Quality in online higher education: a Moral Tale

By | November 28, 2014

I’m a big fan of Moral Tales. These are relatively short stories – sometimes real, sometimes made up, or at least embellished – that make a significant point about some issue or problem. Their aim is to open eyes, induce thought and reflection, and generally to suggest new ways of looking at situations. I’ve used them in my teaching ever since I started.  One pretty great teacher you may recall called them “parables”, and since they worked pretty well for him, I figured they ought to be good enough for me.

Here’s a short Moral Tale about higher education. This one is true. I’ve related parts of it in earlier posts, but here’s the whole narrative, at least those parts of it not covered by a non-disclosure agreement. I believe that it may shed some light on current experiences and possibilities as the online sector of education continues its more or less inexorable advance. This was stimulated by an ongoing LinkedIn discussion, and part of this is drawn from posts that I made there. But here’s the whole story.

Back in 2001, I joined a small group under the leadership of Dr. Yoram Neumann in setting up one of the first of all-online universities, Touro University International. The product of Yoram’s largely unique (at the time) vision, we began as a nonprofit branch of Touro College in New York. With start-up funding of less than $1 million and access to the TC online library, we were to create an online learning environment that would to the highest degree possible achieve the same sort of learning outcomes for our students at all levels that might be achieved at a good state or private mid-level university.. We understood that there was no way we could replicate the experience achieved at a top level private liberal arts college or tier 1 research university; virtual ivy simply isn’t the same as the real thing. But quality education was primary.

After some experimentation, we were able to create a good working model for many highly effective across selected curricula. We knew that we couldn’t offer too many programs, since our resources were limited. While only a few of these courses – those at the PhD level – featured actual face-to-face contact with faculty through audio conferencing, extensive interaction with the professors was built in at all levels through many written assignments that received extensive comments and guidance – far more interaction than would be generally received in a standard face-to-face lecture course where the assessment involved only a couple of multiple-choice exams. At least that was the plan.

Over the next few years, we succeeded in large measure. It turned out that our primary source of students lay with the active-duty military, in large part because we had cultivated good word-of-mouth advertising within the highly networked collection of senior non-commissioned officers. Through them, the good experiences of a few initial students became translated into good experiences for a whole lot of others. Despite the setbacks brought about by the events of 9/11, we were able to retain our students and grow, for a while at least exponentially, leveling off at around 9000 students.

Within the program, we were able to structure quality educational experiences for a selected number of doctoral students that involved rather extensive interaction through audio and video as well as a well-designed research training curriculum. All assessments were made through written papers, not exams (except for the oral exam given to PhD students prior to entering the dissertation phase). The program was kept small and selective in order to assure adequate resource availability.

I myself saw some six or eight PhD students all the way through the dissertation without ever encountering them face-to-face. I’d had extensive experience supervising dissertations at other universities before TUI, and I can assure you that the quality of the research done by my online students in those days was easily comparable to that of my face-to-face students in earlier years. Several of these students went on to find academic appointments, and have become faculty members and colleagues at various institutions. Others continued on in their previous positions but with enhanced status and skills. In short, we found that there was no reason why online students should not be able to have much the same academic experience as those in face-to-face universities, provided enough time and energy are devoted to the process by the faculty. (Two problems are noted below).

One key to making these relationships with students work was the vivid mental picture that I formed around each student. It didn’t matter that these pictures bore no resemblance at all to the student’s actual appearance – the point was that I could summon up these pictures whenever I was talking with a student or working on his/her papers, so that there was a strong personal connection there. Occasionally, I would meet a student later at graduation and learn what they actually looked like. Interestingly, however, the original mental image grounded in our work together is what I have retained for these students, rather than their fleetingly imprinted actual visages.

Of course, it took a specific kind of student to undertake this kind of a program – one with significant self-direction and the ability to operate in a somewhat ambiguous academic environment, as well as the motivation to continue and the initiative to seek out help and resources when needed. It’s not always possible to identify these students in advance, so there is more attrition in these programs than might be desirable. But we were able to demonstrate the feasibility of online programs providing a quality academic experience at all levels. This was certainly recognized by our accrediting institution, WASC, on several occasions.

One important aspect of the FTF PhD experience that we were seldom able to replicate effectively was the opportunity to learn research skills by in effect apprenticing to senior faculty in the course of their ongoing research. That’s how I had learned what research was really like, first back at the University of Michigan in my student days and later at the RAND Corporation in collaboration with Tora Bikson and several other great colleagues.. Unfortunately, faculty resources were stretched too thinly to allow much time for research, and our new and unusual status made it almost impossible for us to be really competitive in the search for research support funds. Without faculty research projects to work on, students didn’t have access to this informal way of honing their skills, and thus more effort had to be put into working with them on the methodological issues in their dissertations. This problem would have been fixable, of course, had the school been willing to invest some more resources in faculty research, but that never happened.

Also largely missing was the collegial interaction with fellow students outside the class. Again, this could have been alleviated through the development of a solid online community, but again, this would have taken resources that were never made available. When we began the university, the technology to support such communities was just beginning to be developed. Certainly now the tools are mature enough to provide a lot of this experience, where they have been deployed. I wish that we’d been able to follow through on our original plans.

Unfortunately, we became a victim of our own success. In 2007, we attracted the attention of a group of venture capitalists, who bought our institution wholesale from Touro College for a rather large sum of money. After we became a for-profit institution, things changed rather dramatically. Academic programs were deemphasized in favor of new marketing strategies that were not particularly well-designed, despite being the products of “trained professionals”. And some extremely bad administrative choices led to academic probation, and the university has never managed to achieve the potential that it might have reached. But later events certainly never invalidated the original premise and vision – merely compromised its implementation.

The purpose of this short Moral Tale isn’t to trumpet the achievements of our founding faculty (although in fact our success was built on a lot of long hours and hard work, as well as skill and vision), or to criticize the university’s current owners, or even to disparage the for-profit education model in general. Rather, it’s to suggest that a successful all-online university is possible, and that academic outcomes can, if not exactly easily, then at least with the appropriate investment of time, money, and skill be comparable to those achieved by other kinds of middle-tier institutions. By making this level of academic participation possible to previously underserved and underservable populations, we can use the technology to expand educational opportunities. There is of course also the possibility for significant academic mischief to be done in this environment, and a lot of it is taking place. But there’s nothing inherent in the online environment that would make quality education there impossible.

Here endeth the Moral Tale. I’ve drawn my moral above; feel free to draw your own.

  • Frank Bucaria

    I fervently agree with JD’s disquisition as I was one of those students in JD’s doctoral methods courses and had him in other classes as well. I believe that the environment was very supportive back then and the close knit faculty provided me with every opportunity to advance to the next stages of the PhD program with at least as extensive quality interaction as I had in my undergraduate and MBA curriculum on ground and more. I knew that I had to work diligently to obtain this degree and listened intently to my first professor’s words of wisdom. The feedback on my first few submissions was superb and it reduced my anxiety about how to apply conceptual models and critical thinking. When the course was over, JD explicitly said to me that he was going to monitor my progression as he thought that I at least had the potential to succeed in a rigorous program. That lift for me was so huge because I never actually thought that I had the potential to finish a PhD. I was a recent graduate of an MBA and said to myself, let me just give it a try and go all the way. The standards were tough but I had the support of a great faculty right through the dissertation stages of the curriculum. I was happy to know that TUI was a branch of Touro College, NY and was fully accredited.

    Never did I once think that the college would be bought and subsequently managed the way it is currently managed. As an outsider (well part insider since I did teach some courses for TUI) I did see the deterioration of the original vision and was rather angry about the marketing strategies that enveloped the new owners as profit became the central focus of the strategy at the forfeit of the earlier more sustainable and caring vision (one in which I believe would have achieved great success for students and the college). Although the great faculty that once was at TUI are mostly gone, I know of some that are still lingering. Sad to see that a marketing strategy of retaining students at all costs was the linchpin that contributed to the demise of that great vision that once was. Profit is good but not at the cost of truly helping students master what they want to know with engaging and truly bright faculty that I knew. –Frank B.

    • DrEvel1

      Thanks for the endorsement, Frank, although in your case, as usual with most fine students, I was mostly just along for the ride. You bred the horses, bought the wagon, hitched them to it, got the job, and delivered the mail; I mostly watched the view and and occasionally got to ride shotgun. I very much enjoy agreeing with students who’ve worked with me. I’m just sorry that it has to be this that we’re agreeing on. I suspect that we’d also agree that it didn’t have to happen. There’s nothing inevitable about bad organizational decision making, above a certain probably irreducible minimum.