Friday, March 13, 2015

27. Online programs tend to cannibalize equivalent onsite ones.

1. A few days before the Fall semester this year began (August 2014), I came to a shocking realization. Although our total new student enrollment for the Fall MDIV was perfectly fine, only two of them wanted to come onsite here in Marion!

Our on-campus numbers had been trending low, but this was a shocker, a game changer. What should we do:
  • force these two to go online? 
  • roll them into one of the existing onsite cohorts meeting on a different day than they had planned?
  • have a class of two and pro rate the pay for the professors?
  • have them do it as an independent study?
  • something else?
(As a side note, Karen Clark had figured out about Year 5 that we needed an average of 12 students per class to break even, given the "tax" called "central administration" that we have to pay to the broader university. But we only pro-rate pay below 8 students--one eighth less for each student less than 8.)

2. In typical Schenck style, I sent out a ponderous email to the faculty, brainstorming what to do. My creativity began to go into action.

The class those two students were scheduled to take on Wednesdays was Missional Church. Bob Whitesel was the praxis professor, and I was scheduled to do the foundations. I quickly conferred with Bob and necessity was the mother of invention.

a. The scheduled spiritual formation professor preferred not to teach two students on a pro-rated overload, so I took that over Wednesday mornings at 9am with the two students.

b. There were two very full sections of online Missional Church with Charles Arn. Our problem again was not the number of students but their distribution.

I sent out an emergency email to those two cohorts. Would any of them like to participate in an experiment, what Bob came to call a "cyber-synchronous" class? If I could recruit 6 students from Chip's classes, we could have a live class on Wednesday mornings consisting of the two onsite students and 6 students who would meet live by way of Adobe Connect.

c. We got the six! So from 9-10am on Wednesdays, I met face-to-face with the two onsite students in spiritual formation. Then from 10-12:30, either Bob or I met with all 8 students. Joe and Matt were in the interactive classroom. Mark, Mia, Jack, Erica, Josh, and Guillermo were projected up on the screen. Then there was an online discussion the rest of the week.

Bob was convinced that this was the way of the future. (As a sidenote, I had been telling him for some time that the bandwidth was such that we should seriously begin to rethink incorporating live time at least as an option into our teaching.) The synchronous online students absolutely loved it. (Not sure whether it was quite as much fun for Matt and Joe.)

There was no promise that this group would do their whole program this way. There was always the chance that, come January, the 6 online would have to return to the ether, and the two onsite would have to combine with the Thursday onsite cohort.

3. It was then that I learned Sharon's rule, an insight that Sharon Drury had when doing a study of the CCCU schools that had both onsite and online courses: "If the same course exists at an institution in both online and onsite form, eventually it will only be offered online."

What this means is that, even though almost everyone says that they prefer face-to-face classes, the pragmatics of life are such that inevitably everyone chooses the online option. The only way around this dynamic that I can see is that there has to be some counter-incentive, some advantage about the onsite that the online doesn't have.

The rest of IWU has put rules in place to keep this from happening between CAS and CAPS. CAPS does not recruit students under 22 years old. CAS students can only take CAPS classes in the summer toward their requirements. I personally don't see this arrangement as a likely long term one, but it has held the waters in place so far.

4. In keeping with my usual mode of operation, I assumed that this was a problem we wanted to fix. I assumed that the faculty wanted to have students onsite. I thought it was important to have onsite cohorts. The problem in my mind was figuring out how to get the students to come to them. I viewed this as an emergency to fix, not as a time for philosophical reflection.

But I was genuinely surprised that find that, by this time, many of the faculty had serious questions about us even having an onsite option in Marion. To give a little background, it had long been a matter of discussion and frustration that we did not seem to have a strategy to recruit students to join our Marion onsite cohorts.

When the Seminary was founded, Russ, Keith, and I assumed that at least some students would move to Marion to go to the Seminary. I had anticipated partnering with churches in the area to place such students so they could move to Indiana and do our "in ministry" degree. We thought there would be a residential as well as an online option.

But Russ and I created the onsite classes to meet one day a week so that students could drive in from Indy, Ft. Wayne, or Kokomo. (Indeed, the first semester Paul Roemer commuted from Michigan every Tuesday.) This had an unintended consequence. Even if someone were to move to Indiana for the program, it made more sense for them to move to a church in the area than to come to Marion itself. And the residential campus didn't really have any graduate housing.

I only remembering talking seriously to one prospective student about moving to the area with his family. I connected him to Aron Willis, the District Superintendent of the Indiana North District. But even that didn't work out.

At one point in an earlier year, several faculty were quite vocal about the need to try to recruit the graduating students from the other side of the campus. They were willing to go to the Wesleyan and related colleges to try to recruit students just graduating. But there was another perspective in the mix as well, one that thought of Wesley as principally interested in adult students. Students just out of college were welcome. But they weren't the primary target.

5. From my perspective, an onsite option was significant for several reasons. The main one in my mind had to do with faculty satisfaction. There are some professors who would rather teach online than onsite, but I'm pretty sure they are the exception. My sense is that most faculty types in the academic world--especially the ministerial world--still prefer teaching face-to-face in live time.

Almost all the professors of the future will have to teach online and from a distance. But for the moment, I think most still prefer face-to-face, live teaching, at least if it's a good onsite situation. We are fine with online, but we went into teaching more for the face-to-face.

I'm sure it's possible to recruit an entire faculty who do not need or care about face-to-face interaction. Maybe that's just where it has to go right now. But I still think, on average, it will be easier to recruit and retain the best ministry professors if there is at least the possibility of some face-to-face teaching.

6. So I was really shocked at the ensuing discussion. I assumed we all wanted to save the onsite in Marion. But it became clear that some had become frustrated. Some didn't want to teach onsite if it was going to be the anemic situation it had been in the last year. Some who had earlier argued for a strategy now indicated that they had long since given up any hope. And very few had any interest in the "cyber-synchronous" option Bob and I were trying.

Another suggested that it didn't matter what made faculty happy. It was what the students were interested in that was important, and they didn't seem to be interested in Marion onsite. One suggested that the Spirit might be behind the trend.

Robert's Rules doesn't have a "call to pray and fast for a month" motion. But it takes precedence over all other motions, including calling the previous question. So all discussion stopped, and we met together in silence and prayed once a week for a month. It was a good thing. It was good for us all. It was good for our souls.

Afterwards, there were brainstorms for other options. There was a strong sense that while the onsite cohort in Marion might have a shelf-life, there were other possibilities. For example, we will likely be launching another evening, MA in Ministry cohort in Indy on Monday nights, starting in October.

Sign up! This will be something we have never done before and students from Heartland church will be part of the mix. This cohort will have the core MA courses, but about half the courses will be Wesley professors marketing and teaching special courses of interest to them. Pastors and lay people in Indy should look at the list of options and drop into any individual courses that interest them!

There are other possibilities. For example, if the UM church were to approve us, we could offer face-to-face ordination courses for the Indiana Conference at IWU's regional sites all around the State of Indiana. How about it GBHEM? If you include the two UM faculty from the undergraduate school with the Seminary faculty, then we ironically may have a higher percentage of UM faculty than most official UM seminaries do!

7. Of course I have reflections and retrospectives of my own. I had never questioned the specifics of the cohort model we had used since 2004. The assumption was that, onsite as online, you tried your best to recruit as many cohorts as often as you could in as many locations as you could.

The onsite crisis of 2015 led me to see this method as a little like trying to plant soybean in the same field every year. Eventually, the land becomes spent and you won't be able to plant anything there for a while. This is why farmers in Indiana rotate crops. They don't plant corn every year in the same field but they'll alternate it with soybean or let a section lie fallow.

The Grad Ministry program had tried to plant soybean every year as often as possible in as many locations as possible. And we watched every onsite venue become infertile soil. First the MA in Marion dried up, then Fort Wayne, finally Indianapolis.

Our time of reflection left me wondering why on earth we used this strategy, other than the pressure on admissions people to do so over and over again. Surely it made more sense to "loop" onsite cohorts, like a train that goes round and round on a circuit. On a two year MA loop, you only need to add on average three a semester for the cohort to be healthy. On a three year MDIV loop, you would only need to add on average two a semester.

Every time the train is going to pass the first station again, you do a new marketing push. Since we are talking onsite, there is no problem having twenty or thirty students in the group. (Class size is another debate point. Some faculty don't care how big they get; others are quite particular.)

So I have found myself wondering why I ever scheduled three days of Marion cohorts and why we tried to recruit a new one every year. (Actually I dreamed of doing one every "semester." Also, technically, we are not on semesters, but that's another story.)

So the plan is now to have one onsite Marion cohort for the time being. New students will simply board the Thursday train whichever semester they come and get off when they have made the cycle around the whole track. All we need do is add at least two students a semester, which is exactly how many new students we had this past Fall when we thought we had a crisis.

So if God wants to shut down the Marion onsite option down, he can. But if there is free will too, perhaps it could now go on indefinitely. :-)

Previously on Seminary take-aways:

1. There are key moments of opportunity.
2. You need the right people.
3. Good leaders collaborate and navigate.

Year 1: Launch Year
4. Innovation requires some trial and error. (1)
5. Innovation requires some trial and error. (2)
6. Innovation requires some trial and error. (3)
7. New leaders bring new strengths. (1)

Year 2: Growing Pains
8. Administration never ends.
9. New leaders bring new strengths. (2)
10. New leaders bring new strengths. (3)

Year 3: The Year of Maturity
11. Complexity works against sustainability.
12. There are advantages to being embedded in a broader university. (1)
13. There are advantages to being embedded in a broader university. (2)
14. Our guinea pigs survived.

Year 4: The Year of the Faculty
15. Faculty share governance with administration. (1)
16. Faculty share governance with administration. (2)
17. Faculty share governance with administration. (3)
18. Faculty share governance with administration. (4)
19. Growth means addition. (1)
20. Growth means addition. (2)
21. Growth means addition. (3)

Year 5: The Year of Accreditation
22. Don't underestimate the power of a symbol.
23. A good reputation is much to be desired.
24. Sustainability needs reliable infrastructure.
25. Important decisions often involve trade-offs.

Year 6: Launching the Future
26. Good leaders look for opportunities.

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