Articles: UB Archive

One way academics know they're breaking new ground with their research is by the number of speaking invitations they receive after publication. Another gauge might be the level of vitriol their critics muster both in rebuttal papers, and these days, on academic listservs and bulletin boards.

By both these measures, "Thwarted Innovation: What Happened to e-Learning and Why," written by Robert Zemsky of the University of Pennsylvania and William F. Massy, professor emeritus at Stanford University, has been the academic equivalent of an earthquake since its publication in June.

"It's almost as if Bill and Bob are historians writing about how the promise of the American West, after several hundred years, turned out to consist largely of LA freeways and Las Vegas casinos," wrote Carol A. Twigg, executive director of the Center for Academic Transformation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (N.Y.), in her newsletter, "The Learning MarketSpace."

"By analogy, we feel that they have damned the truck that is taking sustenance to the hungry because the truck doesn't work well enough!" wrote John Bourne and his colleagues at Sloan-C, a consortium of institutions and organizations committed to quality online education.

"Such a caricature of ivory tower (research). (The study) contradicts itself throughout the piece, doesn't understand its own historical perspective and lazily relies on one private sector pundit for 15 pages of criticism," wrote Stephen Cervieri, director of sales and marketing for Distance Learning Inc. (DLI).

What's all the fuss about? "Thwarted Innovation" makes the case that e-learning hasn't lived up to the hype--that growth isn't what was predicted; that the creation and adoption of learning technology has stalled; and that, despite the availability of new technology, no major changes have occurred in the way teaching happens in higher education.

Some of these points are true, for sure, given the realities of e-learning today. But, critics say, the authors are too eager to declare a bust considering the number of students enrolled in online degree programs and the multitude of successful ventures and cutting-edge experiments going on in the arena.

Massy and Zemsky came up with a neat breakdown of the innovations made possible by e-learning technologies, allowing any institution to easily gauge where they are on the continuum. They posit that the first phase of integrating e-learning would be faculty embrace of course enhancement applications, like the use of PowerPoint to create lecture notes or using e-mail to contact students. Nearly all IHEs have reached this point, with only the diehards resisting these innovations.

The second phase would be the use of course management platforms, like WebCT and Blackboard. Just about everyone is here also, with about 97 percent of two- and four-year schools using some type of course management system, according to Market Data Retrieval's 2004 survey of 5,500 IHEs.

The third step, and this is where the "thwarted" in "Thwarted Innovation" comes in, would be the creation and use of subject-specific learning objects within a course, such as financial simulations in a business class, or lab simulations in a science class. Everyone acknowledges that use of these objects, such as are available from Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Training (MERLOT), is fairly rare.

The fourth stage of innovation would be the total redesign of existing courses, away from education as usual to a more interactive, learner-oriented model, that both improves learning outcomes and saves money. Despite some evidence to the contrary, Massy and Zemsky argue that this isn't happening in American IHEs.

For most of the conclusions and assumptions in the nearly 100-page-long "Thwarted Innovation," there seem to be critics. Many of the complaints about the study are definition problems that have yet to be resolved: What is e-learning vs. distance learning, vs. online education, etc.? In their paper, Massy and Zemsky aren't just talking about internet-based distance education, what Sloan-C calls asynchronous learning networks; they're also talking about the use of technology in traditional on-campus classes and corporate education environments.

"The bottom line we've come to is we're really talking past each other," says John Bourne, executive director of Sloan-C and editor of the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks.

The other major complaints center on the research methodology. Rather than survey hundreds of IHEs for their report, Massy and Zemsky instead embarked on a sort of anthropological study in which they interviewed faculty and administrators at six schools several times over a period of 15 months.

"The six schools selected for the study are not a representative sample by anyone's measure," wrote one critic on Sloan-C's listserv.

The last major tenet of the criticism--and one that Massy and Zemsky might agree with--is that it's just too soon to evaluate the success of e-learning, or dub it a bust.

"What are they expecting? I have a 13-month-old baby, I'm not ranting and raving over why he can't jump rope," says Cervieri of DLI.

The reality about the adoption of internet-based distance education is probably somewhere in between what the two sides would assert. Sloan-C forecasts that there will be some 2 million people taking online courses this fall; University of Phoenix alone has 109,000. Independent researchers at Market Data Retrieval found that 55 percent of the 5,500 accredited two- and four-year IHEs surveyed offer accredited degrees online, only a slight increase from the 54 percent in 2003; 47 percent offered degrees online in 2002. So though many new students are taking internet-based courses, the number of schools adding programs has slowed significantly.

"Whether this is a one-year stall or an overall flattening out, I think it's just too early to tell," says Kathleen Brantley of Market Data Retrieval.

The other truth raised in "Thwarted Innovation" is that most online education offerings are flat--they're still primarily based on text and pictures, with little use of audio, video, graphics, simulations, or even asynchronous discussions. Once professors figured out how to load their existing notes and lectures onto Blackboard or WebCT, they stopped innovating.

A corollary to this is that many faculty members don't want to see distance education, e-learning, or some hybrid of these take hold. Many are understandably skeptical that this model can equal or exceed the success of traditional classroom learning. Others are unwilling or unable to change how they teach to make use of technology, or don't have the institution support to do so.

" If you think about ever" every
other industry, in the country,
in the world, technology is seen
as a way to contain costs."
-Carol Twigg,
"The Learning MarketSpace"

Carol Twigg found this out after helping administer a $200,000 Pew Foundation grant to redesign an introductory-level course at Rensselaer Polytechnic to take advantage of learning technology, improve learning outcomes, and save money. After the redesigned course was successfully implemented with 3,600 students, showing cost savings and better learning, faculty complained that they preferred the lecture-based model. As a result, the school opted to give students a choice between formats, with about half choosing each.

"These (post-redesign) changes suggest a lack of departmental and institutional commitment to reducing costs and increasing student success," Twigg wrote in an article examining the results of 10 such redesign grants.

But it's Twigg's work on redesign (see below) that finally acknowledges the elephant in the room when it comes to e-learning and distance education: the money. Recent high-profile successes like UMass Online have turned their distance ed programs into moneymakers (UMass says it generated $14 million in online revenue last academic year, with 90 percent of that pumped back into the traditional campus system). But at many schools distance education is simply bolted to the outside of the existing educational structure, Twigg says. The result is often a black hole that eats money with little to show in the way of increased learning or cost savings.

"In that situation, technology becomes part of the problem of cost containment rather than part of the solution," Twigg says.

Massy and Zemsky are correct in advising that we watch the leading edge of e-learning to see where the lagging center will be in a few years. They also say that redesigning existing courses is necessary in order to fulfill the promises of e-learning. What they miss is that this process has been happening on a small scale since 1999, and is being replicated by more and more programs each year.

With an $8.8 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trust, Twigg launched the Program in Course Redesign at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1999. Since then some 30 IHEs have been given grants of $200,000 each to redesign a large-enrollment introductory course at their schools. Conducted in three rounds of 10 schools each, the IHEs were given flexibility as to how the courses were redesigned--some became fully online courses, others were hybrids that met in person and online, and others retained the traditional course structure but added technology-based activities outside of class. The grant required each institution to develop a detailed cost analysis of both the traditional and redesigned formats, as well as to map educational outcomes of each version.

"If you think about every other industry, in the country, in the world, technology is seen as a way to contain costs," Twigg says. "We wanted to show people that you can get a return on your information technology investment, and use it as a way to contain costs and improve learning."

Some highlights of the results from the second round of 10 schools, which completed their projects in July 2002:

UMass Online has generateUMass generated
$14 million in revenue.

The schools averaged a 38 percent cost reduction, with collective savings of about $1 million for the 10 courses.

Nine of the 10 reported improved learning outcomes, while one reported no significant difference.

Six of the 10 projects showed improvement in course completion rates; two reported no change; two reported problems with students dropping or withdrawing from the class.

(For detailed analysis of each project, see www.center.rpi.edu. Also, see the information on the redesign project at Florida Gulf State University at the bottom of this page.)

As Twigg and her colleagues refine their redesign model, they're finding it's fairly easy to replicate. Organizations in states from Hawaii on east are now using the Rensselaer model to encourage course redesign with their states. The Ohio Learning Network is giving out eight to 10 grants of $40,000 each to assist IHEs in redesigning courses, based on Twigg's approach.

"Content constantly needs to be redeveloped," says Kate Carey, executive director of the Ohio Learning Network. "What we're doing is trying to put some dollars on the street for institutions to look specifically at large-enrollment courses and make changes in content using technology that results in higher, better learning, and lower costs."

The other area that Massy and Zemsky believe innovation has been thwarted is in the use of learning objects, like simulations, audio or video, to enhance learning. They're right--there's not much on the market for IHEs to buy; building these applications is costly; and freeware available on sites like MERLOT is not a comprehensive solution. But the supply of these types of programs is expanding, as publishers, tech vendors, and even schools see a market for the products.

One promising source: The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania received $10 million from alumnus Alfred P. West Jr. in 2001 to build a "learning lab" where the types of course objects Massy and Zemsky talk about are created. By the end of this academic year Wharton expects to have 20 different homegrown applications that allow students to experience market simulations in areas such as finance, negotiations, marketing, and forecasting.

A Wharton student survey has found that 87 percent of students said the tools significantly enhanced (21 percent) or enhanced (66 percent) learning in class; and 79 percent felt the simulations were more effective than lectures in maintaining their attention and engagement.

" I think those who peer skepticall" skeptically
at e-learning also have to
back off and give it some time."
-Robert Zemsky,
Univ. of Pennsylvania

Buoyed by student and faculty reception of the web-based learning tools, Wharton struck a deal with Pearson Addison Wesley to package and sell the applications to other IHEs around the world.

"Wharton was very focused on looking at new ways of learning. That's what our dean wanted to do; that's what Wharton has been known for--innovation in learning," says CIO Deirdre Woods.

Learning from these successful e-learning models is one way to help fulfill the promise of distance education and educational technology. Other developments that Zemsky, Massy, Twigg, and other experts consider critical:

A dominant design of quality e-learning and distance education methodology must emerge, based on successful learning outcomes and proven cost efficiencies. Much like PowerPoint has become a dominant design in the first level of education technology innovation, and Blackboard and WebCT in the second, there needs to be research-based consensus on what makes good e-learning and distance learning.

Technology must be used to go beyond automating what's already possible. This means faculty must go beyond PowerPoint and Blackboard and utilize things like audio, video, asynchronous discussions, simulations, etc.

Before (1) and (2) can be fully realized, faculty and administration must commit to the idea that higher education needs to be improved, Massy and Zemsky believe. Within this, they must also focus on what students want when it comes to e-learning and distance education.

Maybe the biggest problem with "Thwarted Innovation: What Happened to e-Learning and Why" is just its use of the past tense. Perhaps if Massy and Zemsky had titled it "What's Happening in e-Learning and Why," their ideas would have been met with fewer rebuttals. Zemsky acknowledges that perhaps the whole issue just needs time.

"I think those who peer skeptically at e-learning also have to back off and give it some breathing room," he says. "If you've got somebody watching your every movement, you tend not to be very graceful when you move."

Community college systems are bursting with students. According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the total is 10.4 million and climbing, when counting those enrolled for credit and noncredit programs. Growth spurts at specific systems reflect the trend. Enrollment for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System grew from 45,000 to 82,000 during the past six years. The total student count at North Shore Community College (Mass.) grew by 5 percent last year, bringing the total to 12,000. Enrollment is expected to climb again this year. Any number of the other 1,173 U.S. community colleges have similar stories.

Community colleges' student pools are probably the most diverse group in higher education: recent high school graduates--many of whom are low-income students who need the affordable tuition; other young students who have been squeezed out of the four-year state systems; professionals brushing up on their skills; and the unemployed casualties of the recent recession.

Of course, with all of these new students comes much more data. The problem is that many of the beleaguered community college enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems are due for upgrades. They are straining to push through their pipelines many more admissions applications, financial aid records, student retention records, academic data, payroll, and HR information.

And just as the down economy has motivated more students to seek out the community college systems, states, counties, and the federal government have less money to allocate to these systems. Last year, Virginia's community colleges lost 8 percent of their state operating funds, according to AACC. California's state budget cut community college funding by almost 2 percent. Granted, some systems have raised tuition to make up for the difference, but those increases have, at best, helped these systems maintain the resources they have.

At a time when they can least afford it, community colleges are being forced to abandon legacy systems, or upgrade older commercial ERP systems, to keep their operations running. "These are on the order of millions of dollars per system. It wouldn't be uncommon to spend $2 million to $3 million to move from a legacy system to a commercial ERP system," says George Boggs, president of AACC.

Some of the community college systems lucky enough to get ahead of the curve are glad they addressed growth earlier in the cycle.

That's the case at Monroe Community College (N.Y.), which has experienced a 2 to 6 percent annual enrollment growth during the past five years. "It is a great challenge to have," says Jeff Bartkovich, VP of Education Technology Services, of the increased enrollment. "Our [technology] budget has not increased proportionally. We've had to manage our resources more wisely," he adds.

At about the time enrollment started to grow, administrators at Monroe accepted the fact that the school would need a new ERP system to keep up with new demands.

"We began to see the future, to see how the information serves us," says Bartkovich. A faster and more comprehensive system could better track students and their status from admission to graduation.

Bartkovich is specifically talking about a relational database, which will automatically upgrade a piece of information in all records, eliminating the need to make a name change, or add financial information, on a file-by-file basis. Monroe eventually chose the SunGard SCT Banner product, investing $3.5 million during the past four years. An implementation of the admissions system module last summer was followed by the finance system in the fall. A human resources software module will be in place by early 2005.

At a time when they can least afford
it, community colleges are
being forced to upgrade
older ERP systems.

Bartkovich acknowledges that investment wasn't exactly an easy sell to the State University of New York (SUNY) system, which did provide some money for the project. In the end, Monroe convinced state and local administrators on the long-term gain, with the expectation that the system will be in place for at least 15 years. Other funding came from Monroe College and the Monroe College Foundation.

The Los Angeles Community College District, which claims to be the nation's largest system with nine colleges and 130,000 students, acquired SAP's ERP system in 2000 and went live with the financial suite of services in 2002. The human resources applications will go live next year.

Until it installed the SAP system, LACCD used a homegrown IT system that it bought from the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1968. CIO Tony Tortorice describes the legacy system as "sclerotic" and "brittle."

"If something was broken in one place it was hard to fix it in another," he laments.

Further complicating matters was the reliance on a small group of in-the-know employees who had years of experience coding and working around the system's quirks. Administrators started to worry about the repercussions of retirement.

The de facto billing cycle was 180 days because that was as fast as invoice information could move through the system. At one point, 30 percent of the Los Angeles Community College District's 14,000 full-time and part-time employees were not being paid on time. Today that percentage is down to 5 percent, even though the HR suite has yet to be fully implemented. Other installed applications have helped tighten up the system to keep better tabs on the hiring approval process and the personnel roster.

That's not to say that everything went smoothly, adds Tortorice. Bringing in a new ERP system, in essence, ushered in a culture change for the L.A. district. A larger group of people would be using the system, which meant that the group of users would have varying skill levels. "The warning sign was when we found we had to have a 'how to use a mouse' training," he reports. Further, there was resistance to using new technology and viewing data on new screens. The IT department addressed concerns by introducing the changes slowly and by minimizing the visible changes to the users. Hopefully all will be ready when the HR module goes live in January.

The acronym CRM commonly stands for "customer relationship management," but the phrase has been slightly altered to "constituent relationship management" to encompass the missions of educational institutions and other nonprofits, explains Eric Bassett, director of research practice for Eduventures, a research and consulting firm. The altered phrase better fits institutions that are offering portals and other IT applications to improve the student and employee interactions.

For example, if a student is to go online and register for a class, pay for it, download the syllabus, and then order the required textbooks, the ERP infrastructure must be seamless and reliable.

" We had registration lines the
length of a football field.... Today,
85 percent of the credit students
register online." -Gary Ham, CIO,
North Shore Community College

Community colleges, though, are still coping with this business shift.

It would not have been uncommon 20 years ago for the different departments at a community college to have entirely separate IT systems. "When a student changed an address, administrators had to input the change five different systems," says Boggs.

Dan Bloomer, vice president of Finance and Administration for Orange County Community College (N.Y.), admits to having "islands" of information across campus. And while the college does use an ERP system--one installed 13 years ago--its various departments were allowed to customize the applications to suit their needs. For example, preview screens were modified so employees could read all information in one view. Although that can seem convenient, the changes have yielded a system that can't easily share information from one department to another. "It was a good idea gone bad," he says. "We modified the system to such a degree that any system upgrade was a difficult ordeal." It took the college one year to get everything right during a recent upgrade. Now the college is bidding for a new ERP system. The hope is that the larger SUNY system's relationships with commercial vendors will allow Orange to buy a system at a reduced licensing rate.

North Shore Community College (Mass.) faced a new ERP challenge in 2000 when it included the development of a campus portal in its strategic plan. The idea of giving students an online gateway to information fit into its goal of providing workable self-service for students. As a result, the burden on staff and students has lightened.

"We had registration lines the length of a football field," says CIO Gary Ham. There were times that the police had to be on duty to monitor the crowd and keep student frustration levels in check. Registering for a class could take three-plus hours. Today, 85 percent of the credit students register online.

North Shore's portal allows users to touch eight different campus systems, including the course management system, e-mail, registration, financial services, and an FTP website service. The total "user base" is 8,000 and there are 2,000 unique users daily. The portal system, which required a $600,000 investment, has helped the system save money in staff time, says Janice Forsstrom, vice president for Administration and Finance. She estimates the college has realized $750,000 ROI as a result of cost savings and student self-service.

The system's implementation also encouraged staff to look at how they were doing their jobs, she adds. The emphasis is on being customer/constituent oriented. The enrollment and registrar offices have come together to cross-train on the SunGard SCT Banner ERP and portal system, and to improve information sharing between the departments.

Anne Arundel Community College (Md.) began its research on ERP and IT upgrades in the mid-1990s. Until that point, campus operations were run by a homegrown system. Representatives of a steering committee were picked to represent the college as a whole, explains Dave Becker, chief technology officer. Each representative was given a vote for deciding on a system and its applications, but the votes cast by the Credit Instruction department and Continuing Education were weighted heavier. The academic voice was basically given more importance.

"We did that because we are in business to serve the student, not to produce the prettiest paycheck on the face of the earth," says Becker. Eventually the committee selected a Datatel system, which was installed in 1999. The financial suite was the first to be operational. An HR system was up and running in 2001. After this, administrators installed a portal so students could register online, check schedules, and fulfill other operations.

The portal even allows students to order their textbooks online via a partnership with the Nebraska Book Company.

To date, Anne Arundel has spent $2 million on its ERP and portal systems. The cost doesn't include staff time, which will be calculated into an ROI report that comes out at the end of this fiscal year.

Colleges such as North Shore and Anne Arundel are in step with the overall IT trends, adds Bassett of Eduventures. In his company's 2004 study of community colleges and their objections, respondents' information revealed two main themes: the need to integrate systems with enterprise portals and other applications; and the push for more digital content in the classroom. In fact, community college leaders report that their No. 1 objective is to improve student learning outcomes. And they also report that new technology will be the most relevant way to make that happen.

If the study reveals one thing, it's this: There definitely is a will to change the IT landscape at the community college. Now the challenge is finding the way to pay for it and motivate and train staff.

IN THE NEWS: Fred Gainous, president of Florida A&M University, will most likely leave his job at the end of the year. The trustees have voted 9-4 to not renew his contract, citing financial and administrative problems.

Want a college diploma without ever enduring the inconvenience and cost of attending a college? Plenty of providers are out there, ready to oblige.

For example, there's BackAlleyPress.com. Its spiel? "Our novelty diplomas are designed to look 100% authentic! We produce over 1,000 replica novelty degrees, diplomas, and transcripts from universities all around the world. Our designers have gone through painstaking efforts to try to make each of our documents look as exact as possible. Each document is customized and printed individually to your specifications, including degree, major, and school." Last year a reporter wrote of obtaining a Harvard diploma and transcript from BackAlley's Thailand office. Printing, the reporter said, was done by the Shun Luen Company of Shenzhen, China. A check of the internet as this was written found BackAlley still alive and kicking.

Lest some potential customers are too dumb or ignorant to track down a website on their own, the fraud merchants are reaching out on e-mail. This writer received the following exclamation-laden e-mail message in early summer:

Other e-mails arrived at about the same time, each bearing substantially the same message but with differing phone numbers. My associate called two of these numbers. Dialing the first, despite the promise of "24 hours" availability, resulted in a recorded message that the number was no longer in service. The second number led her into a voicemail box, requesting her name and number and promising a return call. The call came about a week later.

The caller identified himself as representing "Haywood University" in London. He offered my associate a "beautiful diploma" for $2,000, with a $500 discount if she "signed up right now." The diploma would be delivered within 10 days of receipt of payment.

Diploma mills are rampant on
the internet and in nations with
weak or nonexistent regulation.

How could she qualify for this "beautiful diploma?" she inquired. The degree would be based upon her work experience. "You create the credentials." But what sort of degree would it be? What field of expertise should she claim? "Are you a reporter?" he asked at this point. The discussion was ended soon after that.

A search of the name "Haywood University" produced two "Sponsored Sites." Both "www.e-degrees.org" and "www.internetcolleges.org" were compilations of online higher-education organizations, organized by the states where their services are available. The first of these sites says, "If you are interested in attending an online college you have come to the right place. We have identified the best ones in each state." The list of "Featured Schools" didn't include a Haywood University. And, in fact, a Netscape search of "English Universities" also failed to turn up a Haywood University. A Google search came back with the query, "Did you mean 'hayward university'?"

In short, if a Haywood University exists outside of cyberspace and the telephone lines, we couldn't find it.

Backalley.com and Haywood U. are only the most brazen of the barbarians massing at the gates of higher education's ivory towers. Unaccredited schools at all levels of legitimacy--or illegitimacy--comprise the less menacing bulk of this barbarian horde. They are rampaging not only on the internet, but in nations such as India, where regulation of higher education is weak or nonexistent.

In a world teeming with billions of "Spare Parts and Broken Hearts," to borrow a Bruce Springsteen tune title, the desperately unqualified will turn to these diploma mills for their sheepskin equivalents of the emperor's new clothes. When they do, they are not the only victims of such scams.

Cristovam Buarque, Brazil's minister of education, recently said, "In the face of [global] upheavals, the university still represents the intellectual heritage [that makes it] the most appropriate and prepared place to guide the future of humanity." Stirring words, but true only if the global network of legitimate colleges and universities protects and defends its integrity and reputation against the barbarians at our gates.

Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column "Attorney at Large."

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