A study presented at the American Economic Association and discussed in Times Higher Education may just tip the scales in favor of implementing online education programs at cash strapped traditional colleges. According to the large study conducted by Stanford University that included over 100,000 students from for-profit DeVry found that online class size doesn't impact enrollment, grades, or retention.
For years for-profit institutions have been the target of scrutiny and criticism. As these institutions improved their models and curriculum offerings the quality of the education began to rise. Now they are seen as one potential important method of meeting educational challenges in the future where tradition, cost, and practicality clash.
The study has some apparent limitations in terms of the range of students is limited. Very large and very small classes have not been included in the study. This means there could be a potential limit to the upper cap of student size where diminished returns begin to occur. Such limits would need to be found through additional research studies.
At present, the study does seem to point to the idea that it is possible to raise the amount of students in a class while not damaging educational quality. Administrators are likely to find such notions that more students, online courses, and economies of scale are beneficial to state budgets. As additional universities move online the study lends credibility to the strategic importance of their decisions.
A potential large problem does arise. Faculty are an important part of institutions and the generation of scientific breakthroughs within the country. Lowering the amount of full-time faculty may save money in the short run but could also damage intellectual research that has multiple benefits for society in the long run. Scholarship can be limited among adjunct workers who are more focused on their industry careers.
Pressures will likely be felt in locations where budgets are overstretched and faculty unionization is strong. The trend may be to move a percentage of the faculty, or a percentage of faculty course load, into the online world where budget pressures can be lowered without laying off faculty or disrupting faculty representation. The development of online faculty (or split faculty) may become an acceptable compromise.
That could be good news for online faculty positions where highly educated and industry experienced online faculty have been snubbed by traditional educational institutions. In today's market online faculty that have a decade or more experience should start becoming a hot commodity for schools that are just now moving into the online world and have few current faculty with such virtual skills.
Technology is changing education in much the same way as it is changing government and society. With the speed of information transference increasing, whole societies are becoming connected to the virtual realms, thereby placing additional pressure on traditional universities to change. Those institutions that are willing to watch the trends, make adjustments, and bend will be more likely to not break when additional change is applied.