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If You Build It, They May Not Come!

FEBRUARY 3, 2018

Faculty satisfaction in online courses at four-year liberal arts colleges does not necessarily translate to high student enrollment, according to report published by the Teagle Foundation.  The Teagle Foundation provided grants to liberal arts colleges to work together to develop online or hybrid online courses and educational resources.  While many of the faculty members who took part said they were pleased with the results, the online courses typically did not have higher enrollment than equivalent face-to-face courses.  

As many private liberal arts colleges and universities grapple with dwindling enrollments, offering courses wholly or partially online is becoming an increasingly attractive option for institutions trying to expand their capacity without blowing the budget.  But in the Teagle Report, just 4 percent of faculty members reported that enrollment in their online course was higher than the equivalent face-to-face course.  Most respondents (over 75 percent) said that enrollment was flat.  

Liberal arts colleges may need to think strategically about which courses to adapt to an online format if they wish to increase enrollment.  There may not be an online interest in many of the courses that are commonly offered in a traditional face-to-face format.  This will require doing appropriate research before developing new online courses.  Furthermore, new online courses will need to be promoted properly.  The Teagle Foundation discovered that in some cases, students may not have even been aware of the new online courses.  One of the key lessons from the project highlighted in the report is that successful online courses require full institutional support--from faculty members, administrative staff, and leadership. 

The Teagle Foundation also encouraged faculty members from a number of different institutions to work together in developing new online courses.  The aim was to collaboratively develop teaching and learning resources.  While the project was successful in pairing faculty from different institutions to create resources and share ideas, a bigger aim of creating online courses that could be run by one institution and delivered to students at all colleges in the consortium never came to pass.  The findings highlighted that students may not want to take online courses offered by institutions that are not their own.

While colleges and universities continue to develop online education in order to attract new students and serve current students more effectively, greater reflection and planning may be required in the design and delivery of online courses.  The famous line from the movie Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come!" may not apply to online education.  It may more accurately be stated, "If you build it, they may not come! 

Larry J. McKinney
Higher Education Consultant

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