ASEE Prism Magazine Online - December 2001
Managing the Unmanageable
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- By Alvin P. Sanoff

In the late ‘90s, “distance learning” became a buzzword in higher education. If an institution was not involved in distance learning or had no plans for entering that market, it was considered behind the curve. The education press was filled with stories about universities starting for-profit spin-offs to provide courses on the Internet, often in partnership with venture capitalists and corporate newcomers. Many educators felt that higher education was entering a new era and that their institutions needed to get a piece of the Internet action.

What a difference a few years make. Today that unbridled optimism seems naïve. The education press is now filled with stories about for-profit distance learning ventures, some affiliated with major universities, that are struggling or have gone belly up. Venture capitalists, stung by the burst dot-com bubble, have turned off the financial spigot that kept some distance learning start-ups afloat. But the overall picture for distance learning is not as dark as it seems, just as it was never as rosy as it appeared a few years ago.

What has happened, say experts in distance education, is an inevitable shake-out, as many illconceived Internet-based undertakings find limited demand for their wares. At the same time, institutions that have taken a more measured approach and that have long experience in distance education survive and even flourish in what has become a difficult economic environment. The programs most likely to run into trouble, say experts, are for-profits started by entrepreneurs who thought they could make a financial killing by using the Internet to deliver courses to masses of people, only to discover that the market was smaller than they had anticipated. “People got too greedy and didn't look accurately at the signs,” says Richard Hezel, president of Hezel Associates, a Syracuse, N.Y., consulting firm that specializes in distance learning. “The business analyses were not done well or did not take into account the true market for a degree.”

Eugene Rubin, associate dean for distance education at the graduate school of the University of Maryland's University College, one of the more successful distance education programs with an enrollment of some 25,000 students, says that “a number of programs started based on a good business idea without any understanding of the infrastructure that needed to be put in place.” Programs that are struggling or that have failed, says Rubin, “are underfunded and don't really understand the technology and the management of the technology.”

Experts in distance education say that running a successful program, especially one that is distributed via the Internet, requires knowing how to design courses and having the staff to provide technical support. It also means that professors or teaching assistants have to be available to answer student questions promptly. Studies show that students care less about the fancy design of a course than about having access to faculty who challenge them. All of this means that “an online student takes twice as much time to support as students receiving courses on videotapes or by satellite,” says Linda Krute, associate director of the office of continuing engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Krute says that it costs $25,000 to develop a course for the Internet, and that's without doing anything fancy, essentially delivering streaming video of on-campus lectures that students can call up when convenient. The lectures are supplemented by notes that are put on the Net for students to download. Students who don't have adequate bandwidth on their computers to make video delivery practical can purchase a CD-ROM of lectures. The amount spent by Krute is in marked contrast to what some for-profit start-ups have reportedly spent—as much as $700,000—to develop a Web-delivered course. While such courses have a lot more bells and whistles than plain vanilla offerings such as those at Illinois, they also require a much larger enrollment in order to turn a profit. And the higher the cost of developing a course, the less incentive there is to regularly update it.

By contrast, Illinois and a number of other universities are able to update Web-based courses whenever necessary because they use relatively inexpensive streaming video. “We refresh the course every time it is taught so that the most topical information is presented,” says Andy DiPaolo, senior associate dean at Stanford University's School of Engineering, who oversees the school's distance learning program. “We always want to have the most recent research pushed forward. We don't want to invest a lot of money into a course with a short shelf life.”


Staying Afloat

By settling for a relatively low-cost means of delivering courses, engineering education has, for the most part, avoided the serious economic problems that have beset a number of Internet ventures. While enrollment in distance programs for engineers—most programs are at the graduate level—has leveled off or even contracted, institutions generally have not experienced a dramatic downturn in numbers. The contraction that has occurred, say engineering educators, is due primarily to corporate downsizing. Corporate cutbacks have left a substantial number of potential students without jobs; others simply no longer have time to take distance education courses or enroll in degree programs because of on-the-job pressures. Some students “were told that they had two weeks to find a new position within their companies or they were out of a job, and others were laid off,” says Andre Vacroux, president of National Technological University, an e-learning institution. As a result, he says, total enrollment in the fall semester fell from about 1,400 to approximately 1,300 students.

At Stanford, enrollment has flattened out at about 1,000 students. “The place we have seen a drop is where people are taking classes for professional upgrading,” says DiPaolo. Enrollment in master's degree programs, by contrast, has remained steady. Another factor depressing enrollment in many engineering programs: A number of companies have become less generous in reimbursing employees enrolled in courses that are related to their jobs.

While most engineering programs are staying above water, there are some exceptions. Stratys Learning Solutions, a for-profit spin-off partially owned by National Technological University, has encountered financial problems and its future is unclear. Stratys concentrates on providing short courses to professionals. At UCLA, Frank Burris, director of the department of engineering, information systems, and technical management, says that “the bottom's been falling out of the market,” especially in information technology. As a result, the department plans to cut back from 25 online courses to six or seven.

Some engineering educators have reorganized their operations to maintain enrollment in today's changing market. Mary McCulloch, acting director of the video instructional program at the University of Massachusetts's main campus in Amherst, explains that as corporations have reassigned or laid off “site coordinators”—individuals hired by businesses to act as liaisons between distance learning programs and a firm's employees—the university has had to pick up the slack and deal with questions and problems students used to take to the site coordinator. “The school has had to develop a stronger relationship with the individual student,” says McCulloch. A member of McCulloch's staff who used to work closely with corporations has shifted focus and now spends a lot of time providing individual students with the information and attention they require. And now that site coordinators are no longer in place, McCulloch has to spend more time on the road fostering relationships with corporations.

Whatever the uncertainties of the economic climate, as they look ahead, there is one thing of which engineering educators are certain: More distance education will be delivered on the Web. Stanford, for example, delivered only 31 percent of courses online last year. This year that number has jumped to 65 percent. “We have seen a major shift of the student base wanting access online,” says DiPaolo. Andre Vacroux of National Technological University says that increasing broadband capacity will make Web delivery more attractive. “If we look five years from now, there will be more broadband available to homes, and some of the drawbacks of the Web such as lack of good image will disappear,” he says. “You will be able to get full motion video at home like you get from satellite.”

But the future of distance learning may not be entirely Web based. DiPaolo foresees the growth of “blended programs” that combine occasional face-to-face meetings on campus with a Web based curriculum. Consultant Richard Hezel expects the unexpected. He anticipates “a shift in technology,” though he is not sure what form that shift will take. In the meantime, says Hezel, there will be a continued culling of programs: “A lot of ill-conceived programs will drop out.” Engineering educators are hopeful that their programs will not be among the casualties.


Alvin P. Sanoff is a writer and higher-education consultant based in suburban Washington, D.C. He can be reached at