Not that long ago, online learning seemed like a brave new world.
But with technology far more sophisticated and reliable today, and most people, especially younger ones, comfortable with it, the future is bright for online learning. And smart universities will take advantage.
That’s what SUNY is trying to do with what Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, in her third annual State of the University address Jan. 15, called “Open SUNY.” The SUNY system is already a leader in online education, mostly due to Saratoga Springs-based Empire State College, which offers 500 online courses and provides 70 percent of the online bachelor’s programs offered at SUNY.
But Zimpher wants to greatly expand online learning systemwide, setting the ambitious goal of 100,000 online students within three years, which would give SUNY the largest online presence of any public university in the country. Students enrolled in any college or university could take online courses (perhaps ones that aren’t offered by their school or are needed to complete their degree) from another school, have them covered by financial aid and get credit. It would also make it easier for students to obtain a bachelor’s degree in three years, something else SUNY is pushing as a way to make school more affordable and reduce student debt. And SUNY will introduce 10 free-standing, totally online degree programs by fall 2014.
It’s no wonder that SUNY and other public universities are looking to do more with online learning. During these very difficult times, they’ve been receiving less state support. This is another way to get students, potentially lots of them, to enroll and pay tuition, while saving on overhead and perhaps faculty salaries (since an online lecture can be given to an almost limitless number of students). But to do online learning right, good teachers — ones who will take the time and effort to interact with students — are still needed.
SUNY has already been doing some things to market online learning and attract students. For instance, it offers a free 12-week course that doesn’t carry credit, but students can convert it to credit if they continue after that and pay.
It should also consider doing what dozens of public universities around the country are planning to do, in collaboration with a private company called Academic Partnerships: offer students anywhere a free introductory course online for credit. The hope is that the free sample will be a recruitment tool, whetting students’ appetite and giving them a relationship with the school that will turn into an enrollment. The school also gets a chance to assess the academic preparedness of prospective students, many of whom now require expensive remedial courses. It makes sense, with or without a partner.