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A Conversation with Alan Walker

University Business, May 2013

Many institutions with a single traditional brick and mortar campus are diversifying the methods for delivering their programs by going online, developing hybrid courses, and even establishing centers at locations off-campus. In his UBTech featured session, “Using Multiple Delivery Methods to Reduce the Cost of Higher Education,” Alan Walker, former president of Upper Iowa University, will discuss the challenges and cost benefits of strategic diversification. He spoke with UB about the many reasons—from increasing graduation rates to reducing costs—institutions should add multiple delivery systems to their mix.

Why should a school consider multiple delivery systems? What are the benefits?

There are a number of benefits. The different modalities can help to diversify. If a school is located in an area that doesn’t have much diversity, it can use these modalities to reach more diverse audiences in other regions around the country, metropolitan areas or whatever.

Another benefit—given the recession and budget cuts at state and public institutions—is that using different modalities generates another revenue stream for the institution. If a particular source of revenue goes down, like tuition revenue from traditional students on campus, this might help.

Finally, these different modalities can actually improve traditional classroom instruction. There’s a lot of support for this in the literature. When you start taking traditional content that’s delivered in a classroom, often through lecture, and you start loading it into different modalities—interactive TV, online, and so on—it really forces authors, faculty, and course designers to think through and organize the material, establish instructional objectives, the things that give content more structure, and make it more effective.

You’ve said these modalities help lower the cost of education. How?

Online programs, self-instructional programs, programs delivered through interactive TV, academic programs delivered at off-campus centers, where there are faculty and students who meet in classrooms, those programs represent lower overhead than programs delivered on traditional campus.

Some literature suggests that cost savings can be as much as 30 to 40 percent over time. Of course, there is an initial upfront investment in software, hardware, faculty, and staff training.

But where do those savings come from?

On a traditional campus, you’ve got overhead associated with maintaining a residential environment—housing, recreation, staff, safety and security, even the athletic department—that you don’t have when you are delivering online programs or self-instructional programs.

All of those things can represent somewhere between 30 and 40 percent in terms of cost savings. That’s why the use of these modalities, in addition to the other benefits that I mentioned earlier, can lower the cost of higher education, because those savings can be passed on to students.

We’ve been talking about online learners, but how does this benefit the “traditional” student?

Even if yours is a very traditional institution with 18-year-olds out of high school on a main campus, these modalities can help in terms of retention and the time it takes for them to graduate. Most traditional students go home for the summer and work a job. If you can deliver courses online that are required toward their degree, they can be home for the summer and can pick up a course or two toward their degree and stay on schedule to graduate on time or even a little earlier.

And don’t forget, the longer they are in school, the longer they’re not earning a living out in the world of work. So that’s a big lost opportunity cost. Even for institutions that don’t see it as part of their mission to reach the world through online, interactive television, and so on, they can still look to these modalities as a benefit to their traditional students on their traditional campus in terms of what those students can access during the summer.

What about maintaining quality and standards in the various modalities?

That’s a critical topic. Assessment doesn’t pertain only to traditional classroom-based instruction. If an institution is going to roll out these modalities, they have to implement their assessment processes as well. Luckily, there’s some very good software on the market that can be used to aid in the management of assessment processes as they are applied to these modalities. Some of them are e-portfolio-based systems. Many of them adapt and work very well with these modalities.

The other point to make about maintaining quality is that the course evaluation process, just like the assessment process, needs to be consistent across all modalities. And these course evaluations need to be the responsibility of their respective academic homes, just like they are for traditional face-to-face classroom instruction on a traditional campus.

Are we beginning to see “hybrid teachers” who are able to work comfortably across modalities?

As the generation that has grown up with the use of technology, social media, and all these things comes of age and enters the professoriate, what we’re finding is they’re quite comfortable with this kind of technology. So we see junior faculty come into the profession a lot more. They are the early adapters, and that helps move higher-ed forward as it relates to this.

How do you identify the early adapters?

One thing I’ve had some success with has been developing an internal grant program for teaching with technology. Faculty can submit grant applications that fund initiatives for their use of technology in traditional classrooms. That’s been a great way to prime the pump.

Another way is, when you are filling new faculty positions, to make sure the job description includes the expectation that faculty use different modalities or will be expected to teach courses online, and even maybe a requirement that they’ve had some prior experience doing that.

A third strategy is simply offering additional compensation to faculty for their time in terms of developing these courses in these alternative formats and so forth.

Does adding various modalities mean adding faculty?

It’s not necessarily a given that you have to add faculty, but what is critical is adding faculty training and support for the use of these different modalities, particularly for online programs and interactive television. That support falls under two general headings—support related to course design, and support for the use of hardware and software needed for the delivery of these modalities.

You’ve got to get faculty trained. I can’t emphasize that enough. If the first experience the faculty has with technology is negative, it can set the institution back for years in terms of implementation, because the conclusion will be, “Well, this doesn’t work. I don’t understand it. I’m not comfortable with it,” and so forth. That can really be a problem.

You’ve addressed technical support, but what about infrastructure changes?

Well, the big one you can’t take for granted is bandwidth. You just can’t have a big enough pipe these days servicing the institution. And it’s not just having enough bandwidth on campus. If an institution has an off-campus center located in a geographically remote location with students in traditional classrooms, you have to consider the bandwidth capability all the way out to that location. What does it take to get as much high-speed capacity as possible?

Another consideration is having a plan for business continuity. If you have a power outage, if you have a natural disaster—tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, those kinds of things—you need some redundancy in terms of your hardware, software, and whatever data you’ve got that you’ve archived or that’s in use. What you don’t want, particularly with online programs, is to be down for any significant length of time.

Finally—and this is a big one—if you’ve got an online program, how secure is it against hacking? How secure is it against viruses? Cyber security is another infrastructure consideration, and there needs to be a plan to provide for that.

Those costs might dissuade schools from even considering multiple-delivery systems.

For institutions that don’t have a lot of capital investment to work with, one way they might consider ramping up some of these modalities is to outsource some of it, at least at the beginning.

I’ve also seen institutions partner with for-profits. For-profits will provide the infrastructure and technical support; they’ll even provide assistance with course design. They’ll provide all that and you split the proceeds. It might not be the right strategy for all institutions, but depending on your particular circumstances, it’s a consideration. And I have seen this model successfully used.

There are institutions out there that are at an incipient stage of developing and thinking about the use of these modalities. It may be that they are going to need to look to some external consultants who can help develop a strategic plan for how to roll this out that will address all these different considerations.