The Dilemma of Politics and Policies in Online Academic Progress

The Dilemma of Politics and Policies in Online Academic Progress

Mark Allan Kinders, Adrienne D. Nobles
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 26
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2410-7.ch005
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Higher education is criticized for failing to be nimble and flexible in meeting student professional development needs in a cost-effective and timely manner. This assessment is advanced through conservative policy agendas in which elected and social decision-makers argue the primary mission of higher education should be narrowly focused on workforce development to propel the American economy. Yet, many influencers misunderstand the efficiency and effectiveness of higher education in providing broad access to a quality education that meets students where they are at. An excellent illustration of this is the dramatic growth of institutions offering online academic programs. However, this highly popular delivery mechanism is still emerging in the higher education competitive marketplace. These trends already illustrate that the substantial fiscal risks require that institutions have absolute clarity in what and how they will invest in costly start-up programs.
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Society at large, Corporate America and Main Street business leaders, and state decision-makers for the past decade have asserted that higher education must move away from traditional bricks and mortar campuses and instead provide increasing opportunities for students to participate in an online education experience. The reality is that institutions across the United States are increasingly engaged in responding to these demands.

This public perspective represents a political problem of growing skepticism of higher education’s usefulness to society that mirrors centuries-old complaints and policy debates about higher education’s lack of leadership, a curriculum that does not reflect the needs of business, and that is overpriced for students.

But today’s reality is that higher education is responding effectively to dramatically shifting demographics of college attendees and their expectations of how their lives will be improved by earning a degree. The Academy recognizes the stratification, commonalities, and conflicts of its prospective students: traditional students, adult learners, returning students, part-time students, veterans, and graduate students.

For public institutions, diversifying and expanding their student bodies not only fulfils their mission of providing equity in access, but from a pragmatic standpoint this diversification in securing learners represents a reliable revenue source to offset debilitating disinvestment by the government. Private institutions are in the lead among all tiers of higher education in turning to online as a means to generate new revenue and increase their enrollment. Higher education has become astute at identifying the strategic messages that appeal to these diverse student cohorts. Finally, it has identified the most and least effective traditional and social media communication channels to build top-of-mind institutional branded awareness among prospects that will convert them into enrolled students.

Yet, there are substantial risks involved for institutions as they embrace this new delivery mechanism. These include expensive start-up costs; faculty participation in designing course content; programs that do not fit well into an online environment because of demands for face-to-face contact, including such disciplines as fine arts, performing arts, safety sciences, and some professional programs; marketing strategies and messaging to reach diverse prospective student cohorts with differing needs and preferences; ownership of the curricula; effectively connecting and engaging with online students so they will graduate; assessing a program’s educational and fiscal outcomes; and increasing competition in the online marketplace.

Commitment to an online environment also can be confronted with internal resistance. Consider the findings of business researchers Kotter and Cohen (2002). Through consulting work over decades with hundreds of corporations and non-profits, and thousands of executives, they conclude that the greatest challenge to any organization is resistance to change. They demonstrate through extensive case studies that the lessons learned by these organizations show that meaningful change can occur in a timely and effective manner through enlightened organizational leadership.

Further upsetting this already challenging landscape was the dramatic shift to online delivery in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutions were overwhelmingly required, often with preparation time of only a few weeks, to move all classes into an online environment to complete the 2019-2020 academic year. At the time of the writing of this chapter, the discussion in leading higher education and mainstream media, such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, revealed pervasive uncertainty on how soon campuses would return to face-to-face instruction versus expanded online offerings. Complicating the environment were additional concerns of declining enrollments, with prospective students exhibiting uncertainty regarding whether a pervasive online presence would meet their perception of a higher education experience.

This chapter explores the pressures and challenges that institutions were considering in this still-emerging educational delivery system before the added stress of the pandemic.

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