June 7, 2021
In the last couple of decades, as online learning was steadily being recognized by millions of students as a convenient way to earn a highly prized academic degree, most senior officers at the nation’s colleges and universities paid little attention, dithered or dabbled. When higher ed leaders woke up during the pandemic, they went to their digital cupboard and found it was bare.
The earlier indifference to virtual education was largely the result of having moved up academic ranks as part of the pre-digital generation, following the resistance of many faculty who expressed widespread hostility to online teaching as being a poor alternative to classroom instruction. And many were thwarted by their lack of understanding of how remote instruction actually worked, since they had never taken an online class, and had certainly never taught one.
There was also a common belief among higher ed leaders—as there still is—that building online infrastructure is far too costly. And as enrollments in traditional programs declined, it left colleges struggling to balance their budgets and much less able to finance new ventures in virtual instruction.
Ironically, colleges that invested early, when so many were hesitant, were able to build courses and programs at lower cost. A quarter of a century ago, when I helped launch a number of online master’s degrees at Stevens Institute of Technology, an engineering school in Hoboken, NJ, we didn’t employ instructional designers or videographers. And we didn’t have to dig into our reserves to finance pricey digital-recruitment campaigns. None of those costly resources were essential drivers of online enterprises as they are today. At the turn of this century, adventurous faculty ventured out into cyberspace on their own, propelled by their own talent, accompanied merely by a laptop and internet access.
Recognizing their failure to prepare for a digital future—after a year of so-so emergency remote instruction—higher ed leaders are now trying to make up for lost virtual decades by rushing to partner with online program managers (OPMs), commercial vendors who help colleges deliver and market online programs. Thanks to the pandemic, OPMs now reap the benefits of higher ed’s procrastination. Not until the health crisis forced campuses to close physical classrooms did so many colleges see the cost of their failure to act sooner.