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For those, like me, who have defended digital education for a couple of decades, enrolling thousands of online students feels like a triumph -- at first. Enrolling students without ensuring they can succeed is terribly unwise.To do it right, senior academic leaders must know who their virtual students are.Online rescues them, giving them the unprecedented opportunity to earn a degree without the stress of commuting or taking classes at night.
In an earlier essay, I noticed that while between 20 and 30 percent of academic budgets support on-campus student services -- study centers, career services, health care, clubs and support for learning and other disabilities, among dozens of other benefits -- I was hard-pressed to find a single line item anywhere I searched showing what colleges and universities spend on online student support.
A very telling disparity in how much deliberation and resources go to virtual learners.
Tossed about in life, underrepresented students are often knocked about again online, with endless video lectures -- no better online than in lecture halls on campus -- with little or no interaction, sending listless students fleeing.
Chances are that dispiriting low retention and graduation rates at some schools result from remote students escaping death by Power Point.
As expected, part-time students on campus, too, have a high dropout rate.
But insightfully, her research concludes that “there is no difference between online and on-campus part-time students.” Digging through the dizzying literature, some observers, focusing on poor outcomes, caution low-income students about going online, fearing that the virtual classroom is a setup, driving them to fail or drop out, causing them to stumble out of higher education without a prized degree in hand.Forced to work, they often can’t cavalierly quit their jobs and take conventional courses on campus.With families to care for and demands at work, online is naturally their best -- and may be their only -- possible option.When budget records are silent, it’s a sure sign that very little is actually spent. It’s as if online students don’t need anything but digital classrooms taught by virtual instructors to make it through.Most schools act as if remote learners can get along almost entirely on their own, like teenagers playing video games. At Wall Street-backed for-profits and, sadly, even at some exemplary institutions, too, virtual students are merely fresh fish, ready to be reeled in as profitable revenue streams.In sharp contrast, about 80 percent of remote learners work, either full- or part-time, strikingly different key data points that tell us almost everything we need to know about these very different populations.In other ways, too, online and on-campus learners are quite different, with those online being predominantly older, adult learners who admit they have lower expectations about their academic achievement.Online is a crucial path for many underrepresented students and should expand.But if colleges don’t understand how virtual students differ from their residential peers and support them with robust online student services, Robert Ubell writes, they will miss the mark.Removed from the pressing demands of distant learners, senior academic officers rarely add even a sliver of a line item in their academic spreadsheets to cover virtual student services.Lisa Bellantuono, now director of graduate admissions operations at George Washington University, who recently ran online student recruitment at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, is among the most astute leaders recognizing the obstacles virtual students must jump.