Summit on Online Learning Redux

I have just returned from four great days in Chicago.  You might assume that I spent my days in Chicago taking in as many Cubs games as possible, but unfortunately, you’d be wrong.  I spent the first two days meeting with the UPCEA Board (which was a great experience and more on this in a later blog post), and I spent the last two days at the Summit on the Future of Online Learning.

In an earlier blog post,, I described the Summit as a gathering of “Who’s Who” in online learning, bringing together representation from national associations (UPCEA, ACHE, EDUCAUSE, and Sloan-C) and policy leaders from WCET, the Higher Learning Commission, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and the US Department of Education.

I can say without a doubt that this event not only lived up to my expectations, but it far exceeded them.  Under the joint leadership of UPCEA’s CEO, Robert Hansen, and ACHE’s Executive Director, James Pappas, the program allowed the participants to hear from THE leaders in the area of technology and policies and procedures.  The first panel, held on Thursday afternoon, included Frank Mayada of the Sloan Foundation, Ray Schroeder from the University of Illinois-Springfield, Diana Oblinger with EDUCAUSE, and Todd Leach with Granite State College, exploring how online learning has reshaped higher education by breaking down geographical boundaries and introducing greater completion.  Specific ideas and challenges mentioned by the panelists:

  •  The panel indicated that they would gauge our efforts thus far in online learning as a partial success that we can build on.
  • There are approximately 18 million students at degree-granting institutions, and approximately 6 million of them took an online class last year.
  • 80% of institutions offer at least one online class.
  • The cost of entry in the online world has gone up – it’s no longer enough to just put a course on Blackboard. Institutions also have to think about engaging students with interactive material, recruiting and marketing for successful students, faculty development, student satisfaction, and a thousand other things.
  • Student loan debt is higher than credit card debt in the US.
  • The next challenge is to take what we’re doing with online learning and start scaling it to a much higher level.
  • Students (whether traditional or non-traditional) are not as savvy with the technology as we think they are (or should be).

The second panel, held on Friday, included Sylvia Manning from the Higher Learning Commission, George Mehaffy with the American Association of State Colleges and University, Joel Thierstein from the US Department of Education, and Russ Poulin with WCET discussed policy implications of online learning such as state approval, affordability, enrollment capacity, and academic quality.  They addressed the following issues:

  • The public has a tendency to conflate online learning with for-profit education. This is not just a marketing problem.
  • Institutions need to take care with outsourcing vital functions; it’s one thing to outsource recruiting, but that often leads to outsourcing applications, then admission decisions, then faculty recruitment…and then institutions risk being just a venue for credit laundering.
  • Cisco says holograms will be common technology in five years. What do we do with them?
  • The state authorization regulations that were part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act – DOE will be hosting a comprehensive directory of these regulations, and encouraging states to consider reciprocity agreements and common application processes.
  • Other regulations as part of that legislation to keep an eye on are the last day of attendance rules, short courses (or modular courses), and student authentication rules.
  • The greatest cost of technology education is people, not technology.

Each panel was followed by breakout sessions that allowed the participants to drill down on the items addressed by the panel. Everyone came back together to share reports from their breakout sessions, so everyone had the benefit of every session. I had the pleasure of moderating one of the breakout sessions with James Pappas in which the participants discussed how we can better inform our external constituents that are making laws, policies, and procedures of the needs we have in online learning.

The panelists were outstanding and I found the breakout sessions and the review of the key takeaways from each conversation very helpful.

One of the things that we discussed is, “ok we had a great conference, what do we do next?”  The next step turns out to be a commitment from the associations that were represented at the meeting.  We agreed that we can best serve our interests in online learning by working together and telling our story in one voice.

With this mind, UPCEA, ACHE, and WCET will appoint a master task force made up of representatives from each of the associations.  This task force will be tasked with developing a white paper that clearly lays out the core issues, advantages, and research support for online learning.  This document will help to inform conversations at our local, state, and national level.  What I find very appealing about this task force is that each of our associations will have buy in and this will give the task force not only cache but also long term support.

Many thanks to Jim and Bob for bringing us together and many thanks to all who participated.  Here’s to a successful summit and substantive follow up.





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