Staff editorial:It’s time GW finds its footing in online learning

There’s a change in tide for higher education. The way students learn isn’t always in conventional, face-to-face classrooms anymore: More students are taking classes online, especially graduate students.

Online learning will probably expand more at GW in a few short years. This fall, GW will reach 99.8 percent of its enrollment capacity. Because this capacity – 16,553 full-time students on campus – was determined as a part of the University’s 20-year agreement with D.C., the school can’t just build another residence hall. To continue enrolling more students and making more money from tuition, the University will need to move more of its programs online.

Media Credit: Cartoon by Lauren Roll

But GW is still finding its stride in online education. Recently, a group of graduate students sued the University over the quality of one of its graduate program in the College of Professional Studies. And GW no longer has a chief director of its online program. Instead, the University consolidated online education and teaching and learning offices into one, and assigned the academics technology to take over GW’s eDesign shop.

While it’s good that officials have begun to think about what online learning will be like in the future, GW needs to make sure these changes are consistent with providing high quality education. Online learning is going to take over higher education no matter what, so it’s best for officials to invest in its future now and design standardized, centralized programs before the University misses its chance to be a frontrunner in online learning.

GW is already internship-focused allowing students to easily both work and take classes, and GW’s schools market their graduate programs to students who work full time. Officials should take the time to strengthen the University’s online programs because online learning is profitable in a model they already follow.

Maralee Csellar, a University spokeswoman, said GW’s online degree and certificate programs are projected to gross almost $70 million in revenue by the end of the 2016 fiscal year: That’s enough money to cover room and board costs for the entire enrolled Class of 2020.

Paul Schiff Berman, former vice provost for online learning and academic innovation, helped the University grow its online programs massively: He oversaw the creation of GW’s eDesign shop, and off-campus enrollment increased by a net of 1,000 students in five years. It’s important that GW doesn’t lose momentum because of shifts in leadership.

Even though online education has taken off over the past few years, online programs are still in their infancy – no one really knows what they’ll look like in 20 years, or even if students learn as effectively as they do in person. But there are ways for GW to get ahead of other universities in online education by setting high standards for online courses.

Amy Eisman, the director of media entrepreneurship and special programs at American University, said that while professors and officials at universities are still working out the kinks in different formats for online learning – like MOOCs and flipped classrooms – they also need to weigh the different needs of students, educators and administrators when switching to online class formats.

“The programs that survive will have deep learning and deep value for students seeking contemporary ways to access education,” Eisman said in an email.

An online graduate degree, or even just one online course, must have comparable quality to the classroom learning experience. Officials should want any course that has a GW stamp on it to be challenging and well-planned. From a simple marketing perspective, the more organized courses look, the more students will register for them.

Right now there is no standardization across programs. Some professors create their programs using GW’s eDesign shop, while other programs are outsourced to business vendors like 2U. Schools like the University of California, Berkeley and the University of North Carolina only use 2U to create their online programs.

However, improving online learning at GW will mean more than just focusing on immediate needs. The University will also need to make a financial commitment to online education.

Investing in online education means taking a financial hit to devote resources to developing programs. But for at least the immediate future, it makes more sense to take the hit and outsource designing programs so that each program can equitably teach students. Students in different programs should have the same digital abilities to connect with professors and to access class material. Because programs are now being created by different technology centers, there’s no way of knowing if some students are being taught by powerpoint slides or by Skype sessions.

And with no clear mission for what online courses will become at GW and a lack of visible stability under one leader, we can’t feel confident in the programs we offer. Geneva Henry, the dean of libraries and academic innovation, was appointed to centralize the programs. However, online learning isn’t the only thing she handles. She also oversees library services and collections.

Henry said that officials are building “administrative infrastructure” to make online classes successful and compliant with legal and policy requirements.

“We are working closely with the schools to help them prioritize their most immediate needs while also learning from partners across campus about how we can continue to improve and expand online education at GW,” Henry wrote in an email.

Charles Garris, executive chair of the Faculty Senate, said the faculty needs to be involved in creating online programs. Professors will be better able to create and teach high quality programs once they know how they are instituted across schools and if they have guidelines on what online courses should include.

“One thing that people are concerned about is that because these programs are good revenue drivers, we want to make sure that the quest for additional revenue streams doesn’t overwhelm the rigor of our education,” Garris said.

Rather than try to reinvent the online learning wheel with a decentralized structure, GW should focus on a structure that has proven results. It makes more sense for GW to focus on course design and implementation, rather than to scramble creating more administrative positions.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Sarah Blugis and contributing opinions editor Melissa Holzberg, based on discussions with sports editor Nora Princiotti, design editor Samantha LaFrance, copy editor Brandon Lee, assistant sports editor Mark Eisenhauer, managing director Eva Palmer, culture editor Grace Gannon and research assistant Tyler Loveless.

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