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The Distance Challenge

The Distance Challenge

This will be an important year for distance education at Mason. We’ve been expanding distance offerings and enrollments fairly rapidly over the past four years, well above our overall expansion rate. This year we’ll be putting more whole programs on line, with a different pricing structure and, probably, a new marketing structure as well. The issues are interesting and significant.

Mason shied away from leadership in this field for a number of years, concerned about quality and correctly aware that many beliefs about cost savings through distance technology were misguided. We did allow units to move forward, and impressive programs developed in education, nursing, transportation policy and a few other areas. But there was no institution-wide push.

Now we have that push. We’re committed to becoming, at least, a regional leader in the field as part of a commitment to broadening audiences and creating a greater diversity of educational pathways. It’s become pretty clear that, in some fields, simply keeping market share requires a more aggressive stance, but we’re aiming for more. We believe we have a number of programs that deserve a wider audience, and we seek to develop the structures that will convert this to reality. The targets involve a number of Masters’ programs, some new certificate offerings, and several degree completion arrangements, in some cases in collaboration with Northern Virginia Community College.

I believe the new commitments are justified, but it’s vital to recognize issues. The challenge of maintaining quality is real: it’s easy to slide over into excessively large classes, inferior methods of assessment (the multiple choice formats too beloved of MOOCs), less emphasis on writing. We need to meet the challenge and relatedly be willing really to evaluate the learning results. Just claiming success, via more degrees awarded, is not enough.

Cost competitiveness is the key issue. Contrary to popular belief or at least hope, distance is not necessarily cheaper than conventional education. Yet the competitive price pressures are, at least for the moment, much greater. The answer may in part involve technology, but let’s face it: it will also involve lower labor costs. This in turn means greater reliance on adjuncts and new methods of involving a mix of faculty types. Candor is a first step here—let’s not pretend we have some alternative magic formula. But addressing quality conditions for adjuncts, appropriate participation of full time faculty, amid the commitment to equivalent learning results will be a real challenge. This is one of the conundrums on which we hope to make some real advances this year.

Then there is the issue of collaborations. Investing in new types of instruction and, above all, developing an appropriate marketing structure may well involve a partnership with a commercial entity. We’re exploring attractive options as we speak—but doing this right, without giving away the store, will require another dose of creativity. Again, a challenge for the coming months.

Finally, it’s vital not to put so much emphasis on the distance programs that we lose sight of other educational pathways, and additional investments there as well. As I’ve written before, we have many students who don’t want distance, who treasure a more conventional (if increasingly “flipped”) classroom environment. These students need innovative attention as well.

I think we can pull all this off, but we must recognize the challenge involved. Above all, we must not be misled by the technology hype to think this is going to be easy, that costs will magically drop without some sacrifices. As noted above, candor is the first step, in a field where the educational equivalent of voodoo too often prevails in rhetoric.