Online learning puts revenue first

Promotion of online learning for revenue generation may threaten academic quality and the distinctiveness of a Queen’s degree

Increasing class sizes have led the University to move course content online in recent years.
Increasing class sizes have led the University to move course content online in recent years.

I recently submitted two questions for Provost Alan Harrison for the March 27 meeting of Senate. One is: why do we already have a financial exploration, or “business case,” for expanding online learning, and not a word on the subject in our new Academic Plan? The other is: why won’t you let us see it?

I know the business case exists because our 2011-12 Budget Report boasts about it: “As part of its planning exercises (in the face of the need to balance the budget), Queen’s has been exploring various revenue-generating ideas,” including, the report says, “the feasibility of offering Queen’s degrees and certificates through distance on-line learning.”

The business case for online learning is also mentioned in a February 2011 memo from Continuing and Distance Studies (CDS) to Queen’s departments. The memo states, “The Business Case will include an examination of what programs we can offer online, whether there is a market, what it will cost, and whether it will be profitable in terms of additional tuition revenue.”

This is really a question about whether Queen’s future is to be determined by business considerations or by academic planning. In launching our recent planning exercises, Principal Daniel Woolf promised that academic considerations would set the priorities for financial decisions.

“The academic planning process that we will be embarking on in the new year will help us prioritize what we do and how we do it,” Woolf said in a November 2009 financial update.

“I think it’s very important that our academic values drive our financial decisions, including capital planning, budgets and human resources strategies,” he added.

But the elusive business case seems to reverse this priority by putting the financial ahead of the academic. It’s curious that the Academic Plan recently approved by Senate says nothing about the promotion of blended and online learning or about the financial decisions the University has already been making around them.

The omission cannot be explained by saying that online developments are either academically or financially insignificant. They may well be the most significant game-changer in sight for modern universities.

A new proposal being considered by Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities suggests that three out of five post-secondary credits be earned online.

And earlier, in the Throne Speech of March 2010 (when our academic planning process was beginning), the province proposed to create an “Ontario Online Institute” (OOI) for post-secondary education. A special advisor to the Ministry unveiled a plan for the OOI in April 2011, recommending that it be a “hub” connecting online resources at all Ontario post-secondary institutions.

That plan fits well with recommendations published by the Higher Educational Quality Council of Ontario in October 2010 under the title “The Benefits of Greater Differentiation of Ontario’s University Sector.”

Put simply, these proposals would facilitate the cutting of particular campus departments or programs deemed to be redundant or financially unattractive, for they would enable students registered at one Ontario university to earn their credits online from any other Ontario university. (Improving the transfer-credit system is an important part of both proposals.)

Such changes would, of course, significantly increase the proportion of credits that university students complete online. They could also threaten the distinctiveness of a Queen’s degree.

These provincial proposals and developments are not unknown on campus. But Queen’s hasn’t been disposed to engage them critically from the perspective of academic quality. As Principal Woolf explained to the Board of Trustees this month, “it is important to bear in mind how the University’s decisions may fit with government priorities in order to maximize leverage and support.”

That describes well what Queen’s has in fact been doing in its recent development of online courses and programs. Since February 2011, faculty members have received repeated invitations from CDS with titles like “New Initiatives in Online Learning.” We’re told that CDS is developing entire online programs for degrees and certificates, and we’re offered financial “incentives” and “stipends” for assistance in development.

It is sometimes said that these online programs are designed only to attract distance students. But if “about 85 per cent of [CDS] enrolments are current on-campus Queen’s students” — as stated in the February 2011 CDS memo — that’s not the probable uptake. Queen’s has no provision to limit the number of online credits on-campus students can apply to their degrees.

Are online credits really the equivalents of those earned in the classroom? One difference is that while ordinary courses require approval by Faculty curriculum committees, their online versions do not require separate approval, since online-ness is regarded as being a difference only in the delivery vehicle. Yet an online course may in fact have little in common with the on-campus version beyond its title, its number and its credit value.

The omission of online learning from our Academic Plan is not an oversight but a matter of exclusion. “Virtualization” was a bone of contention in the early stages of the planning process. When the Faculty of Arts and Science responded to the Principal’s Where Next? academic planning document, its first draft proposed “absorb[ing] increased undergraduate enrolments” by “virtualizing the classroom at the first- and second-year levels.”

Such recommendations inspired outrage in Faculty Board and elsewhere. Over 1,000 students and employees petitioned the Board of Trustees in May 2010. The student petition explicitly rejected planning proposals for “larger class sizes, virtualized teaching, and less contact with professors during the first and second years of undergraduate degrees.”

Moreover, as a member of the Senate Academic Planning Task Force (APTF), I personally submitted, before departing for sabbatical in July 2011, a detailed draft section for the Academic Plan concerning online learning at Queen’s. It was excluded from the plan as assembled by the APTF in September for reasons never stated.

The excluded draft section does not support, and in fact argues against, developing blended and online learning as a so-called “revenue-generating idea.” Indeed, it presents in greater detail much of the case made here.

At its February meeting, Queen’s Senate passed a motion to strike a new Academic Planning Task Force to draft something on “virtualization and online learning.” Its membership will come before Senate in May.

This planning is important work, and it’s to be hoped that the Task Force is well staffed. But it will not report till May 2013, and our business case is already in place. Our development is already in motion.

Unfortunately, this new Task Force may be too little too late as decisions are being made today that will affect the academic future of the University.

Mark Jones is a professor in the Queen's department of English.

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