Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Old-School Adminstration of Online Learning

My learning experiences in the online program I'm taking have generally been great. There's no other way I could have taken my masters without moving or quitting my job, and I've learned more in some of these online courses than I did in my entire face-to-face undergraduate degree. The freedom to learn on my own schedule, using online resources and participating in discussion forums suits me fine. That's the good news.

The bad news is that although Memorial University offers online learning, they clearly have no understanding of what online students are looking for, or they understand the needs, but choose to ignore them. Within the program, which is all online, specific courses tend to be run reasonably well, but the administration of the overall program is almost hilariously out of touch. They don't seem to understand that students learning online require a different way of operating. Examples:
  • Online students have to pay a $40 recreational facility fee every term...apparently you may opt out, but this requires approval from the dean. I live approximately 5,000 miles from the school, so I'm unlikely to enjoy the use of their weight room any time soon.
  • Most of the mail I get from the school refers to on-campus activities and guidance about dorms, seminars and people I will never meet. I think I've received two letters that applied to me in any way -- both were bills requesting large sums of money.
  • Speaking of money, online students are charged an additional $2550 for the priviledge of not being located in St. John's. Yet we don't use the infrastructure of the university, take up space in lecture halls or parking lots, use the library or any other services. This year they added a new $40 distance-ed fee on top of the big one, with no explanation given.
  • I decided not to take any courses this term because our baby is due, and I just found out that I have to apply to the dean for a leave of absence from the program. I'm paying them to take courses, but apparently they get to decide whether I'm allowed to stop taking them.
  • Courses are full within an hour of registration, usually with no alternatives -- I realize that this is a feature of most university programs, but shouldn't it be easier to scale online courses for higher demand? The instructor could be anywhere in the world and you don't need more physical space.
I could go on and on, but I didn't intend this to be a whining session. I probably got what I deserved, because I wanted a degree from an older, recognized university, and they've already got a century of experience providing bureaucratic administration. I guess I thought that an online program might be different.

What's interesting is that I expect to be treated like a customer. I want immediate, friendly service and learning on my own terms. I expect the administration of my program to be like managing my personal account at Amazon, with instant feedback and the ability to get exactly (and only) what I want. Education has never been set up that way, but the demand for good, flexible service will continue to increase. I'm feeling locked-in now, but if I found out that UBC or another university offered a similar program at a similar price with better service, I'd certainly advise people to check it out. Is this commoditization of learning a bad thing, or will it force old institutions to improve the quality of the experience for students?

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