Tuesday, April 19, 2011

31/100: Can An Online College Work?

Charles Handy said - Trust needs touch. But one would wonder how much of that is true, when most people's best friends are virtual ones and there are these strange cases of people trusting people from what they know of them online, often with tragic consequences. Some of the world's biggest brands today are online ones, Amazon and Google and Facebook among them, and though there are a number of people who would still look for a 'safe' ATM machine, Amazon seems to have no problems getting people to use their credit cards online.

In context, would people trust an online college seems daft. Indeed, there are trust instruments which can be built in to create the trust. The problem is that Online College space is littered with big failures, UNext and Universitas21 among them, but this is not about lack of trust from the students; most of it was bad business in the first place.

The problem with most Online College projects are that they are conceived for wrong reasons. Doing an Online College for vanity, for love of technology or the fact they have to be done are common, but these projects often lead straight into oblivion. The Online Colleges, which are meant to be online, serves people who are looking for online courses and offer courses which are best served online, are doing perfectly well. They are not just vanity projects or nice pieces of technology, they are real businesses meant to solve real problems.

The other big problem with online colleges, this is also the problem that plagued Universitas21, that they are often extensions of more 'important' brick-and-mortar entities. It is not that users don't trust online colleges, often the owners of online colleges don't trust them. They try to use this as a portfolio item, a sort of subsidiary that exists nicely tucked into the college as we know it.

The issue is that the Online College is a different beast than the brick-and-mortar colleges needing a different approach, a way of thinking and unadulterated commitment. Tagging it along a 'real' college often corrupt the agenda. Take course offerings, for example. The truth is that some courses are better than online than the others. But in a set up where the Online college follows the brick-and-mortar one, their courses often follow what's on offer at the other college: At least the thinking about the curriculum development lacks the 'pure' faith that an online college needs.

If having a parent college subvert the online college agenda, the other end of the spectrum is having too much of technology, believing that technology is the solution of all problems. Like a brick-and-mortar college, the online college is also about people, good curriculum, great service and student experience. This is not about the latest technology, but something which a vast majority of people would feel comfortable to use. It is perfectly understandable why Britain's highly regarded Open University still sticks to books and videos: That's what its intended user base feel comfortable with. Indeed, it uses Moodle to control work flows and disseminate information, but it has never allowed technology to steal the agenda.

The other key thing is that at an Online College, there is never a debate whether a course really needs to be online. It is indeed the founding faith of sorts that any course can be online, effectively. But this is not necessarily true: The more successful Online courses always have a reason to be online, because they can only be effectively done that way. One has to remember that education purchases are less price elastic than the providers of education services would like to believe: People buy education once in a lifetime (mostly) and this is seen as a merit, rather than a consumption, good. The reason why an Online course is on catalogue should almost never be the cost, though it is almost always is seen that way (Margaret Thatcher allowed Open University to exist because it did cost less to run), but because the inherent nature of the course demands online services. Like collaboration, for example. Course/ subject areas where collaboration enhances the value proposition of a course will always work well online, provided the course and the technologies supporting it are designed accordingly.

In summary, then, an Online College should be perceived as a separate business entity rather than the part of a face-to-face college. It should be user experience and service imperatives, which should take precedence over technology fetish or academic comfort zones. The Online College is a whole new game, and one that will change the world: It needs its own champions and own business models rather than one borrowed from another industry or another time.

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