'Managing Online Education' Study Sheds New Light on the Operations Side of Online Programs

A survey of senior campus officials responsible for managing online and distance education programs revealed some interesting findings, including almost half of the participants not knowing whether their program is profitable.

Results of the 2009 Managing Online Education Survey, a collaborative initiative of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and The Campus Computing Project, were discussed Oct. 29 in a live online seminar featuring Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project, and Russell Poulin, interim executive director of WCET.

The goal of the survey was not so much to quantify the growth of online education, though there were a few questions on that and not surprisingly 95 percent reported an increase in the number of enrollments, but to get to the heart of the operational, instructional, and IT issues for online programs.

The survey covered a wide range of important planning and policy issues including faculty training, support services, tuition, ADA compliance, and assessment. Some of the key findings are:

  • Organizational structures for online education programs are in a state of flux with 45 percent having restructured their management of online programs in the past two years and 52 percent anticipating they will restructure in the next years. Further, 29 percent reorganized during the past two years and expect another reorganization soon.
  • In terms of profitability, only 1.6 percent report that their institution lost money on online programs. Forty-five percent report having profitable programs and a surprisingly large 45 percent of campuses don’t know if they’re making or losing money with online education.
  • More than three-fourths (77 percent) of institutions in the survey report that they limit class size for online courses, with 37 students being the average enrollment cap.
  • Tech support, a critical but sometimes overlooked factor to online student success, ranged from 24/7 support provided by 36 percent of institutions to Mon.-Fri. 9-5 support offered by 17 percent.
  • Slightly over half (53 percent) of the institutions surveyed report mandatory technology training for faculty teaching online programs.
  • Despite the emergence of a whole host of low-cost and easy-to-use web-based technologies, online courses rely heavily on traditional print materials. Eighty-five percent say textbooks are “widely used” in their programs.

Green and Poulin noted that while anecdotal information about how different campuses are managing their online programs is plentiful, they hope the data gathered with the survey will be “a catalyst for conversations” with regards to campus planning and policy decisions.

The survey data are based on responses from 182 senior campus officials at two- and four-year public and private U.S. colleges and universities who were surveyed in September and October 2009.