WCET Post on Distance Education Misconceptions

It is gratifying to see WCET pick up the mantle with their analysis of distance learning based on the new IPEDS data. They have several posts up already, and today’s post is quite good and important. If only more people jumping into the fray on higher education history and reform would start with a grounding in facts, the public debate and resulting recommendations would be much more useful.

It is surprising how many times people conflate distance (or online) education with for-profit institutions. Often these are people who should know better, whether in Congress, the press, research universities, or other higher education pundits. Certainly, the for-profits have had a huge impact on the distance education world, but maintaining unfounded perceptions does not inform policy or practice. Some examples:

  • Scene 1: A fiscal analyst calls Russ Poulin saying that he is glad to see an article in the higher education press about public and non-profit institutions finally starting to get into distance education. Russ asked him if he knew that the majority of enrollments in distance education were in public and non-profit institutions. The analyst would not believe it at all. Heavy sigh.

  • Scene 2: At the opening press conference for one of the big-name MOOC providers, a member of the press asked if the MOOC leaders had sought advice from others already involved in distance education. One of the MOOC leaders responded that they saw no reason to consult with for-profit institutions. Did we mention this was someone from a research university? First, the leader thought that distance education equated with for-profit institutions. Second, even if only for-profits were involved, wouldn’t you want to learn from those with experience? Double sigh.

The post analyzes much of the same data that I covered here, but Russ and Terri have pulled out some important and little-understood findings, including the following:

  • For Fully Distance Students, Just Over One-Third Enroll in For-profit Institutions
  • Fully Distance Students are Nearly Half of For-Profit Enrollments; Around 10% for Other Sectors
  • Two-thirds of Students Enrolled in At Least One Distance Course Are at a Public Institution

There’s much more data and analysis at WCET’s blog – I recommend reading the entire post.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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2 Responses to WCET Post on Distance Education Misconceptions

  1. Phil,

    The British Open University is a publicly supported institution, which I blog about at:

    David L. Kirp on the British Open University

    Kirp is a professor at UC Berkeley. If you check out the above blog post, you’ll find that he’s skeptical about some distance education programs, but he loves the British OU.

    What I didn’t mention in the blog post above is this:

    Back in the late 90’s the British Open University spent around $20 million dollars trying to establish operations here in the United States. Unfortunately, they gave up.

    According to Berkeley Professor David L. Kirp, the OU decided to throw in the towel once they realized how expensive it would be to get certified in all fifty states by higher education’s gatekeepers, the accrediting agencies.

    They also tried to partner up with the California State University system, but according to Kirp it didn’t work out largely because of a not-invented-here attitude on the part of the CSU faculty and administrators.

    If this bit of history interests you, you can read about it in Kirp’s book:

    Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education
    Chapter 10: The British are Coming – and Going


  2. Phil Hill says:

    Fred, thanks for link and reference. I read his book awhile ago – I’ll find and dig it out of storage (a physical version of googling, for the younger readers) as that story is of interest.

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