By Alvin P. Sanoff
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 spentas much as $700,000to
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.
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.
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 engineersmost programs are at the graduate levelhas
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.
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.
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.
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 coordinatorsindividuals hired by
businesses to act as liaisons between distance learning programs and
a firm's employeesthe 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
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.
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.
P. Sanoff is a writer and higher-education consultant based in suburban
Washington, D.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.