How online learning may lead to greater access and affordability

Campus leaders need a willingness to make a substantial in the online program and give its directors autonomy
By: | June 15, 2020
Well-developed online learning programs at colleges and universities can now offer instruction that is equal to—or in some cases better than—face-to-face courses, one researcher says. (GettyImages.com/urbazon)Well-developed online learning programs at colleges and universities can now offer instruction that is equal to—or in some cases better than—face-to-face courses, one researcher says. (GettyImages.com/urbazon)
Richard Price, Clayton Christensen Institute

Richard Price, Clayton Christensen Institute

The coronavirus campus closures and the wholesale shift to online learning have taken higher education to a turning point that could result in greater access and lower tuition.

Online learning will be transformative when college and universities—if they haven’t already—make substantial investments in creating a robust online education program, says Richard Price, a higher education research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, which studies disruptive innovations.

And that investment will be essential as more students, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, demand alternatives to the “high fixed cost, high-tuition” model of higher education, Price says.

“Even though we’ll eventually see a full-scale return to the on-campus experience, colleges and universities no longer have the option to dabble in online, ” Price says. “Colleges and universities will start to notice the investment is pretty worthwhile in expanding revenue and lowering costs.”


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Well-developed online education programs can now offer instruction that is equal to—or in some cases better than—face-to-face courses. To start, campus administrators hoping to create a robust online initiative should be prepared for substantial up-front costs.

Leaders also should give the program’s directors a high level of autonomy in designing the initiative, which should prevent the online model from simply becoming a virtual duplicate of the in-person program, Price says.

“Disruption theory suggests creating a buffer from the main institutional model,” Price says. “This gives innovative models space to breathe and keeps the main model from suffocating or smothering it.”

Increasing access and affordability in online learning

The traditional campus model continues to inhibit access because it’s too costly for some and, for others—such as working parents—it doesn’t offer enough flexibility of schedule, Price says.

The model has also been unable to achieve equity, Price adds.

“If I were a hiring manager filtering out anyone who didn’t have a bachelor’s degree, I’d be filtering out 68% of the black community and 79% of the Latinx community,” Price says. “Clearly, we’re not seeing proportionate outcomes at the university level.”


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Despite the cost to produce, Price encourages administrators to resist the temptation to charge the same tuition for online courses as they do for in-person instruction.

For example, the University of Flordia’s tuition for online is about 60% of the in-person cost while tuition at the fully-online Western Governor’s University remains around $7,000 a year, Price says.

Online learning must also offer students more than streaming or recorded video of a lecture. More mature programs employ instructional designers that can give an online course a “film studio” effect, Price says.

Administrators and faculty must leverage online learning’s advantages over in-person instruction. Usage data, for instance, can show an instructor—even in a large lecture course of several hundred—which students are actively participating.

However, designers of online learning should also figure out how to incorporate the best components of face-to-face learning, such as student study groups and one-on-one tutoring sessions.

“It’s a matter of optimizing for online strengths instead of replicating, point by point, what instructors are doing in person,” Price says.


UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.


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