Friday, March 25, 2011

What for-profit online higher ed fears most.

Do you know what the online, for-profit higher education folks fear most? Not regulatory changes. New regs, even malicious regs, cannot drive them out of business. Shareholders generally do not accept excuses and cries of "unfair!" when their investment is at stake, so business pressures will 1) drive quality improvement to meet any new standards, and/or 2) drive them out of money-losing markets and programs, into others that are more lucrative. Eventually, Gainful Employment will blow over, the political winds will shift, and there may even be a backlash. This won't keep the online for-profits down long.

So what do they really fear? Not competition from one another. They're used to it. They are compared constantly to one another by Wall Street analysts. They don't fear the irregularities of the stock market, although they respect it highly. They know the game they are playing and they play it well, generally. They don't fear changes in technology. Higher ed is not expected to be on the bleeding edge, and you can see these technical waves coming years in advance and plan to invest in them. They don't fear globalization in any form; they welcome it. They need to learn a bit more about international standards and customs, but otherwise they are poised to reproduce the same profits they've had in the US in other parts of the world.

They really fear only one thing, the one thing that could bring their world to a crashing halt for good and all. They fear that the traditional schools, the state schools, the non-profits, will embrace sound business principles regarding product and service. Not marketing--the non-profits have name brands that sell themselves. You don't have to create brand awareness for the University of Texas or Ohio State like you do for Walden or DeVry. No, all the traditionals need to do is to embrace quality product and world-class service. All they need to do is have a very good online experience for their students, from enrollment through completion. They need courses that make sense with one another, that work on their own and in context, that are intriguing, that are all equally demanding, equally excellent. If and when that happens, it will spell the end of the for-profits' dominance in online higher ed. They may in fact shrivel up and melt away.

"Ha!" you say, "If that's what they fear, they should have no fear at all!" Well, that might have been an easy enough answer five years ago, but times change. I suspect that the current brouhaha over regulatory squeezes is actually the last gasp of an old order trying to use its sheer power to crush a new order, one that has in fact grown too big to crush. That type of last-ditch, desperate action tends to backfire (see: Libya, Egypt, et al). There are voices, stronger voices every day, within and among faculty at the non-profits, telling whoever will listen that their online product is not up to the standards of a world-class organization, and it should be.

And those voices will continue to be heard, because they are the younger voices, those who grew up online, or at least raised their children online, and who know that their own online product pretty much (excuse the non-academic vocabulary) sucks. You can't have every faculty member putting his or her own course online in any way he or she wants and expect the result to be anything but a mess. "Academic freedom!" faculty cry, as they poison their own wells. At some point, faculty know they are starting to sound like the teenager who refuses to mow the lawn on the basis of his ecological principles, while filling a Sasquatch-sized carbon footprint with 20-ounce empties. Demand total control of your online course if you must, but just know that doing so leaves you no grounds to complain about an amateur-looking website, or a confusing textbook, or even a cheaply made suit, ever again.

Because here's the thing. The best of the for-profits have already figured it out. The Waldens and the Capellas know how to preserve academic freedom while building an excellent product and offering a great service. They know it can be done; they're doing it. They've been doing it for a long while now.

It just takes a little bit of concern for the student's experience. It takes a little bit of unselfishness, just enough to admit that maybe I, as an individual faculty member, don't know absolutely everything about the content I'm teaching, the technology that elearning requires, the media that can make it more powerful, the student experience that can be exciting and immersive, or the wide array of online learning models now available. It takes just enough unselfishness to say, hey, my students could actually benefit from a course built with the engagement of other qualified faculty, the inclusion of world-class experts in my field who don't happen to work at my university, the work of media developers who know how to make a video or an animation that truly rocks, the contribution of instructional designers who have creative ideas for assignments and group engagements, and an investment of tens of thousands of dollars (or more).

What the for-profits know is that when presented with this sort of logic, from people who know how it's done and have done it, faculty respond positively. They tend to have an "aha!" moment when they realize that they can in fact lead the academic charge and protect academic integrity without the side effect being that students suffer only and always with whatever limited product an individual faculty member can dream up late at night on a laptop using Blackboard. Even with a support staff, that model cannot compete with a model that puts the right team of professionals on an equal footing with the right faculty. (Not an equal academic footing--but an equal product development footing. The difference is critical.)

Why don't universities invest in online programs the way they need to, in order to compete? Possible reasons: 1. They don't understand how to build a business plan that will in fact return their dollars two, three, or ten times over. 2) They don't have dollars allocated for that kind of investment anyway. 3) Faculty who stand for academic freedom will never stand for the collaboration required to build professional-quality product. 4) They already tried something like that here, and it failed. 5) They represent an academic institution with scholarly goals, and do not like to lower themselves to "productizing" intellectual pursuits.

The online for-profits look at that list of reasons and smile nervously. They smile because it represents the levee that is holding back the flood that would otherwise engulf them. They smile nervously because they know there is nothing on that list that is of any substance, at all. For business people, those are tissue-paper-thin excuses, the last refuge of the lazy and the incompetent... and they know that universities are full of people who are neither lazy nor incompetent. They also know there are professionals out there who know how to do all those things, and have done them all (and sometimes blog about them), and any university who wants to can make it work.

The online for-profits know that the levee holding back the flood is in fact an earthen dam made of old tires, marsh grass, and mud. They know the rain is still falling. The thunder is growing louder. The lightning is flashing out its warning. And the water is still rising.

The dam still holds. But for how long?