Faculty Say Online Programs ‘Cannibalize’ On-Campus Courses at George...

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Faculty Say Online Programs ‘Cannibalize’ On-Campus Courses at George Washington University

By Sydney Johnson     Oct 17, 2017

Faculty Say Online Programs ‘Cannibalize’ On-Campus Courses at George Washington University

Who oversees online programs at colleges? The question sparked an internal investigation at George Washington University, after a lawsuit last year raised questions about whether the academic quality of online programs was on par with their in-person versions.

“There was concern among members of the faculty senate that little was known about online programs at the university, how large or how many there were,” says Kurt Darr, professor emeritus of hospital administration at GW. “The purpose was to investigate what we have and how it was being managed.”

A report from that investigation, shared with the faculty senate on Friday, suggested that “there are issues with how the courses are being monitored and how they are impacting face-to-face programs that haven’t been addressed,” the GW Hatchet reports. In addition, the faculty task force which presented the study warns that duplicating in-person programs online can have a “cannibalizing” effect on traditional courses.

Overall, the task force found a lack of university-wide guidelines for establishing and running online, hybrid or off-campus degree programs. “A course or program approved for a face-to-face setting can be offered online without review by the department, dean, or academic editor,” the report reads. “The extent to which faculty monitor some online degree programs is unclear.”

In addition, the group claimed that more on-campus degree programs may lose enrollment when the same programs are offered online, thereby cannibalizing some on-campus offerings.

Faculty members expected the online programs would serve distance learners, while the in-person offering would be taken by local students. Yet according to Darr, who authored the report, they claimed that many local students in the DC metro area were choosing the online option instead. (Darr says the faculty didn’t provide data on this, but considers the claims to be “anecdotal evidence.)

Darr has taught online courses at GW himself, but thinks the findings pose a significant risk to the institution: “We have all these classrooms and if they are empty, what are we going to do with them? We have fixed costs of real estate and equipment, and if on-campus programs decline or disappear, we become less of an university in the traditional [sense] and we will be like the University of Phoenix.”

Another point of concern for the task force was that many part-time, adjunct and doctoral candidates are teaching the online courses and advising students.

“[Part-time faculty] are paid modest amounts… They have no benefits, no retirement and no medical plans that full-time faculty have,” says Darr. “The point is that [part-time instructors] are very attractive in the online programs because they are inexpensive.”

At least 70 programs at GW offer online degrees, enrolling more than 4,200 students in baccalaureate to doctoral-level programs, according to the report. That growing number of online and hybrid courses at GW was listed as a reason behind the need for the report, along with backlash the university has received about its online programs in the past.

In 2016, four former students filed a class-action lawsuit against the university, alleging that their online graduate program did not meet the quality students were promised. The complaint charged that GW marketed its in-person and online versions of the program as identical, but the students found the online option to be “‘far inferior, but more costly, to the in-class program’ and forced the students to ‘fend for themselves’ in learning the material,” the Hatchet reported last year.

Writers of the report noted: “The lawsuit may be a ‘one-off,’ or it may be emblematic of problems with our online degree programs.”

Darr underscores that the report was intended to better understand the university’s online offerings—not to advise against them. Advocates of online learning charge that the delivery model can help provide greater access to higher education for so-called nontraditional students, such as parents, working students or distance learners. “There’s a role for online learning… because students need flexibility,” Darr says.

Still he remains skeptical of online learning’s ability to match the learning experience of in-person courses. WIth digital classes, he thinks “you’re a postage size image on a screen. There is no physical presence; it’s not the same as being in a group of people and trying to get something done.”

The report provides a set of recommendations for how the university should move forward with its online and blended programs. Much of the responsibility to establish regulated oversight will fall on the university provost, who Darr says will help develop a plan to manage the university’s online programs.

“Schools and colleges must assure that online, hybrid, and off-campus degree programs described as identical to those offered on-campus have identical degree requirements,” it reads. “This is especially important for doctoral dissertation advising and examination, in which there were instances showing a lack of clear requirements.”

Other suggestions include requiring all schools and colleges at GW to adopt a standardized process for developing and implementing online courses, and ensure that staffing guidelines for online courses are consistent with those for the university’s on-campus programs.

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