Reengineering the Case for E-Learning

Reengineering the Case for E-Learning
President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland University College (UMUC)delivered this keynote address, titled “From the Sidelines to the Mainstream: Reengineering the Case for E-Learning” and delivered in the United States Distance Learning Association National Conference. St. Louis, Missouri.

As president of the largest public university in the United States…and one of the
oldest and fastest growing virtual campuses…I am asked to speak in many different
parts of the world. And I have learned that nearly every nation…large or
small…developed or developing…is beginning to harness the power of technology to
deliver access to the promise of education…thanks to pioneers and change agents
such as all of you.

The early adapters, pioneers and leaders in distance learning are in this room! You
helped design and perfect the platforms, developed rubrics for quality course
designs, developed simulations and learning objects; championed, mentored and
assisted faculty in adapting their courses to multiple student learning styles, improved
face-to-face courses with web enhancements; developed student tutorials and faculty
training, expanded on-line library data- bases, and supported a full-range of student
support services from automated transfer credit evaluation, web-based student records
online, tutoring and testing services, virtual clubs and honor societies, automated
application and admission process, portals, utilization of social media, biometrics for
authentication, automated student assessment and progress reports, timely
interventions to prevent withdrawals, and metrics to assess student success.

You have led the world in the design, delivery and access to distance education! And
your contributions haven’t stopped at our US borders. A young boy in Kenya rides a
bus for 2 hours to a grass hut with 5 computers and a generator. He has reserved a
computer for an hour to learn and explore our websites. He dreams of an American
education. Children in South Africa ride the bus for hours to go to an internet café where they pay to search the websites quickly because they pay by the minute. They
know that very soon they will have access to on-line courses through mobile devices
and they can’t wait!

Meanwhile a young girl walks a long dirt road in a rural village of Mexico just to go
to a study center with 8 computers in it and she studies English for an hour, 3 times a
week. All of us have been fortunate recipients of your ingenuity…and your tenacity
to bring access to education on-line. Please give yourselves a round of applause!!!
With decades of innovation and ingenuity now behind us…the distance learning
revolution in America continues to gain momentum. And not a minute too soon. We
must once again rally together to utilize the same grit, vision, tenacity and ingenuity
that we used to create access to education and now turn to address the country’s most
urgent educational challenges.

Just fifty years ago, the United States boasted the highest college graduation rate in
the industrialized world. Yet while we have succeeded in expanding postsecondary
participation…we find ourselves outpaced when it comes to completion…now ranking
fifteenth out of 29 developed countries.

We are also falling behind on the high school graduation front…with high school
dropout rates rising in both urban and rural school districts, alike. And as we have all
seen, a significant number of those secondary students who do graduate are simply
not college-ready…which means that our institutions of higher education must now
allocate precious resources to remediation at the front end.

These outcomes are taking a serious toll on America’s future in the global knowledge
economy…as our once-sharp competitive edge is now beginning to dull.
Consequently, President Obama has established a much-needed and certainly
ambitious national agenda for college attendance and completion. But unless we
embrace a radical transformation in our approach to teaching and learning at every
level, we are not likely to accomplish it.

In these tough economic times, funding for education is on the chopping block…as
national, state, and local lawmakers attempt to make up for serious budget shortfalls.
And not only general operating dollars for teachers, technologies, and textbooks…but
federal student loan and grant programs, as well…that serve hundreds of thousands of
low-income students.

So in the face of drastic cuts…educators at every level are having to do far more with
much less…while college is becoming increasingly more elusive to a growing number
of Americans who cannot afford tuition costs that continue to move ahead of both
inflation and household income. Eroding budgets are also responsible for a potentially devastating faculty crunch at many colleges and universities. And in the
K through 12 sector…financial losses are further exacerbated by expanding student
enrollments…high rates of attrition among new teachers…and an impending teacher
retirement crisis.

In fact, we will need to recruit qualified replacements for some one million retiring
teachers over the next five years…at a time when it is difficult to live on the average
teacher’s pay.

Moreover, given private sector salaries for graduates in science, technology,
engineering, and mathematics…there is little…if any real incentive…to choose a career
in education…causing enormous teaching gaps in these critically important content
areas. For example, the state of Georgia has 440 high schools…but only 88 qualified
physics teachers. Then there is the emerging digital native generation. Today’s
students under the age of 30…who have grown up with the wonders of
technology…consuming everything that it has to offer.

They crave sensory-rich learning environments…hands-on learning experiences…and
greater control over the learning process. It’s no wonder then that they often
complain about having to “power down” when it comes to participating in the
conventional face-to-face learning environment…with its “sage on the stage”
instruction and “teach to the test” mentality. But for every challenge there is also an
opportunity…which is where e-learning and all of you boldly enter the picture!

For starters, e-learning offers, both whole systems and individual institutions, a viable
and cost-effective way to help overcome recession-driven deficits and address
looming teacher shortages. It also makes education far more affordable and
accessible for anyone, anywhere, and at any age or stage in life.

And the virtual classroom allows the digital natives among us to do what they do
best…connect and collaborate in cyberspace in a way that is both engaging and
empowering. So with all of these issues in mind, forty-five out of fifty states and the
District of Columbia have implemented some form of online learning initiative…with
more than fifty percent of all American public secondary schools providing their
students with expanded access to e-education.

Likewise, most American colleges and universities…including a few of the
prestigious “Ivy Leagues”… have acceded in some measure to the virtual learning
phenomenon…by offering e-learning enhancements, online classes…and in some
cases…whole virtual degree programs.

There is also a growing number of institutions such as mine that have predicated their
success on e-education. What’s more, government agencies…as well as corporations…are saving both money and time…by providing their employees with a
wealth of online professional development opportunities.

As we all know, however, education across the board is slow to evolve. So while
teachers and parents, employers and lawmakers are beginning to wade cautiously into
the e-learning arena…far too many of them continue to equate real learning with
desks in a classroom.

By the same token, online learning is, for the most part, considered an alternative…an
add-on…or, in some cases, an experiment…rather than a fundamental and certainly
valuable component of the learning culture. Consequently, it continues to linger on
the sidelines…when it should be moving quickly into the mainstream.

To make that leap, however, we will need to realign the attitudes and practices that
have traditionally driven the academic enterprise…by reengineering our case for
online education. And in doing so, greatly expand both the supply of and the
demand for effective and fully integrated virtual learning opportunities…that promote
academic innovation and enhance academic performance.
Or as the best-selling author, Malcolm Gladwell, would put it…we must push through
to the tipping point…where the momentum for change will become unstoppable.

We should begin by creating a new brand identity for e-education, in general…while
at the same time supporting our claims with research-validated evidence.

For years, we have been touting accessibility and affordability…as our principle
selling points…both of which have succeeded in opening the door to virtual
education. But to achieve full parity…we will need far more ammunition…and by that
I mean a compelling “call to action “that focuses in on the many academic benefits of
online learning.

We have come a long way since the early days of Web-based education…when our
course modules were little more than a series of hand-outs…published and delivered
online. Yet with the advent of Web 2.0 and its highly interactive technologies…we
have done more than simply imitate the face-to-face learning environment. We have
improved it tremendously!

In fact, we already have formal studies to support our own informal
observations…including a lengthy meta-analysis published by the U.S. Department
of Education…which concluded that, on average, students who learned online
outperformed their counterparts in the traditional face-to-face environment.

So in converting education decision makers from skeptical critics and reluctant
participants to proactive e-learning champions…we must seize every chance to
provide them with the evidence at hand. Because let’s face it…the bottom line for
most academic administrators and legislators is student performance and completion.

Likewise…when all is said and done…students and parents, alike, make their
academic decisions based on instructional quality and institutional credibility. Even
adult learners…for whom convenience and flexibility are major factors…will choose
one virtual university over another because it has a better program.

But given the speed with which e-learning methodologies and technologies are
evolving, we simply cannot rest on our evidentiary laurels…which means we must
dig ever deeper to verify the authenticity of our claims with continuing research and
aggressive publication.

Traditionally, educators have been relatively lax in their attempts to support and
promote effective practices with cold, hard data. And so there is a tendency to make
instructional decisions based upon personal experience or professional bias rather
than on structured research studies and longitudinal analysis.

Therefore, it is our responsibility to challenge that tradition with appropriate metrics
and verifiable data of our own…with which to authentically assess the ongoing
impact of online education on our students and our institutions. And once we have
our findings…to disseminate them widely in peer-reviewed journals…academic
conference presentations…and industry publications.

Of course…while statistics are impressive…academic success stories about real
students are absolutely essential in making the case for e-education. And we have
plenty of them to share…such as this one.

I have a young friend…who as a sophomore in high school, chose to home school
online…based on positive reports from his father and his brother…both of whom are
virtual students at my own university.

After a great deal of research, Zach and his parents chose a highly respected elearning
provider…which they are incredibly happy with. And not because it is
convenient and flexible…or even affordable…but because it is truly meeting both his
individual learning needs and their exceedingly high standards for a quality

When describing his experience, they are quick to point out the dynamic nature of the
e-learning environment, including the immediate feedback he receives…the outstanding selection of courses, along with the ability to move through them at his
own pace…and the tremendous personal support he gets from his teachers, who are
exceptionally adept learning guides and content experts.

They will tell you how much Zac enjoys the diversity of his virtual classmates…as
well as the many opportunities he has to connect with them in and out of class. And
they will also explain how confident he has become in expressing what he knows and
what he thinks…both verbally and in writing.

With all of these attributes in place, Zac has not only become far more engaged in the
learning process…he has significantly improved his grades and greatly strengthened
his college-readiness. Consequently, Zac cannot imagine choosing a university down
the road that doesn’t offer a good selection of online classes. And given his success
thus far…neither can his parents.

This is precisely the quality and performance message we want to communicate… in
every marketing campaign we design…every presentation we make…and every
lobbying effort we mount. In my experience… there is nothing more effective than
letting successful students…competent teachers…and satisfied parents tell our story
for us…to other students, teachers, and parents…as well as to lawmakers, school
board members, and academic administrators.

Moreover…In building our brand, we must look at the big picture…by viewing
education as a lifelong continuum that includes primary and secondary
education…undergraduate, graduate, and professional development programs…onthe-
job training and personal enrichment.

As the president of a university with a large virtual campus…it is important to keep
my finger on the pulse of good online high school programs…as secondary students
like Zac will ultimately drive the demand for postsecondary e-learning.

In this era of accountability and transparency…our brand identity must also reflect
both the institutional and the instructional integrity we have worked so hard to
achieve as online providers that truly enhances our credibility as educators.

As in every industry, there are a few bad actors in the virtual education world…who
continue to sacrifice purpose for profit…by delivering inferior products…dodging
regional accreditation…or engaging in questionable student recruitment tactics to
capture federal dollars for profit. And, unfortunately, their actions have energized
our most vocal critics…many of whom control the budgets, make the regulations, and
make the investment decisions. And we all pay the price for these bad actors.

Therefore, in addition to refocusing our message….we must reinforce our
reputation…by making every attempt to balance academic excellence with unfettered
access…while also keeping our own houses clean and vocally censuring those who

In making a more effective case for online education…we will also need to consider
generational differences when it comes to promoting new paradigms.

As we know, the vast majority of today’s education journalist, decision makers and
practitioners are digital immigrants…who did not grow up texting through life’s
everyday tasks. So it is difficult for them to imagine the e-learning
environment…much less embrace its many attributes…without experiencing it for
themselves. Moreover, distance learning is not a cheap alternative to face-to-face

Perhaps the best way to introduce the benefits of e-learning in the world of traditional
education is to advocate for technology transfer in other non-academic areas. At
UMUC, technology has become a way of life.
From standard business operations to specialized data-mining and analysis…digital
library resources to virtual job fairs.

Consequently, both our faculty and our staff have become extremely comfortable
with its use and convinced of its effectiveness…making it much easier for them to not
only understand the concept of online education…but also incorporate it fully into the
university’s academic culture.

And as an adult-focused learning institution…we have also invested in UMUC
411…an online demonstration site that allows prospective students to actually “testdrive”
the virtual classroom…at no cost…before they enroll.

By simply logging on at convenient times…just as in any real online course…they
may chat with other UMUC students, faculty, and alumni…complete practice
assignments…and communicate with university counselors, librarians, and financial
aid representatives.

This demonstration site offers tremendous potential as a marketing tool for other
critical stakeholders. Stakeholders such as state legislators and university Boards as
they are tackling the public higher education budget. Although it is certainly
important to convince students and decision leaders to make the online education
leap…we must never forget that faculty members are vital to our success.

Instructors at any level must have both the special skills and the appropriate tools to
become truly effective e-practitioners. Even more important, however, they should
have an opportunity to learn these skills and acquire these tools experientially…under
the same e-learning conditions as the students they teach. Quite a few of our more
evolved e-education colleagues have implemented online professional development
institutes for their faculty.

At UMUC, our virtual Center for Teaching and Learning is designed to promote
teaching excellence, while also enhancing teaching effectiveness. In addition to
online professional development workshops, certificate programs, and peer mentoring
opportunities, this center provides a wealth of faculty resources. It also hosts a Media
Lab…that brings faculty members, course designers, and content experts together
online to create innovative e-learning enhancements.

The USDLA provides an exceptional forum through which to explore promising
practices in our common quest as distance educators to achieve full parity in the
academic arena.

We must also, however, be willing to reach beyond our own institutional and
organizational walls…and across well-established educational sectors…to build
stronger pipelines and larger constituencies. Because when it comes to winning the
e-learning battle…there will always be strength in our numbers. Still, collaboration
on this scale is by no means an easy undertaking in the academic world…especially
within the higher education market.

Historically, most colleges and universities have been hesitant to dilute their brands
by sharing their turf or their information with outsiders. And at a time when the
resource pool is dwindling…we are certainly reluctant to invite more competition.

But let me leave you with this thought.

Competition is what will keep us on our toes…and push us to greater heights of
achievement….regardless of where we fall out on the lifelong learning continuum. It
will also validate our ideas and help us educate our market…which in turn will
stimulate increased demand for what we have to offer.

Even more important…it will focus our mission…improve our products…and force
us to work harder and smarter in making our case…and making it successfully.

Finally, moving into the mainstream is indeed an extraordinary undertaking….but
one that we can all acknowledge promises an equally extraordinary return on our
investment…for our students…our country…and our world. Our country needs us! and I feel sure each of you will embrace this effort with the same energy, ingenuity
and enthusiasm that has brought us all the success we have rightly earned to date.