The Pulse of Higher Ed

Perspectives on Online and Professional Education
from UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Experts

Online Education Truly Coming of Age

A person (Andy Casiello) smiling

By Andy Casiello

When I was just beginning my career in higher education, after a couple of relatively short stints rebuilding television systems at two community colleges in Massachusetts, I landed the job of chief television engineer for the College of Engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The operation I worked within was then called the “Office of Extended Engineering Education”, or “OE3” to the engineering faculty. OE3 used videotaped recordings, and later, satellite technology through National Technological University, to transmit live engineering classes from the Amherst campus, which were then duplicated and shipped to students at industrial locations around Western Massachusetts and beyond. 

OE3 was my introduction to Distance Education. While there was ARPANET, CSNET, and BITNET, there was no Internet in those days. “Online” referred to work with editing broadcast quality master tapes vs “offline”, where we were using duplicated copies at lower quality to create an “edit decision list” prior to final production. 

My career goal at that time was to get to New York City, and to work for NBC in the television engineering operation. I had taken a few trips to NYC while I was doing my undergraduate coursework to bow at the foot of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the home of RCA and NBC. My steps to NBC were apparently going to go by way of UMass, while I built my credentials in managing television studio infrastructures and staffing. 

I never made it to NBC, and that’s okay. I still go by there any time I’m in the city. As it turned out, my career has been in higher education. I finally figured that out about 20 years ago and I went on to invest in my own graduate education, with a masters in Instructional Design and a PhD in Higher Education Administration.    

From my early position at UMass, I became involved with National Technological University (NTU), a satellite technology based distance education institution, conceived of by the dean of engineering at Colorado State University. UMass was a member school, which allowed me to get to know the great folks at NTU. They eventually hired me to come to Colorado as their Satellite Network Director, and later, Vice President for Technology.  

Old Dominion University (ODU) was one of the 57 larger engineering schools who were NTU member schools too. Over the years I built a strong relationship with the distance learning folks at ODU, and I watched as they built and expanded their educational network, then known as “Teletechnet”. After 10 years at NTU, I joined the ODU leadership team, and eventually took over their entire distance learning operation. At ODU, I led a group of 165 staff and reported to the university Provost.  During my time at ODU, I converted the program from “Teletechnet” to “ODUOnline”, and grew enrollment from about 1,500 purely distance students, to over 6,500 fully online students in 2023.  

At the time I was at UMass, during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, “Distance Education” played a much smaller role in higher education. It was a vital role though, especially in engineering and health sciences, and related fields where the need for continuing education is extremely critical. Those of us involved then were, and still are, passionate about the purpose and execution of distance education. We had to fight hard for attention among the many critical areas in need of resources within our institutions.  

Today that fight for resources continues, however the fight for attention has become much less of an issue. This is especially true within the offices of an institution’s leadership, the budget offices and in enrollment management circles.  

I first got involved with UPCEA during my time at UMass, when it was then known as UCEA. In recent years UPCEA has grown to be a powerhouse in online learning leadership. I have found it to be an incredible network of amazing professionals, who all learn and share from and with each other. I was honored to be asked to take part in the development of UPCEA’s Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership, a work that we are all quite proud of. I really recommend anyone involved in this field to spend some time with the hallmarks, as they are quite a comprehensive look at what needs to be considered when managing online education moving forward.  

As leaders of online and continuing education at colleges and universities, we now often find ourselves at the “tip of the spear” with regard to enrollment stability and growth, which often, therefore, equates to institutional fiscal health and growth. 

I recently had the opportunity to take part in an UPCEA evaluation of the organizational structure and performance of the online education divisions within a moderate-sized university in the mid-west region of the United States. What we learned from the leadership and staff at that institution was something that we’ve heard repeatedly in recent years: enrollment in online programs at their institution is critical to the current strategy and the very fiscal health of their university. 

UPCEA and many other organizations involved in higher education have been predicting and reporting on the demographic cliff that we are now facing head-on. UPCEA participants are probably very used to sharing concerns over the enrollment cliff, as well as other relevant factors such as increasing competition in online education, and the increasing costs related to the marketing and advertising of online programs. The factors of the reduction of individuals of traditionally aged prospective students, increasing competition of institutions reaching farther and farther from their own backyards, and the overall arms race in costly marketing and promotion of online programs are now converging to the point where many institutions are really feeling the pain. 

Why call it an “arms race”? To receive the best placement of our products within high-return marketing placement for pay-per-click ads, and search engine optimization (SEO), we compete against each other to receive top placement by Google and other platforms regarding search terms such as “management of business administration online” or “electrical engineering education”. We work hard, and pay dearly, to keep our institutions top of mind within our own regions, while we look to geofencing our marketing power into other regions with “look alike” populations with potentially high interest in our academic programs. 

Many of us with enrollment increases in online education have worked to create tuition revenue share arrangements within our institutions to increase the annual funding allotted to us, to feed this hungry area of marketing and advertising media purchases. We simultaneously grow our talented marketing teams and with it, program quality, while we refine our work in “improving the yield” with the enrollment performance of those programs. 

Ever increasingly, institutions have turned to online education as a savior as the demographic cliff and increased competition have eaten away at their campus enrollments. Where we used to look to “non-traditional” students who needed the flexibility of distance programs and courses, we’re now in an era of declined populations of traditionally aged students who are now also often demanding that same flexibility

A significant problem to late-comer institutions to online education is that they are reaching out at a time where enrollment declines in on-campus programs have negatively affected their ability to fund the growth of online programs on their campuses. 

In an UPCEA Industry Spotlight article, dated February 28, 2024, Kevin Phang, VP, Partnership Development, Marketing & Enrollment for Noodle, cited a X post from mathematics professor Robert Talbert, who argued that higher education needed to treat innovations the same way that businesses do, by continuing to develop and evaluate them, talking with users during the process. In his article, Phang noted that “you can’t wait for problems to arise before addressing them”. So true. It seems that there are quite a few institutions that should have been aware of the present issues within plenty of time to begin addressing them some years ago. In my experience, the very well-meaning institutions that I have been involved with, among many others, don’t put enough effort into forecasting past the current fiscal year, never mind the decade ahead that would be needed to prepare sufficiently for such dramatic changes in our environments. 

Among the various institutional leaders at colleges and universities, the institutions Chief Online Learning Officers (COLO) must, among many other talents and areas of responsibility, be among the few that take time to forecast into the future to assist the institution in navigating the choppy waters of enrollment stability and growth, quality of education, competition, and collaboration in higher education. This individual needs a seat at the table within the president’s cabinet and within the provost’s council, in communicating not only today’s realities, but what tomorrow will bring, and how to steer the institution through the unknown. Online education development needs financial resources, talented staffing, and smart partnerships. We cannot solve enrollment problems on campus without these resources. Institutional leadership must be made aware of the criticality of making real investments into the future of online education, and the need to do it now. 

In my mind, and to many of my colleagues, UPCEA represents an oasis in these times, where like minds and individuals undergoing similar situations and challenges can share with each other, learn from each other, and improve the overall health and wellbeing of our beloved institutions of higher education. Our members can help each other reinforce the reality that simply because you gave your faculty members a webcam, and made arrangements to secure Zoom accounts, you did not convert your programs to “totally online”. I shuddered one time when during the peak of the COVID pandemic, a respected colleague informed me proudly that they had moved their programs to “fully online” over a two-week period, as if that was the last consideration they had to give to that particular issue. 

As a member of UPCEA, we know that institutions really need us to be the voice of the future of education. None of us believe that classrooms will go away, and we don’t want that to happen. But technology isn’t going away, either. That’s a good thing as well. Those of us who take control of our opportunities to use these technologies to expand the excellent work of our faculty and institutions are guiding those institutions to a healthier, more productive, and more effective future. 

To be an effective chief online learning officer takes a lot of talents. You must know what is happening in the building next to yours and in operations around the world. You must be aware of global, financial, and technological change and advancement issues. You must understand what it takes to create the highest quality educational products, how to support students around the world, how to tell the stories of your institution and its great faculty and programs.  You must know what has happened before in higher education and what is coming next. You must understand the needs of faculty and students, as well as your partners in industry and the needs of the institution itself. You must fight for your institutions, internally and externally, and demand the most from yourself and your organization. You must lead from a position of knowledge, driven by data, communications, and relationships built on trust. 

These can be daunting demands, but with the help of organizations like UPCEA, you do not have to do it alone.  If you involve yourselves, you will not find your institution lagging woefully behind where others are leading or find yourself unaware that it takes more than a big webcam order to truly convert an institution to fully online. 

Again, I am grateful to our colleagues within UPCEA and our member schools who bring ideas, reports, results, and occasionally laughter and levity to our otherwise quite serious responsibilities to our students and to the world around us. UPCEA helps us to remember that we cannot wait for problems to arise before we begin to address them.  

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