Monday, April 27, 2009

Looking to the Future

When I wrote the history of Ohio University's commitment to outreach, I was struck by the realization that we had changed our approach over time, as technology (especially) evolved. We used trains and street cars, paper-based correspondence, interactive television, etc. Eventually, we established our five branch campuses, each of which has its physical facilities, resident faculty, and strong student services. I think it is a proud history that demonstrates sincere commitment to expand opportunity.

What really made an impact on my thinking, however, was the recognition that my own career very nearly matched the history of branch campuses, in Ohio. Most of Ohio's campuses were created between 1966 and 1971; I arrived at Ohio State Mansfield in 1976. For me, the branches have always existed, but the fact is, as illustrated by the Ohio University story, they are a relatively recent part of a much longer history of outreach and access.

I don't know whether the history of other branch campuses can be placed in a series of progressive steps to create access, but the Ohio history does raise the question that, if there were vehicles for creating access before the development of branches, why couldn't new vehicles emerge in the future? It's about the mission, not the branch campus, per se.

Of course, faculty and staff working on a branch campus won't necessarily see it this way, because their careers and professional commitments are tied to the existance of the branch. Nevertheless, given the impact of new applications of technology and the preferences of adult learners, it is worthwhile to ask what might lie ahead. I believe branch campuses represent a "technology" that is changing, and some branches will seize the opportunity and do well, whereas others will deny that change is necessary and resist reasonable expectations of future students.

More and more research is showing that adult learners prefer online or blended/hybrid programs, which give them the flexibility they require for maintaining family and job responsibilities. They also are value shoppers, seeking the program they believe will advance their careers, at a price that is attractive. New business models, such as I've described in earlier posts, that deliver high quality, scalable programs and focused services, but reduce overhead and marketing costs, could do well with tuition and fees that are much lower than is required to maintain a traditional campus, with its buildings, libraries, extensive services, and high personnel costs.

There is a saying about times of change that the train is leaving the station. You can be on the train or on the platform, but either way, the train is leaving. Change is happening in higher education, and those institutions that fail to understand the new dynamic will struggle more and more. Those that understand how to combine the advantages of a campus with the market demands of adult learners, study how to control costs and focus course offerings, and target niche opportunities that can grow virally, will do very well.

I believe this outreach train already is rolling. I'm excited about the possibilities, because there is enormous creative energy in many new initiatives. The tired complaints that online learning can never match face-to-face instruction is blown away by new programs that create highly engaging, challenging learning opportunities, while providing new ways for students to interact with each other and with their instructors. The potential to bring tuition down to levels that open doors for current nonconsumers promises to expand access in ways that can transform more lives than ever. Rewards will go to institutions that are creative and forward looking, and that suits me just fine. What a ride lies ahead!