Donald Norris of Strategic Initiatives Inc discusses why online learning is becoming a strategic issue in higher ed:

Why Has Online Learning Become Even More Strategic?

“Up to this point in its development, online learning has been waging a battle of acceptance with faculty, institutional leaders, and even some students. Research has shown that online learning has progressively come to be regarded as equivalent or even superior in some ways to traditional, face-to-face learning, especially among 18-24 year old and working adult learners and faculty who were early adopters.

But the Great Recession and the American Higher Education Affordability Crisis have raised the stakes for online learning not just in the U.S., but globally. Transformed versions of online, blended and e-learning hold the potential to be essential elements of the reimagining of American higher education, post recession, to make it sustainable worldwide. Four factors make this so:

• Addressing the American Affordability Crisis. Learners and parents are facing an affordability crisis of unprecedented propositions. In America, the cumulative effect of year-after-year escalating costs of tuition has outstripped the rate of inflation for 30 years running. Gradually American higher education a pricey if not unattainable proposition, for many potential learners. The current recession, rising unemployment, and collapse of the housing market have reduced the net worth of families and changed the educational plans of many learners.

Community colleges and for-profit educational providers have experienced explosive growth in demand this year as learners turn to more convenient, local, high-value, alternatives to mid-ranking public four-year institutions and private colleges. Some community colleges in especially strapped states like California have turned away legions of students this year. Truly transformed learning, using combinations of online, blended, and e-learning, has the potential to both reduce the total cost of achieving competence objectives and improve the success of learners by providing a range and mix of options that meet their personal and financial needs.

The pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education are peppered with stories of community colleges, in particular, whose leaders are experimenting with increasingly transformative mixtures of solutions to these challenges.

• Achieving Financial Sustainability Requires Transformation. The model for funding public institutions is broken, as has been reflected in the diminishing relative level of public support for education in general over the past three decades. During recessionary times, community colleges and other public four-year institutions typically experience their greatest enrollment demand at a time when state and local resources decline. Transformed learning can change the business model so that the marginal cost of learning is consistently reduced to less than the price of tuition, allowing growth to meet demand, even during recession. Market leaders have already achieved this goal. Post recession, the rest of American higher education needs to adopt and scale these practices.

• Transformed Online Learning is a Part of Broader Institutional Strategies. Institutional leaders have spent 2008 “staunching the flow” of the resource impact of the Great Recession. They recognize that they must use 2009-2012 to aggressively leverage stimulus funding and discover not just efficiencies, but innovations and transformations that will enable them to achieve financial sustainability when the stimulus money is gone. Transformed online, blended, and e-learning is one of a set of even broader institutional strategies to achieve financial sustainability that we mention in our white paper, “Linking Analytics to Lifting out of Recession.”

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs. The link between learning and employability is tenuous and must be strengthened if America’s to regain its competitive position in the global economy. Learning experiences must be more closely linked to active, immersive application and to the workplace. The capacity to perpetually enhance competences to maintain or raise competitiveness is enhanced with online learning and Web 2.0 tools and patterns of interactivity.

As we look at the future potential of online learning and competence building, we should learn from market leaders how to leverage transformation in business models and learning settings, as described in the next series of blogs.”

Remainder of the post.