Observations from a Distance Learning Pioneer

Source: James V. Koch, based on data from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator website using Fall 2018 data.

by James A. Bacon

Last week I published a table showing the level of online enrollment at Virginia’s leading higher-ed purveyors of distance education. The table exaggerated the extent to which distance learning occurs by failing to distinguish between students enrolled in distance learning-only programs and students who took an occasional distance learning class. James V. Koch, an economist and former president of Old Dominion University, has provided the more detailed table above.

According to the list I published last week,  90% of the students at George Mason University had enrolled in distance learning classes. From Koch’s data, however, we can see that only three percent of undergraduate students are enrolled full time. Another 35% of undergrads had experienced “some” distance education. (In the experience of my son, who has attended both GMU and Virginia Commonwealth University, “some” distance learning can mean one course per year.)

In other words, while distance learning may be infiltrating Virginia’s public universities, it is far less common than I portrayed last week. The real leaders in distance learning among public institutions are the University of Virginia-Wise (36% full-time enrollment) and Old Dominion University (19% full-time enrollment).

The point is more than academic to Koch, during his presidency Old Dominion University launched its TELETECHNET distance learning program in the early 1990s — much to the consternation of academic traditionalists such as the University of Virginia’s then-President John Casteen. When Koch left the presidency in 2001, TELETECHNET  was ranked top ten nationally in distance learning. Unimpressed by the distinction, his successor (not the current president John Broderick) downgraded the initiative. As Koch observes, “Retrospectively, this was a monumental strategic mistake.”

Koch has written extensively about the economics of higher education, most recently, “The Impoverishment of the American College Student,” research from which I covered extensively on this blog. He has co-authored another book, soon to be published, “Runaway College Costs: How College Governing Boards Fail to Protect Their Students.”

Speaking of distance learning as a response to the COVID-19 epidemic, he writes:

How all this will play out this fall is of course not clear. Will students opt to take and be willing to pay for distance learning courses when they can’t access the usual residential benefits? Will they take distance learning courses from their own institution even if it has little experience providing such courses? Will institutions such as Liberty and Southern New Hampshire grow market share? Will price-cutting tactics take hold? I have my own views on these issues but the test of the pudding is in the eating and we’ll have to wait and see.

Koch serves with former University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas on the board of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust. Dragas was involved in a furor several years ago when she and several other members of the UVa Board of Visitors, citing UVa’s unwillingness to push more aggressively into online learning, forced President Teresa Sullivan to resign. Riding a counter-revolution of faculty and administrators, Sullivan was reinstated, and Dragas widely vilified.

Opining on the future of distance learning, Koch writes, “All this makes Helen Dragas look prescient. UVA continues to ignore distance learning. I suspect the strength of its brand and its endowment will enable it to survive rather nicely but it is not likely to be the source of many solutions for Virginians in the learning arena this fall. All in all, this is a rather odd position for a flagship public university.”

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41 responses to “Observations from a Distance Learning Pioneer”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    This is NOT a partisan post! Thank You!

    better, more clear info presented and on a topic – one of many important ones – where one could say the pandemic accelerated a trend that was already underway but perhaps not uniformly across all higher ed.

    But I did have a question.

    All this whoop-de-do over government “restrictions” – is there none for Higher Ed and it’s totally up to them to decide how to proceed?

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      If there is a true stay in place order or a restriction on more than 10 people in a room come August, I don’t see how the colleges and universities can be exempt. Some big decisions need to be made, even more crucial for the lower grades. Distance learning is an academic fraud at that level, of zero value.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        I’d argue 25% value but more trouble than it is worth nonetheless.

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        The Universities and Colleges seem to be proceeding as if they are not the subject of the restrictions.

        Seems like if they were that they would be saying so – that their planning is contingent on whatever the restrictions might be.

        For instance, they would all be showing a 10-person limit operational plan, etc… how dorms would operate (or not), sports programs, labs, etc.

        But there is no uniform approach. The planning seems to be unique to each institution.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      “This is NOT a partisan post! Thank You!”, says the King of Highly Partisan Commentary.

  2. Will Christopher Newport Univ with zero distance learning be dragged kicking and screaming to distance learning and then find that it cannot full its dorms, or should it just close its doors now?

    Koch has been so smart in mapping the risky path of Virginia’s public higher education for so long, and he’s about to have a big “I told you so” chapter.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Would like to point out also that California State – which has converted to all distance-learning – last year – the tuition there was under $7000.

    How many kids in Virginia could afford to go to College without going 30K into debt if tuition was $7000 – distance learning or not?

  4. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

    LarrytheG: Actually, the faculty who teach courses are often the ones who decide how they will offer classes. Sometimes that boils down to a single person making a decision without even peer input. The system is set up so that teaching outlines are approved and it’s up to the instructor to design a delivery that works. Most of us are constantly looking to learn new strategies to keep things interesting and to engage students. Most of us use a variety of strategies. Increasingly, we have to produce evidence that students have learned the content via approved measures. Just like classrooms at other levels, how content is taught is usually up to the instructor.

    Online does not necessarily translate into cheaper, especially if it is necessary for the instructor to view student performance, give feedback, and continue the process. I am spending far more time teaching online than I’ve ever spent teaching face-to-face. It can be set up to require little faculty involvement but that’s pretty boring for students. They don’t tend to like just lectures and multiple guess tests. Variety takes thought and time from the instructor.

    At Va Tech we are now 100% online. Faculty are advised to plan fall for all possibilities – to be prepared to teach online only, face-to-face, both or a hybrid. Again, I remind you that all things are not readily taught online and that learners have different needs and learning styles, as well. Doing everything online is never going to be successful until our broadband system improves substantially! My students had transmission interrupted, frozen, etc. often when we met online.

    Flogging universities for what and how we do things may be fun for some and politically delightful for others, but those of us working hard to do our best get tired of the constant put-downs. Most issues are not as simplistic as those on the outside want to make them.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Thanks vaconsumeradvocate… as usual.. for your direct knowledge and perspective!

      So curious… when you have a class and perhaps decide to do distance learning, how would the physical classroom work – under normal non-COVID19 worlds?

      In preparation for a course – do you have to make arrangements for where it would be taught – on campus?

      And… you speak of ” evidence that students have learned the content via approved measures.”

      how does that work?

      I’ve heard that distance “testing” is problematic… i.e. who is really taking that test?

      What’s your knowledge?

      1. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

        Faculty work together to set times for class offerings. University usually handles assigning the space – and availability may influence days/times of offerings. In our case, that’s handled a year in advance which means sometimes things change and it can be hard to make adjustments, but it can be done.

        Approval of what to teach goes through faculty governance and takes a lot of work/time. The last course I put through took the better part of a year and a lot of changes by me as the folks at the various levels required them. This lays out the measurable learning objectives, content and even the texts. Texts are not required to adhere to the example approved, but faculty can’t just change learning objectives. When someone new comes in, they use that document to teach. It gets updated from time to time.

        Working with the unit on campus responsible for assessment, we make an outcome assessment plan as a department. We have to meet their standards. Whatever means of collecting the proof is written into the plan must be used and reported upon.

        Testing can be problematic if you assume it is necessary that someone watch test takers to ensure they do not cheat. It’s probably harder to catch someone cheating. However, depending upon the Honor Code, reminding students of its importance regularly, and building a campus-wide value/respect for honesty becomes important. There are no easy answers but I hope our students value honesty and act responsibly. If they don’t, it will ultimately damage them. I choose to put less time into proving they didn’t cheat and more into teaching. I think about what matters in the long run, did they memorize little data points to be able to answer multiple guess tests? did they know where to find the info when they needed it to quickly answer? What will they remember/need to remember/do as a result of taking this class?

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Thanks again… good info for those of us who don’t really know
          how higher ed actually “works”!

          I think there ARE testing protocols that utilize things like two-factor authentication and “challenge” questions that would be done in the middle of the test – perhaps fingerprint readers / facial recognition, etc..

          In terms of internet availability – some students may need to drive to a “center” which provides broadband and cubical… to do some work. Some lessons could be downloaded at the center to the device then the device taken home and used offline.

          or I should ask.. do you have an opinion about these ideas?

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            I’d not be surprised is most school systems in Virginia are about as flat-footed as Fairfax, just in different ways.

            None of them has explicitly planned to do distance learning. I don’t even think most private schools have so you’re going to find not top-notch programs… they were never favored especially when budgets got cut.

            Even now – more than a few parents are not happy – even though they actually do have a lot of online choices beyond what their schools offer. They want their kids back in a physical school as soon as possible.

            I’ve not heard hardly any parents extol their good fortune of not having to send their kids to public schools… just the opposite…in fact.. for all the hate and discontent we hear about public schools… it’s gone underground!

        2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          Thanks for your explanation. You have provided the reasons that on-line instruction is not something that can be set up on the fly.

          1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            On the other hand, Fairfax County Public Schools had at least 6 weeks to get its platform operating but found it hadn’t updated the software in three years.

            Governments should not try to fix the world when it cannot provide traditional and basic services.

    2. I stunned that, at university level, delivery decisions originate with the instructor. Wow.

      1. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

        It’s the model we use at all levels. It rarely works to tell a teacher what to teach and how. If you don’t trust teachers to know how to teach, why use them?

        1. VaConsumerAdvocate working at a university, and being in IT who sort of helps to plan this out, I feel your pain in more ways than you know …

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “Will Christopher Newport Univ with zero distance learning be dragged kicking and screaming to distance learning and then find that it cannot full its dorms, or should it just close its doors now?”

    Christopher Newport likely has very same problem as UVA and others. They depend too much on expensive student tuition to pay for luxuries having nothing to do with educating kids, and everything to do with supporting high flying lifestyles of those who run the institutions and funding the frivolities and bad, counter productive habits of its students.

    Hence we have a nation of dunces, all of them with college degrees, who now are at a sea, floundering about, ruining that nation.

    Thanks of raising this issue here. Stay tuned.

  6. djrippert Avatar

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now – the Commonwealth of Virginia should sell the University of Virginia to the University of Virginia. Let UVA take themselves private as they would say in the corporate world. It seems obvious that UVA doesn’t care a whit about educating Virginians. Instead they prefer to pursue an Ivy League strategy of rapidly escalating costs in search of academic prestige. This was the path Purdue was on before Mitch Daniels took over and wrestled that highly rated university back to its mission of educating Indianians at a somewhat affordable price.

    Between a large chunk of the endowment and a cut of future sky high private school tuition UVA can afford to pay the state to go private. The state could then take that money and use it to bolster the quality of our public universities in Virginia’s three major metropolitan areas.

    Let’s be honest – our inept state government isn’t going to reign in UVA. That’s been obvious since the Dragas / Sullivan dispute during the McDonnell Administration. UVA’s Board of Visitors isn’t going to reign UVA in. They seem quite infatuated with the idea of an east coast Stanford in Charlottesville. The big losers are the middle class families in Virginia who can no longer afford the education at UVA.

    If UVA wants to become a private school we should let them. So long as they fairly compensate the state for the value of the university they are taking.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      You’re kinda funny on this.. who would you get to negotiate the independent status of UVA – the Clown Show in Richmond?


    2. My problem with this is that UVA has a charter and a mission, and propelling its identity as a “public Ivy” is not it. UVA nearly can afford to buy itself from taxpayers, but if we cede one of the publics to steal away to the private sector, then what’s to stop the next? These schools exist to furnish an educated populace for Virginia. Longwood could look could look over at Liberty’s riches and say, “that’s a heck of lot easier.” CNU could say “let’s become the premier dog-training facility in the nation” (picking on them because you cannot train a dog with distance learning).

      As Jim Koch emphatically reiterates, the nation’s higher ed is done predominately by community colleges, professional certification training, for-profit schools, and schools at the lower tier of academic prestige. He does not worry about elite institutions; it’s the institutions who educate the majority which need attention because they do the heavy lifting. Our focus mistakenlybskews to elite schools in discussions about higher ed (nod to @LarrytheG).

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        “Our focus mistakenly skews to elite schools in discussions about higher ed (nod to @LarrytheG).”

        That is an interesting point, Lift.

        But while I don’t dispute the strong need to improve and empower schools below elite status, I am greatly concerned about the lack of good education and social experience at the elites schools, and how it drives the ever widening class gap in American society on all counts between those who were and are elite students and everyone else in society. I fear the elite students on undergraduate level in elite schools lose as much as our less gifted students, as does the nation, and our leaders. America dearly needs a far more egalitarian society now, a bringing together and mutual respect between people of all education levels and social classes. Our elite institutions and our political leaders are now tearing this precious fabric apart. And they know it. It’s why They Protest So Much.

      2. Bang for buck, ODU gets short shift. They’ve done a better job at educating the kids from all different backgrounds and trying to get them on the paths to a degree. They’ve really made strides in that and get bupkiss in the way of crumbs from the state. UVA and GMU and the rest, go private, but they sure as living crap do NOT need any funds. Send it to ODU. They actually will work to get kids in and out in less than 6 years.

    3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      This is not a new idea. Every since state financial support has dropped off significantly, people in state government have mentioned that UVa itself would probably welcome such a move that would take it out from under state scrutiny and regulation. Yes, UVa does have to adhere to state standards and procedures in some areas. For UVa officials, it would probably be worth giving up the state support to rid itself of the irritant of having to report to state financial and capital officials. I doubt, however, if the Governor and General Assembly would be willing to sell off what deem to be the crown jewel.

      The premise of your rant seems to be that UVa is outrageously expensive and beyond the reach of most Virginians. One problem with your argument is that UVa is not the most expensive state-supported school. The following data for total tuition, mandatory fees, and average housing cost for the 2017-2018 school year is from the SCHEV website:

      William and Mary–$35,636

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        “people in state government have mentioned that UVa itself would probably welcome such a move that would take it out from under state scrutiny and regulation.”

        That is a vast understatement. This has been UVA’s stated goal for many years, if you look closely at the paper work starting in 2012 (and likely before). In one conference including other research universities then admired by UVA, on the question of whether and how UVa. could built itself into a powerhouse research institution, a list of obstacles included fact that UVA was located in Virginia, the implication being Virginia was backward state of bumpkins, phobes, deplorables, racists, you name it, etc. The major question was always how to reduce number of instate students, replacing them with out of state and foreign students who paid more, and had better SAT scores. Ratings are always key.

  7. Fresh off the digital press: Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, has outlined an expanded vision for the Online Virginia Network, “citing lessons learned from and a need to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Speaking at his last meeting as chair of the OVN Board, he said the organization “should broaden its target population to spur the economic recovery from COVID-19, take further steps to lower the cost ot online programs, and use federal coronavirus relief dollars to fully fund OVN and virtual higher education programs.

    See the press release here: https://mailchi.mp/12a6611f63de/delegate-cox-outlines-expanded-vision-for-online-virginia-network?e=1c4d23f925

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Well, I read the Press Release and to be honest… it’s not exactly a cogent one paragraph idea with bullets… it goes on and on in a generic way about “online”.

      Perhaps Jim can shrink it down to the most relevant points.

      In terms of the cost of online programs:

      If someone in Virginia has their choice of online programs – across the country – including ones already offered like Liberty and Phoenix and quite a few others – what does that mean with respect to calls to lower the price in Virginia colleges?

      here’s one list of the best online colleges:

      1 University of Florida-Online Gainesville, FL
      2 University of Central Florida Orlando, FL
      3 Florida International University Miami, FL
      4 Trine University Fort Wayne, IN
      5 Colorado State University-Global Campus Greenwood Village, CO
      6 Arizona State University-Skysong Scottsdale, AZ
      7 University of Illinois at Springfield Springfield, IL
      8 Northeastern University Boston, MA
      9 Texas Tech University Lubbock, TX
      10 Pennsylvania State University-World Campus

      I’d think that “online” is not just about price….

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Thank, God, for Kirk Cox. I always hoped he was a better man than the $600,000 contribution into the Speakers fund and its result. That single fact was for me the straw that broke the Camel’s back on the honesty and competence of Virginia Government.

      After leaning of that and its consequences, I came to believe that anything was possible under Virginia government where enough money was involved and paid, as events before and since suddenly became clear.

      I shall look closely at this long distance learning proposal.

  8. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    There is another issue here that has not been discussed. As we have noted on this blog in the past, Virginia higher ed institutions been on a building spree the last decade constructing fancy, expensive residential facilities (“dorm” is an outdated term). The funding for that construction was provided by the issuance of revenue bonds, the debt service for which is derived from the room and board fees paid by students. Colleges and universities need bodies in those rooms to generate the revenue needed to make the debt service on those bonds. If there is a large switch to on-line learning and a corresponding decrease in revenue from room and board fees, the state may be faced with a choice of defaulting on some of that debt service or subsidizing the debt service payments with general fund appropriations, especially for the financially-weaker schools.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Perhaps the colleges and university can stop wasting vast sums of monies that have nothing to do with classroom or distance learning, and cut their non teaching staffs by more than 50%, and freeze all tuition and fees, and also reduce tuition by the amount that those funds now are diverted from direct teaching of students, to other purposes, including not least, research and other faculty and administrative expenses not related directly to the teaching of students who are paying such tuition.

    2. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Could a school such as VPI charge an extra fee for distance learning and use that fee towards the debt service?

      1. One of Jim Koch’s laments is that an online-only student at ODU pays something around $400 athletic fee over 4 years for facilities & services they will never utilize. There’s your debt service fee. No new fees.

        1. SWVAgirl Avatar

          No, no more fees, please! As VT parents, we pay in the neighborhood of $2000/yr in fees already, not counting the major-specific surcharge for our son. Even as a traditional student, there’s no way we are getting our money’s worth for those fees.

      2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        I think it could, but I am not sure. It might depend on the provisions of the bond issuance documents.

    3. Bingo, Dick. You just hit the jackpot.

      SCHEV needs to conduct a sensitivity analysis to see what happens if enrollment drops — not just to tuition but “auxiliary enterprises” such as athletic programs and dormitories.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Enrollment is going to drop. That is a demographic fact in America. It is also a fact internationally, and that global market that has been huge for American ed. institutions has been going south now for most of last decade. Covet-19 accelerates very abruptly this drying up of both markets, national and international.

        Thus Tuition costs will have to drop, including at most all state institutions, and all but the top private elites (which really are not private, except they can accept kids from all over without restraint).

        The elites, including some public institution, will fight this because financially they have too. They think they need all the fancy infrastructure to complete with each other and pump their tuition and rankings ever higher, not only to support Dick’s infrastructure, but also to support their massive overhead that supports their money losing research activities (save for very few), and the costs of all the highly inflated salaries and infrastructure in place there as well.

        So Dicks “fancy, expensive residential facilities” were in many case built to support not only rankings and competitive positions, but to support research and institution building, the explosion of Studies Department, Institutes, and social activism, and huge administrative overhead all that entailed. Though each case is different depending on institution. Like it or not big change is upon us, and forcible so.

  9. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Local businesses and government in places such as Lexington or Farmville are going to miss the college kids.

  10. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    My guess is the covid forced move to online higher ed will be a huge disaster

    1. Undoubtedly. The inability of colleges to plan now is going to make for a crappy school year, unsatisfactory for all constituents. If I were the parent of a college-age student I would urge a year off, not spend time/money on what will be a devalued experience. Should be a banner season for the Peace Corps.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        The federal government recalled all Peace Corps volunteers and essentially has put that program on hold. Kids thinking about a gap year will need to think of something else. https://www.peacecorps.gov/coronavirus/

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well.. if this fall is going to be a contest to see who does “online” best, I’m not sure that much of Virginia higher ed is a “player” save a couple like Liberty.

    But many in higher ed and Virginia seem to only say that online is “an option” and few of them say that it’s a priority and they’re ramping it up.

    Now vaconsumeradvocate seems to imply that at least some like VaTech are “ready” to do a lot of classes online and it’s basically the prerogative of the instructor. If I have put words in her mouth , I’m sure she will correct me.

    But my question is – how does VaTech compare with other “online” higher ed because from my perspective, which may well be ignorant, is that I’ve just never heard that it’s one of the better known players.

    I’m betting that most higher ed that has traditionally played in the on-campus arena is still planning on that if luck is with them but they are prepared to “bail” to online if forced to.

    That’s different than higher ed that sees online as it’s central strategy which I realize that some, perhaps many will say is not the optimal way to learn and that in-person is ….

    So I guess we shall see… as time goes by – which higher ed is dead serious about opening up their campuses for dorms, libraries and meals… etc… and which ones are treading water and hoping that things get better before fall but also have a view that at some point, even if the have to wait to next year – they’re going to be back in business with their on-campus product.

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