The Quiet Transformation: The Online Revolution is Building Hybrid State Universities

Jonathan Bean

This past semester, I took my third sabbatical in twenty years. During the first two sabbaticals, I finished writing two books. This time, however, my university approved a sabbatical for me to develop and expand my online courses. This commitment to develop faculty expertise in online course design is a radical change from the past. My personal experience at Southern Illinois University (SIU) mirrors this change, from 1995 to the present. 

My state university, like so many others, has undergone a quiet transformation in the past decade: from reluctant acceptance of online education to need-driven embrace. Commentators often remark on the rapid advance of online education by for-profit college and community colleges but the surge at state universities is remarkable given how many obstacles these institutions had to overcome. The end result is the Hybrid State University: part brick-and-mortar, part online serving students through two channels both on campus and off.

I arrived at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 1995. The professor I replaced offered a General Education course in History through our Distance Education office. Everything was paper-based and offerings were what used to be called “correspondence courses.” Students worked individually at their own pace and had up to a year to complete. Instructors were paid $100 for each student who completed half the assigned work. Given the lack of interactivity, many students never completed courses and ended with failing grades. The staff needed to track the paperwork was considerable and added to the inefficiency of the entire enterprise.

Meanwhile, technology was rapidly evolving and enabled richly-endowed institutions to offer more advanced online offerings. Even so, as of 1995, Google did not exist, Amazon went online in 1995 to sell books (only), Microsoft had just come out with Windows 95, Facebook was ten years in the future, and many of our lower-income students (our key demographic) did not own computers.

Furthermore, there was opposition to the “corporatization” or “dot.com” conversion of courses. This opposition was born of fear (online courses might “poach” our on-campus ones and the university would have to pay faculty twice over). Elements of our unionized faculty also saw technology as a thin wedge of administrative control or the “exploitation of labor.” Fearful that our on-campus students might take correspondence (later online) courses, several departments prohibited them from doing so if they lived within 35 miles of campus. Regardless, as of 1995, Southern Illinois University was in no position to transform itself because we lacked the infrastructure and our students were not sufficiently online. Simply put, we were not M.I.T. or Stanford. (Even M.I.T., famous for its Open Courseware, didn’t go online with it until 2003).

Technology—faster, cheaper computers, and universal Internet access—was one factor in the move to take the “correspondence courses” online in the early 2000s. Further change was stymied by an artifact of the past: the distance education unit ran separately from the university—it was completely self-funded and received no money from the university or the State of Illinois; indeed, its excess “profits” were handed over to a central administration grateful for the cash flow. The unit was a fiefdom of an individual who had run the program for decades. With an eye on retirement, she had little incentive to completely scrap the old methods and work with faculty to develop semester-based interactive courses that mirrored our on-campus offerings (16 week semesters, no one-year extensions, frequent interaction between students and teacher).

In 2011, change finally came when the accrediting body, Higher Learning Commission, mandated that all online courses had to be interactive (read: no more “correspondence courses”). With on-campus enrollment steadily declining at our rural university, the administration desired fully online programs, certificates and courses offered campus-wide. Of course, our civil-service staff and unionized faculty could have refused change. Workload is bargained and there were some in the faculty union who feared instructors would lose rights to their intellectual property. Online courses designed by one faculty member might simply become the property of the university and replayed over and over in successive years without that faculty member’s participation. Yet, there was nothing like the prospect of imminent fiscal doom to concentrate both sides on a win-win deal: Faculty own their courses and are compensated on a cost-recovery basis (i.e., every faculty member knows how many students he needs to pay a full month’s salary overtime).

The university administration created a Distance Education committee with representatives from all colleges (and our far-flung military program). I represented the largest college (Liberal Arts) and got an inside look at how rapidly Southern Illinois University converted to online courses that existed side-by-side with our on-campus courses. Students taking courses in my lecture hall were also taking courses online. From the student’s perspective, this gave them flexibility to take some courses face-to-face and others online. 

But, first, those of us who understood faculty fears, questions, concerns became evangelists: going to workshops and meetings to explain the nature of online courses, the web design support from our Center for Teaching Excellence, and online tutoring from our Writing Center. Younger faculty were eager to create online courses, older faculty saw it as one of the few ways to increase their salaries as they neared retirement. Fear and ignorance gave way to acceptance (by those who did not participate) and approval (from those who did).

Financial incentives played a major role in securing faculty “buy-in.” An online course that “filled” earned an instructor up to a full month’s salary (11% of annual salary)—a big chunk of change! Two courses earned the same professor 22% overload pay. Faculty members could also teach an online course as part of their regular workload (for no additional pay). The prospect of being able to spend time away from campus researching while also teaching online appealed to some professors.

Of course, the university profited as well. Since 1995, on-campus enrollment at my university has plummeted. The State of Illinois is a fiscal basket case and constant budget cuts forced us to “do more with less.” The upside was that “doing more” meant more money for faculty and the university as a whole.

My state university, like many others, started to operate as a business. We still taught everything from Shakespeare to STEM courses, just as we did before, but we operated in a hybrid manner. It became the “new normal.” Entire programs and certificates are now offered from departments that exist on-campus. Some faculty members are not interested in teaching online courses (participation is voluntary) but they too benefit when excess funds flow back to units to cover operating costs and travel.

Faculty who teach online have become more attuned to student demands. For example, U.S. Military History is a popular subject but one that my department had not offered in decades. I learned this new field (an intellectual benefit to me) in order to teach an online course each year. I also teach a survey course in U.S. History during the summer—a time when students vanish from our rural campus and head home to summer jobs in the Chicago area. Offering them online courses keeps them connected to my state university. If we had refused to change, most would have simply turned to institutions in or near Chicago. Best of all, I may teach the history of war while vacationing in Vermont!

Today, state universities offer most of the top-ranked bachelor’s programs in the USA, according to U.S. News and World Report.  Hybrid state universities are more responsive to student demand and less driven by the peculiar interests of certain faculty. This demand-driven model may usher in a return to sanity in university curricula (courses in “subaltern” theory would probably not “fill” online seats). Consumer sovereignty, so dominant in other areas of the marketplace, has finally come to state universities — a change long overdue.

 

Jonathan Bean is Professor of History at Southern Illinois University.

Image:  Pixabay, Public Domain

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