of the previous half century. We have seen large increases recently in the proportion of fixed-term or adjunct faculty, and many of these are expected to teach online courses. Indeed the relatively low cost of adjunct faculty has made them an attractive part of the online package. Many universities, however, have striven to avoid a separation of online teaching faculty from other faculty and require that full-time faculty be prepared to teach both on campus and online. Regardless of their official faculty status, the ability to teach students online and at a distance will likely become a valuable asset for those seeking faculty positions as well as for those already in the professorial ranks.
To read the full monograph, Online Graduate Education, click here: http://www.cgsnet.org/new-release-online-graduate-education