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As Pawlenty pushes for more online classes, some colleges lead the way

MinnPost illustration by Brian Barber
Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Almost everyone remembers a teacher who brought a subject alive with visceral intensity.

One of many for me was an energetic calculus professor who paced the classroom and flailed his arms as if they could clear our foggy mental path through the manipulations of numbers approaching infinity.

Memories like that made me skeptical this month when Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in his state-of-the-state address, challenged Minnesota’s colleges and universities to pull beyond “geography and bricks and mortar,” and move at least one in every four classes online by 2015.

Was this truly in the best interests of advanced learning in Minnesota? Or was it a Trojan horse hiding a bid to slash costs in the face of a fiscal crisis?

At first glance, Pawlenty saw e-learning as a potential cost saver, Susan Heegaard, director of the state’s Office of Higher Education, testified last week before a panel of the Senate Finance Committee.

But after looking deeper, the governor came to see online education as an opportunity to open college classes to more Minnesotans, she said, especially to mothers of young children.

Neither cheap nor easy
In fact, a shift to online courses could cost the state more money than traditional classroom education — at least for the next few years.

“If done well, it is neither cheap nor easy,” Heegaard testified. “Our understanding is that there could be up-front costs.”

State Sen. Sandra Pappas
State Sen. Sandra Pappas

Sen. Sandra Pappas, (DFL-St. Paul) who chairs the Finance Committee’s higher education panel, remarked that it seems counter-intuitive that the costs could be the same or even higher when a class doesn’t need to meet in a building. No light or heat bills. No janitor cleanup.

Other experts agree with Heegaard, though.  

The Minnesota State College and University System is well into online instruction with more than 8,000 course sections offered online, said Linda Baer, a senior vice chancellor for the system. A cost study in 2007 showed that half of the online sections were more expensive to run than traditional class meetings.

Tom Sullivan, vice president and provost at the University of Minnesota, helped explain why.

The fact that so much cyber stuff is free for the finding on the Internet doesn’t mean it didn’t take skill and time to put it there. Building and maintaining an online class takes hours and hours — not only for teachers, but also for designers, coordinators, librarians, graphic artists, videographers and Web developers,   Sullivan said.

The average cost of launching an online nursing course at the University of Minnesota, for example, has been $23,000, he said. In all, the University system has nearly 21,000 students engaged in more than 1,600 courses that are all or partially online this academic year.

Once a class is launched, teachers must be available to interact with students individually and in groups, sometimes by phone as well as online. In the traditional mode, the University could pack 500 students into an undergraduate biology lecture. Done properly online, the biology teacher can’t handle more than 25 to 35 students, he said.

“In the short term, the costs will increase,” Sullivan said. “There will not be savings. . . . We can’t tell you what the net cost saving will be down the road. It’s too new, too evolving.”

If there is an immediate cost saving, it tilts to the students who don’t have to pay for gas or bus fare, parking and day care, said Baer at MnSCU.

Not for everyone
For some students the savings are huge. Take Brendan Babcock. He lives 12 miles from the Iowa border in the Minnesota hamlet of Huntley. When a funding cutback cost him his job as an alcohol and drug counselor in the Fairmont schools, he qualified for displaced worker training benefits.

Babcock wanted a degree in special education focusing on kids with emotional and behavioral disorders. Bemidji State University offered the right program but it was in northern Minnesota, 300 miles from his home.

“At my place in life, with kids and dogs and everything else, this just wasn’t going to happen,” Babcock said.

But Bemidji State is pushing aggressively into the online frontier, so Babcock could take his classes from home. He is required to make just three trips a year to the Bemidji campus.

Babcock said he struggled at first.

“This is not for everybody,” Babcock said. “I’m an older person. I’ve been around. I’ve got skills, and I needed them.” 

Baer at MnSCU said students are led through check lists to help them determine whether online is a good option for them. And the system is working to improve its ability to sort out those who aren’t likely to succeed online.

Person to person, screen to screen

Pawlenty acknowledge in his state-of-the-state talk that “online courses won’t replace some needed face-to-face education and hands-on experience.”

Advocates for e-learning agree.

But they also insist that student-teacher interaction can be rich and full when it happens screen-to-screen. And students can interact with each other too in chat sessions and group projects.

At the hearing, some senators wondered whether students could cut corners without an instructor standing watch at the front of a classroom. Students typically are required to log in to a secure course site and do required work there. 

“How are you knowing you are dealing with the person who signed up for the online class as opposed to their mom?” asked Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm).

State Sen. David Tomassoni
State Sen. David Tomassoni

Barbara Bridges, a professor at Bemidji State, said face-to-face components are built into that program. For example, students take their final exams in front of their instructors.

Bridges also holds regular “discussion boards” with students and gets a good sense of each student’s grasp of the subject and assignments. If a student submits a paper that doesn’t match demonstrated capabilities, “I’m investigating that situation,” she said. When she gives online multiple choice tests, she does it rapid-fire so there’s no time for the student to look up the answers.

Finally, she said, “Dr. Google knows all.” She searches phrases from students’ writings to make sure they weren’t lifted from an online source.

“If I catch them cheating, they are out,” she said.

Bridges eased my concerns about losing those visceral connections. Flailing arms and other physical gestures may be lost to an online class unless it uses video. But a top-notch online instructor is not necessarily the same as those disembodied authorities we’ve all encountered filling out generic forms on the Internet.

Risks political, practical
While plenty of students and teachers alike share Pawlenty’s excitement, worries persist. One is whether students in remote locations will get adequate services for disabilities, tutoring and problems that require counseling. 

A major worry is a lack of good quality Internet access in some parts of the state.

“If you are going to do programs like this, you need to have access for people everywhere,” said Lee Warne, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association and an adjunct faculty member at Southwest State University in Marshall.

Warne is an enthusiastic advocate for online studies, but he said, “The equality of access is one issue that needs to be addressed.”

One longer term risk is political, not academic.

The bricks and mortar Pawlenty seeks to downplay stand in every legislative district in the state.

In many areas, small colleges and universities “are the cultural heart of the communities and the reason why industries locate near them,” said Russell Stanton, a former state legislator who directs government relations for the Inter Faculty Organization.

To borrow a term from Warren Buffett, every legislator had “skin in the game.” It was a reason to fund higher education. If the bricks and mortar fade away, will the funding fade too?

Stanton worries that it might, eventually.

“There is a very big difference between a university and a laptop,” he said.

But Baer at MnSCU said the bricks and mortar will be needed for a long time. The system still will need places where people can meet and network, where new high school graduates can experience the rite of passage of getting away from home, and where students and teachers can get their hands on high-level computers and other equipment.

“In fact, I see it bringing people more together than ever before,” she said, describing a future when e-learning can help businesses efficiently train workers and support veritable think tanks for research at a community level.

For many e-learning enthusiasts, quality will be the key to success. And time will tell what level of quality the state will be willing to support.

“There will always be some people who will view innovations like this as a way to save money,” said Warne at the Rural Education Association. “The concept that you just give it to the students and walk away, that’s not good online learning. Good online learning is interactive, student centered and inquisitive.”

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Aaron Klemz on 01/27/2009 - 08:57 am.

    This is an excellent article – it really captures the reality of online education as opposed to the fantasy version. The quality of online education is directly proportional to the quality of the instruction and personal attention of the instructor. The challenge is that the online interaction is more inefficient and personalized (if done correctly.) There’s a lot of folks who seem to think that online education is the computerized equivalent of a correspondence course. One thing that I wish the article had done, though, is examine the success rate of students in online courses versus “bricks and mortar” courses. Articles about online education always find the anecdote that “proves the need,” a student that needs online options and succeeds. There’s also a flip side to that reality – the student who is a “bricks and mortar” student for all of their courses but one online one, and who struggles in the online environment. But we never hear that side of the story.

  2. Submitted by Justin Heideman on 01/27/2009 - 09:25 am.

    Good article about the realities of online teaching. Having taught online myself for three semesters, I don’t plan to return doing it. It takes disproportionally more time to resolve student questions and problems over chat or email than a 30 second conversation in real life would solve. The amount of material I was able to cover with my students was much less online than in the classroom, and a more frustrating process because of the inefficiencies.

    It also doesn’t help that the classroom software most schools use (Blackbord) is bloated, slow and doesn’t come to grips with the Web 2.0 style user experience most people expect. If online teaching is going to become more prevalent, more money needs to be put into developing classroom software that is 2009.

  3. Submitted by Sharon Schmickle on 01/27/2009 - 10:39 am.

    Aaron, you make a good point about success-rate comparisons. I’ve heard varying claims and seen some numbers suggesting that online students lag a little, a lot or not at all. And I’ve heard convincing arguments that we have to allow some time for everyone to climb the learning curve on the online side. But I agree that that rigorous side-by-side comparisons should be the basis for another article.

  4. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 01/27/2009 - 11:42 am.

    Online learning is self-directed and so not for everyone. Students have to be mature enough to schedule regular times to go to class online. They have to set deadlines for themselves to get the homework done on time. All those skills we develop as classroom learners have to be ramped up a notch. I earned a Master’s Degree through an online, for-profit university while working full time and raising a teenager. It was a wonderful experience; nothing compares to the flexibility of it. I was “in class” in my p.j.s from 9 to 11:30 pm a few nights a week over 3.5 years. I was far more immersed in the material than I would have been in a classroom after a full day of work. And I learned without interruption, parking hassles, weather issues, rushing from work, and missed dinners.

  5. Submitted by Siri Anderson on 01/27/2009 - 11:57 am.

    Just to clarify, the F2F (face to face) sessions of the Bemidji State University DLiTE and FasTrack programs referenced in this article take place in the Twin Cities, not on the campus in Bemidji.

    We are hosted by the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley, MN.

    Information available at


    Siri Anderson
    Assistant Professor
    Bemidji State University

  6. Submitted by Nancy Johnson, PhD on 01/27/2009 - 12:58 pm.

    I have developed and taught online courses at undergraduate and graduate levels since 1996 (and on-ground since 1978 in several university settings). I have had the joy of working with many dedicated students who have been eager to learn and for whom online learning was the only alternative for education (due to location/distance and time restrictions). Yes, there were students who were just punching a ticket to earn a passing grade, but the proportions of types of students were about the same as for on-ground course students. Online students are always awake, and have opportunities to think through their responses (and spell check them) before posting them. The instructor can teach from anyplace with a good web connection too.

    From an instructor’s perspective, I got to know each student very well through his/her weekly (sometimes daily) postings. It was easy to discern ‘voices’ in writing, and all major course papers were submitted to one of the web-based plagiarism detection services (and I offered students chances to rewrite any unattributed uses of the works of others).

    Is teaching online more work for the instructor? It can be. The preparation, planning and weekly discussion participation is similar to preparation for an effective stand-up lecture and discussion, but the ‘entertainment’ is different. Engaging with the students through the written medium requires different (and sometimes more time intensive) skills from effective on-ground lecturing and discussion facilitation. Delivering a lecture to 500 students in an auditorium is one way to educate, and being an essential part of an ongoing weekly discussion exchange between online students is another.

    The concern about verifying student identity should be also posed to on-ground instructors—do they ask for government issued photo IDs, and registrar-issued log-ins and passwords every time they teach a stand-up course? How does any instructor know that the student is the one with the name on the test? Online courses are too much work for 99% of students to hire anyone else to do their work. Onground instructors are spotty in their use of web based plagiarism detection services for papers too.

    Online learning eliminates discrimination based on age, race, and appearance (and sometimes gender). The instructor only knows the student through his/her ability to get the course work done.

    From the student perspective, learning online requires tremendous amounts of self-discipline for meeting weekly deadlines through effective time management. Students also need to be able to research and coherently formulate their written responses, and work in remote team settings. Some students learn better through listening to lectures and face-to-face discussions with peers, and online education is not best for them.

    Not every student seeks the experiences of dormitory life, college sports and campus commons. The privilege of having sufficient means (or loans) to take oneself out of the earning stream and dedicate years to on-ground education and maturation is becoming a scarcer dream for many Americans. The reality is that most students have to fit education into a full schedule of working and other life commitments, and more people are seeking feasible mid-life learning opportunities. Online education provides an effective alternative to campus and residential based education.

    Institutions do face significant costs to offer good quality online courses. They have to license delivery platform software, host the course content and online interaction, train and support instructors, and provide technical assistance to students and faculty. One of the side benefits to instructors is that the development process for an online course often augments the on-ground delivery of the course too.

    Universities have already been responding to place demands of students by offering onground lecture-type courses at remote locations in suburbs or other cities where there are student populations. Online course reduce remote location and staffing expenses for the colleges/universities.

    Will online education reduce educational delivery costs eventually? Yes, it could but as Sullivan points out there are development and on-going costs. In any cost-benefits evaluation, the scope of the factors and time used affect the outcome dramatically. Many of the resources used on online education are used in on-ground education also, all of which benefit the students. Trying to isolate the full range of factors involved in one means of education can be futile. Proving relationships between factors such as physical facilities and educational quality can be a specious journey.

    Education needs to respond to the needs of students–and the growing demand for online courses dictates the academic delivery models. Public schools need to be able to offer accessible learning to the citizens of the state.

  7. Submitted by Siri Anderson on 01/27/2009 - 01:00 pm.

    The movement to evaluate education based on outcome data is exciting.

    For the record, students in the online education courses of Bemidji State University: are not self-directed; are using Web 2.0 technologies; receive personal feedback directly from their professors on a weekly basis; and, are performing very well on external accountability measures–such as the state’s PRAXIS tests and employment outcomes.

    Certainly just as online learning is not for all students, online teaching is also not for all instructors. It would seem, as well, that outcomes cannot be over-generalized by delivery method alone. Related cost-benefits of the various delivery models both to the institutions that offer them and the students that take them is certainly an area that needs more research.

    Siri Anderson
    Assistant Professor
    Bemidji State University

  8. Submitted by Len Lichtblau on 01/27/2009 - 10:13 pm.

    As you so correctly point out, QUALITY online education is very difficult to accomplish and is NOT less expensive than live instruction to develop and support. But the issue is deeper.

    When I first began to develop online educational programs for health care students in 1995 (another lifetime), the fear I had was that instead of replacing the textbook with online content, to be guided by a teacher, universities would keep the textbook and replace the instructor. Guess what; that is often today’s reality.

    We at the University of Minnesota should take aim at the best universities in the country, not merely the best online universities. In an effort to save and make money, the state is telling us to compete with Cappella University and the University of Phoenix (wow!) rather than Harvard, Yale and Northwestern.

    I won’t deny that there is a place for online classes but nothing, nothing at all can inspire a student to learn like a compelling professor, and nothing inspires a professor than watching the proverbial light-bulb going off in one or more students sitting in front of us.

    The question is, what is this all worth? Will Minnesotans be proud to be from a place where “all the children are just average?”

  9. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 01/28/2009 - 07:41 pm.

    Online education has its place within higher education to a point but the classroom environ can not be replaced by cyber-ed online! The governor may be trying to make higher education relevant and progressive for the future, but in reality this isn’t the proper time to try what could be an expensive proposal. Our MN institutions of higher education can not and should not be in competition with the commercial diploma mills.

    There are a few MNSCU institutions that are delving into cyberspace and doing well. there is but one state school Metropolitan State that is pioneering ‘working’ adult education on many diverse fronts and succeeding where others have not. What Metro needs is a broader curriculum base to meet the needs of more disciplines. Instead Metro has had to put up with meager funding initiatives from the state.

    Gov. Pawlenty may have a great idea but I feel it is a veiled attempt to slash MNSCU’s budgets even further. You can’t have a world class educational environment on ill advised funding pittances or unsupported mandates.

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