The Inexorable Logic of Distance Learning

by James A. Bacon

Distance learning was already on the rise at Virginia higher-ed institutions before the COVID-19 epidemic prompted college administrators to send students home and complete their classes online. Many faculty and administrators are hoping that they can revert to the status quo of good ol’ fashioned face-to-face classes when the epidemic subsides. But will normalcy be restored? Or will the flirtation with online classes accelerate the spread of distance education?

Spencer Shanholtz with the University of Virginia’s Demographics Research Group addresses the issue on the StatChat blog. The percentage of Virginia students taking at least one online course, he writes, was 40% in 2018 — a 5 percentage-point increase since 2012, even while overall enrollment declined slightly.

While online learning has increased, he observes, most of that increase has occurred at a handful of institutions — led most notably by Liberty University. Other notable players include George Mason University, Old Dominion University, Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University. Notably absent from the list of schools with the largest online enrollments: the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary.

Here’s my prediction: The COVID-19 epidemic represents a watershed. Online learning will accelerate. But that shift will not occur uniformly across all higher-ed institutions. Some will cling to their lecture halls and symposium rooms. Others, seeing little to gain from returning to the status quo, will make the transition.

The bitter clingers will tout the benefits of face-to-face education and the residential campus experience. Those benefits are real, and not to be under-estimated. The question is, in a world of the relentlessly rising cost of higher education, how much will people be willing to pay for those advantages? Will many parents cry out, no mas, we’re willing to pay for instruction and learning, but we’re not willing to pay for gourmet food, for luxury dormitories, for athletic programs, for drunken frat parties, for a hook-up culture where my kid catches STDs, for the PC indoctrination, or for other accouterments of the modern college experience?

Once upon a time Virginia had a fine system of commuter colleges — GMU, VCU, ODU, and the like. Kids attended those colleges to learn skills and earn credentials that would get them jobs. But university presidents and board of visitors weren’t happy presiding over commuter colleges. They wanted to increase institutional prestige. And that meant going on academic and dormitory building sprees, and investing in amenities that would attract students — not the kind of students they had been educating, but affluent kids from in-state, out-of-state and abroad whose parents were financially able to pay the full freight. While Virginia’s community colleges do offer two-year degrees, the state no longer has no longer has colleges dedicated to providing an affordable, four-year non-residential experience.

The irony is that a majority of college students don’t graduate in four years. A sizeable percentage don’t graduate in six years! More than 40% of low-income Virginia students do not graduate within six years, which means that, in all likelihood, they never graduate. More than 20% of “high” income students don’t graduate within six years, according to State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) data. For lower-income students especially, finances are a significant barrier to college attendance.

Which course of study is more appropriate for these students — a residential experience in which room, board & mandatory student fees are heaped upon the cost of tuition, or a distance learning experience in which the student pays for tuition only?

As distance learning proves itself as a viable way to learn certain bodies of content and acquire certain kinds of skills, more and more Virginians will avail themselves of that option. Institutions that cater to them will prosper. Many of those who refuse to will suffer.

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37 responses to “The Inexorable Logic of Distance Learning

  1. A university run by a former governor and businessman has frozen tuition hikes for seven straight years with out additional state support, more out of state / international students or moving to more temporary / adjunct professors. Funny what can be done when you don’t let inmates run the asylum.

    • I kind of admired from afar Mitch’s work at Purdue. Any business in the service industry (higher ed, as a business model, is closely akin to service) needs a shake up every now and then. Lower priority stuff dropped away when we went through periodic budget restrictions at Virginia Tech.

      However, with respect to Purdue, the Atlantic story totally omits any mention of using foreign students to balance the budget. Check the numbers; Purdue is one of the highest in the nation. The ramped up international enrollment so quickly that they had to create special offices to help students with “cultural issues.” you know, things like plagiarism.

      As Jim notes in another column, many universities have used out of state tuition to offset plummeting state subsidies. International students of course pay that premium too. But Mitch is no magic rain maker. Only half of their undergrads are from Indiana! (Try doing that in Virginia.) He holds down in state tuition with out of state subsidies — 15% from overseas and the rest from around the nation.

      • Actually the article does address foreign students – “I always say it’s easier to explain what we didn’t do,” Daniels told me. “We didn’t try to get more money from the state. We didn’t shift from full-time faculty and fill the ranks with cheaper, part-time adjunct faculty. We haven’t driven up our percentage of international or out-of-state students,” who pay more than in-staters. Each of these measures has been taken up by other public universities, even as most have increased their in-state tuition.”

        You may contest whether that’s true but the article certainly cites Daniels as claiming that they didn’t drive up international student enrollment.

        • uhh…. In-state tuition 9,992 USD, Out-of-state tuition 28,794 USD

          what is their percentage of out-of-state? did they mention the 29K?

          We should do this in Virginia, eh?

          • They claim that the percentage of out-of-state students has remained constant over the years of the in-state tuition freeze. I don’t believe that they discussed whether the out-of-state tuitions were rising or not. However, out of state tuition and fees at UVa is a staggering $49,970 per year (in the College of Arts & Sciences) so it’s not like Virginia is offering bargains to non-Virginians.


        • I have to laugh at some of the dissenting Purdue faculty comments in the Atlantic article. Of course, their ox is being gored, but note the vacuousness of their comments. Daniels has always had real impact throughout his career, against predictions that he would be unable to do so. They predicted that he could not win the governorship of Indiana. He had never run for political office before. I was among those who made such a prediction when he announced over dinner that he was thinking of leaving his OMB director position in Bush’s White House to run for governor. He did not strike me as a retail politician…I’ve never been more wrong in my life. He took the state by storm. To get a real sense of the guy, I always liked some of his early campaign videos.

          Virginia higher ed take notice. Do not underestimate what Daniels will do as a leader in higher education… quietly. He’s 71, but he is in very good shape, so he has plenty of years left in him. I just don’t recommend that you sit down at a poker table with him unless you bring very limited funds that you are willing to lose. A number of classmates tried to get him to run for president, but he is much smarter than to engage in that folly. His reaction was, “Running a state of 6 million is easy. The federal government is different.” I think he rightly saw that he could have much more impact as a university president.

          He’s one of the most brilliant guys I have ever known, both intellectually and emotionally.

          • I feel the same way about Tony Williams, the former mayor of DC. Brilliant guy when it came to urban redevelopment. The plans and programs he put in place are still paying huge dividends. C’mon Mayor Williams – move across the river and run for governor in Virginia!

          • So how come he never became POTUS?


          • Larry, You obviously didn’t read the post. He didn’t want to run. He had the good sense in 2012 to realize that governor is different from president, that as Republican presidential candidate you are subject to a media storm of lies and vitriol. He was not willing to put his wife, Cheri, and his four very beautiful daugters through the mess. Cheri had already divorced him once in the 90’s. He also realized that Obama would be hard to beat, and he loved his governor job. By the time 2016 came round, he was already having a huge impact at Purdue and elsewhere in higher education and didn’t want to give it up.

            Who knows, maybe that will change in 2024. The country would be better for it from just about every point of view that I can think of. But I won’t hold my breath. I did that in 2012 and it almost killed me.

          • No.. I’ve heard that excuse. That means only the ones brave enough to run – run – and we end up with the likes of Hillary and Trump to choose from.

            I’m not sure he could ever had become Gov in Virginia – but maybe.

        • What distinguishes Daniel’s at Purdue from the rest of litter running higher education?

          Honest and Decent,
          Direct and Straightforward,
          Full of Courage.

          • He also actively resisted the effort that was underway to turn Purdue into the Stanford of the midwest. In the Sullivan vs Dragas battle at UVa a few years back he was Dragas.

            I honestly don’t know what UVa is trying to become … the Princeton of Central Virginia?

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      That was a refreshing article. I am thrilled that Purdue has a leader who has a passion for delivering higher education at a hair under 10 grand a year.

    • Two words for it – “Go Boilers!” BSNE 1978

  2. Key quote from the Perdue article …

    “When I got here,” he told me, “there was an effort to become the ‘Stanford of the Midwest,’ an elite institution along those lines,” which would have meant shrinking enrollment, cutting out kids at the low end of the class to skew the average toward the top.

    Sounds a bit like the University of Virginia’s strategy. You know, the one Dragas tried to stop only to be pilloried by Virginia’s liberal media.

  3. I’ll tell you one thing, you cannot get a good webcam for Zoom, Skype etc. Actually you might get off-brand types, but forget about Logitech which seems to have an incredible sold-out webcam line-up from cheap to fancy. I had the early idea to get my wife a webcam for Mother’s Day. My wife said that is a Father’s Day present, silly.

    • I got a Logitech StreamCam early, while they were still in stock. Get on the wait-list at B&H for one and pay the $170 price: best thing I could have done, and the envy of all the other folks watching our family on Zoom.

    • One caution: the StreamCam comes with a USB-C connector. Get a USB-C female to USB-A male adapter ($12) if your computer doesn’t have a C port.

  4. You may be right or wrong but it’s clear your mind is made up. We need to figure out how to effectively do some things virtually before we can totally switch to it.
    Teaching virtually without expectation or preparation has been a bear. We’re also limited by the time zones in which our students live. It’s hard to build community online but it can be done. This will be appropriate for teaching some topics and some skills but we’ll still need face-to-face to most effectively teach some things. Projects that students build; lab exercises with expensive equipment that must be shared; things you just have to do to learn, there are many things to consider. Some students who had year long projects had to stop and do written research instead. I’m not sure that’s ideal and they are disappointed to not finish those projects.

    Also, I’ll add that Va Tech has been making most non-math major students take math virtually, with a weekly meeting with someone and tests at a monitored site. The majority of my students have survived it before I meet them but the strong belief among students is that they hate having to teach themselves. They are rarely willing to take another math course as a prerequisite for something they really want to take. This system benefits the costs for the math department and they’ve made it hard for students to find courses they’ll accept (they approve anything transferred in) so there’s a lot of frustration. Similarly, these days the only way to get help for many things is to watch a video. I know many adults who struggle with these.

    No one model works for every person or every situation. I’d encourage all to keep an open mind about how we should move forward and to recognize the research that there are multiple learning styles and one-size does not fit all.

    Importantly, don’t forget that many people/locations do not have broadband robust enough to support everything virtual. Again this month my household has gone over our 40GB limit – I’ve got a bill for an extra $150 for 15 extra GB, on top of the $177 base bill for the home system. I simply cannot afford to do everything online from home and am grateful I could get to the office easily.

    Students often can’t do video and audio; or the signal breaks up; or they can’t get enough bandwidth where they are to not get kicked off periodically. For one meeting we had, a participant had to move around the house and finally found a good spot on her deck – but didn’t have her computer there – just the phone. Another day, her signal worked well. Our broadband system is not ready to support this, especially for those who live in rural areas.

    • re: ” Importantly, don’t forget that many people/locations do not have broadband robust enough to support everything virtual. Again this month my household has gone over our 40GB limit ”

      Do you REALLY NEED internet if the lesson is “packaged” on the device and the software takes the student through the lesson, tests him/her, then circles back to the parts they need more time on task?

      I understand that this IS being done for some things and all you need to do is do a trip to where there is internet to download the next lesson(s) – much like we see for updating apps …. etc…

      I question what specific aspects of teaching can ONLY:

      1. – be done in person
      2. – be done with an internet connection.

      Labs and other hand-on things – yes… but basic knowledge subjects , make a case that only in person or “connected” is the only way.

  5. Pretty good article but two thoughts:

    1. – there are still room & board costs one presumes… whether on campus
    or off.

    2 – How many are willing to pay 10K a year for 100% distance learning at a major University?

    and comment: How many, this fall, are going to say, “let’s wait until next semester or next year to see if we can attend school on campus….

    I do wonder if perhaps the same thing will happen to Higher Ed that happened to big boxes and mom&pop?

    The bigger Universities are just going to have more and better options and programs and the smaller ones are going to get squeezed even more and I predict, we ‘ll see more of them squeezed out and not so much big changes to the bigger players.

    The gold standard for the middle class to demonstrate they have succeeded – is to be able to send their kids off to a 4-yr on campus college experience.

    I don’t think this worked the same way for black folks in writ large except for the ones that truly were in the middle class demographic..AND one or both of the parents were College-educated.

    The problem with other demographics is if the family was new to the middle class and mom/dad had no college – it’s is a much rougher row to hoe and it may well turn out that these are the distance learning wave.

  6. College to some folks is akin to whether the kid wants a corolla or a Lexus.

    The “corolla” would be 2 years at a Community College then transfer to a 4 year but get a job to help pay and live in some cheap off campus housing and eat whatever they can afford.

    College to others is the Great American Gift from middle class college-educated to their offspring… sort of a pre-inheritance…

    There has ALWAYS been less expensive ways to get a degree. I went to “night school” for several years and I have friends that did that also.

    It’s now even easier as more and more “online” is available and if you’re smart you don’t let a for-profit rip you off.

    These are more lifestyle choices that they are impediments to getting a good education. We make those choices and then want the govt to “force” Higher Ed to lower their costs … they don’t come right out and say it that way, it’s a bit more nuanced… but that’s the drift.

    Now we have something that no one would ever dream of – not a govt-forced changed but an act of nature… perhaps even an Act of God?

    At any rate – the next two months may tell the tale of what happens to higher ed – this fall… and perhaps changes ongoing after that.

    Some might say “be careful what you wish for” !!!

  7. A bit off topic but the bigger question for distance learning might be K-12. It’s obviously being tried extensively right now and I’m hearing that it’s a failure so far. I’ve taken an informal poll of middle school students and teachers with 25% effectiveness rate being the midpoint quoted. Steve Haner recently asked in a comment if canceling school altogether is a better alternative to distance learning if schools remain shut next Fall. That’s a very interesting question.

    • How can it be a “failure” when home schooling seems to be a success?

      And when you say “failure” are you including BOTH private and public schools?

      How can public schools distance learning be a “failure” such that people demand that public schools re-open when they were also say public schools bricks & mortar were failures also?

      where is the consistent and rational narrative here?

      • Because home schooling parents are doing the teaching. Today’s COVID19 distance learning has traditional teachers trying to teach 15 – 30 kids over the internet. My informal poll and observing my son both indicate that the teachers are trying to make this work.

        My son goes to private school and the technology is working remarkably well. The 25% estimate still holds.

        I don’t think that all public schools are failures by any means. The majority of public schools in Virginia are successful, at least for students who come to school to learn. The question of “failure” is more about at-risk students. Our public schools don’t seem to be able to create successful outcomes for an acceptable percentage of at-risk students.

        The 25% estimate was the dropoff from successful public and private schools in-person to those same schools using distance learning. To be clear, I fully expect the students I asked to exaggerate the decline. However, nobody seems to think it’s going well.

        I’ve worked in technology since I was feeding punched cards into card readers at UVa’s Academic Computing Center my first year (age 18). My strong hunch is that distance learning can’t just be taking in-person teaching and conducting it over the internet. Did you ever see recordings of the early days of television when actors were filmed sitting or standing at microphones reading their scripts? TV wasn’t radio with video as it turned out. K-12 distance learning with class sizes in the 15 – 30 range will require a lot of rethinking. Rethinking that obviously couldn’t be done when the pandemic suddenly hit.

        • nah… a LOT of home-schooling IS using distance learning resources.

          You say your son is in private school – right now, brisk & mortar of distance learning?

          re: ”
          The majority of public schools in Virginia are successful, ”

          not according to many respondents here in BR … many, many blog posts about public school “failure”

          My “punched cards” beat yours, dude.

          And I agree with you on distance-learning LITE, i.e. trying to do “in-person” over a screen.

          But you’re sliding off the point here.

          Don’t you think the home schoolers and private schools are better at this than public schools?

          And if they are – then what is all the hooray about public schools “opening back up”?

          Why are people clamoring for that if they are more often than not castigated for “teaching to the test”, “holding talented kids back”, and about a dozen more things that the critics say – justify voucher schools?

          Isn’t this the perfect time to take that other path?

          I swear I have never heard so many whiners… here’s the opportunity of a lifetime to do what so many have been saying and abandon the public school system and go to a better way of education.

          Now that we are here.. it’s like the dog that caught the car it was chasing… beyond the _itching and moaning – CRICKETS!

          • Home schoolers may use distance learning resources but my understanding is that the successful efforts involve a lot of direct parental involvement. A kid doing distance learning because of COVID19 can’t get that involvement if both parents are working – either “from home” or in an essential industry.

            My son goes to a bricks and mortar private school but he’s at home right now trying to distance learn.

            I think home schoolers are better at distance learning because the parents are more often directly and actively involved in the actual teaching and tutoring. They also don’t have the culture shock of going from “in class” to “at home”. Private schools are only better because they seem to have better technology. The fiasco in Fairfax County Public Schools with implementing distance learning seems to confirm this.

            When I started loading punched cards into the readers I didn’t know what the punched cards were for. It was just a job that paid $3 per hour. Take the cards, remove the rubber band or take them out of the box, feed them into the machine, put the runner band back around them and tear off the printout that was generated. It was only when I realized that the people manning the debugging help desk got paid more and got to meet lots of coeds that I started taking CS courses.

          • re: ” My son goes to a bricks and mortar private school but he’s at home right now trying to distance learn.”

            and… they’re doing technology “better” than public schools and your son is on-track and doing better than if at a public school?

            re: punch cards. Well… it was the holes in those cards that represented the work product of the folks that send the coding forms to the key punchers who then gave them to folks to feed into those card readers.

            That process is what got your POLARIS Submarines out on patrol and followed up with Trident Submarines.

            The POLARIS actually used punch cards in the Fire Control System also…. yow!


          • Nancy_Naive

            Arghhhh hanging chads. Small program. My first program written after graduation was 2 and a half boxes.

          • 2 1/2 boxes.. that was a hefty program… FORTRAN?

        • I can speak about home schooling from experience; well, indirect experience. My daughter has been home-schooling her three kids ever since the now 16-year old was ready for school (3-4 years old). She is very good at it; the SATS and other standardized tests the kids take to document their progress for the state bear that out. But, she puts an awful lot of time and effort into those lessons. And she likes doing it. That is a combination for success. (She is also very smart herself and can handle subjects ranging from history to art to literature to chemistry.)

          My 16-year old grandson supplements his in-home lessons with on-line learning–Latin X (or some crazy year) and writing. These are from a subscription service and, from what I can tell, are quite rigorous.

          Teaching on-line is not the same as teaching in the school. That is obvious. I think that one of the primary reasons that on-line learning has not been any more successful during this pandemic is that teachers who had no experience with on-line teaching were suddenly compelled to redo all their lesson plans and work plans and deliver them on-line. It was not reasonable to think that could work well. I think they are doing the best they can under the circumstances.

          • re: ” Teaching on-line is not the same as teaching in the school. That is obvious. I think that one of the primary reasons that on-line learning has not been any more successful during this pandemic is that teachers who had no experience with on-line teaching were suddenly compelled to redo all their lesson plans and work plans and deliver them on-line. It was not reasonable to think that could work well. I think they are doing the best they can under the circumstances.”

            Well, do we even KNOW what the right way is to teach online? Is there a successful model?

            Brick & Mortar schools (public and private) are NOT likely going to be the way they were before and yet the move to open them back up NOW seems to be predicated by some belief or wish that they will be like they were.

            A lot of it will never be like it was before unless we have some sort of vaccine miracle.

            I think whatever we end up with is going to involve some kind of distance learning – we’re just not going back to school buses, cafeterias, and regular classrooms.

            But again, the critics have spent years castigating the failures of the public school system and now instead of using this as an opportunity to RE-THINK how education CAN (or perhaps SHOULD work , we’re back to demanding that public schools re-open – again – as if they’re going to be what they used to be – which is even more ironic because it was that way that was said to be a failure.

            Especially for the people who said that public schools were holding their kids back because they were teaching to the low performers!

            We’re going to get through this – and I’m wondering if the critics themselves are going to want it to go back to the way it was before.

  8. I remember when I was in school (a very expensive one) and trying to actually learn something, people would always harrass me about going out and partying every other day. There’s definitely tons of money being wasted on higher education. Some schools is just an expensive babysitter for over-privileged kids.
    While this would not apply for lots of majors, I am wondering how schools are addressing issues such science majors having access to laboratory equipment. I imagine students in a lot of trade schools would face similiar issues.
    There are also long-term issues such as young adults may not get much as much experience outside of their families (which has already been an issue for a few decades) and not necessarily have as broad of an understanding of how people from other walks of life or other parts of th country live.

  9. Virtual works. Of course, the neighbors might complain if you turn your kitchen into a chemistry lab, or worse, a rat infested biology lab.

  10. Jim –

    Insofar as your rationale as to why UVA and William and Mary are slow to go more to distance learning, your article is full of warmed over pablum, essentially worthless, and worse, it is quite misleading. Don’t you ever learn? Why don’t you go deeper, given what been has written by others on this blog, and in many other places, by people who far more knowledgeable than you on this subject, again and again for years?

    • What pabulum? UVa and W&M don’t embrace distance learning because (a) the faculties want to revert to the status quo, and (b) the administrations think they can get away with it. As brand-name schools, they won’t have any trouble filling their openings.

      What about that do you disagree with?

    • What pablum? Her name was Helen Dragas. She tried. The pablum was named Teresa Sullivan.

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