Mark Jones, Comments on the “Business Case to Grow Distance Enrolments in the Faculty of Arts and Science” (25 May 2012)


The “Business Case to Grow Distance Enrolments in the Faculty of Arts and Science,” which was declared by the Provost to be confidential in early March, was recently released in response to a FIPPA request.[1]  One cannot expect a “Business Case” to be exciting reading.  It can be interesting, nevertheless, to dip into a world where educational experts say things like “Each student who takes a course outside Queen’s is a lost revenue opportunity.”[2]

Unsurprisingly, the “Business Case” is about money.  Citing both the university’s “financial crisis” and its limited “capacity to grow on-campus enrolment” (p. 8), it explores “growing distance enrolments through online learning to help the Faculty of Arts and Science generate additional revenue” (p.8).  In fact, it assumes that “the goal of the [F]aculty is to increase revenue” (p. 10).

It finds that there is “significant market interest” in new online offerings; proposes three scenarios for instituting ten new programs, over ten, four, or three years (p. 5); and projects initial investment of $486,000 to $786,000 in the first year,[3] “payback” on investment “within 2 to 4 years,” and, “by year 10,” a net annual income of $2.8 to 3.4 million for the Faculty, plus $2.9 to 4.4 million for “the Centre.”[4]

The core calculation is this:  “Although the costs to offer courses in this way are consistent with more traditional courses, the enrolment capacity is higher, making this design significantly more cost effective by operating at 1/2 to 1/3 the cost per student of more traditional [presumably, face-to-face] CDS courses” (p. 20).

The following is not meant as a comprehensive analysis, but merely as discussion of a few specific concerns.

1.  Post-Secondary Education as Commodity.  Predictably, the “Business Case” treats post-secondary education strictly as a marketable commodity:  it’s all about “market analysis,” “quality product,” and students as “revenue opportunities.”  The commodity model entails planning course offerings and programs to fit “significant potential market,” and thus sidelines academic oversight:  just as the main object is to make money, the chief criterion of success is student satisfaction.  For instance, it is said that:

coming to market with a quality product is paramount.  Therefore, it is advisable for Queen’s to launch programs with a high degree of interest, invest in the quality of the product, learn from the feedback of students and use that feedback to refine the product and build the product offering incrementally. (p. 38, emphasis added)

“Quality” is conceived here strictly in terms of student interest and feedback.  There is no discussion of other criteria such as curricular architecture, disciplinary necessities, or actual learning objectives.

2.  Alignment with the Ontario Online Institute (OOI).  The “Business Case” confirms former suspicions that Arts and Science has sought to “align” Queen’s with the projected Ontario Online Institute; “by growing its online offerings Queen’s will be well placed to participate in a significant way in this Provincial initiative” (pp. 3, 7, 14).[5]  Part of the problem here is that neither the proposed Institute nor Queen’s coordination with it have ever (that I can find record of) received critical discussion in Senate or Faculty Board.[6]  The OOI is an initiative that could have a tremendous impact on academics at Queen’s, yet many faculty members and students know nothing about it.  The idea involves regularly trading academic credits with other institutions on a large scale, relegating significant portions of post-secondary education to online learning, and probably some version of what HEQCO has called the “greater differentiation” of Ontario Universities, including the closing of certain units and the strengthening of others on each Ontario campus.[7]  By rights, therefore, the decision that Queen’s “align” itself with this initiative is profoundly “academic” and should be one that is discussed broadly on campus and in which the Faculty Boards and Senate have some say.  Moreover, the design for the Institute, produced for the MTCU in April 2011 by its Special Advisor, raises ethical concerns and leaves many questions about pedagogical efficacy, financial viability, and effects on the broader academic community in Ontario  unanswered.[8]  The decision to “align” with the OOI rather than to assess and respond should not be one that is taken unilaterally by Administration in a secret “business case.”

3.  “Distance” as euphemism for “on-campus.”  While the authors of the “Business Case” insist (in their title, in their reiteration of the phrase “online distance learning,” and otherwise) that this is just about getting “distance” enrolments, it is in fact also (perhaps even primarily) a case for more on-campus online learning.

(a) The authors project capturing $300,000 that is lost each year when students take courses “externally on Letters of Permission” (p. 6).  For instance, “With the introduction of the General Organic Chemistry online courses thru CDS in 2009, Queen’s has seen a 54% reduction in related Letters of Permission” (p. 12).  This, of course, indicates  on-campus enrolments.

(b) They admit that “while [CDS courses] were designed and targeted to the distance learning market, […] local Queen’s students were the primary source of enrolment” (p. 9). Again:

Of the 661 FTEs  enrolled in CDS, 85% are on-campus Queen’s students taking CDS courses because on-campus courses are full, or to resolve scheduling conflicts, or because CDS is the only Arts and Science unit offering courses in the Summer Term. The remaining 15% of enrolments are distance students.  (p. 37)[9]

The market survey includes current Queen’s students as one group (p. 18)—why is not clear, if they are not part of the intended market—and the report records these students’ interest in the online courses:   “Some were also excited at the options of taking courses at Queen’s that they are currently considering taking at other institutions, and the ability to effectively manage their schedule with flexible online options  through Queen’s” (p. 38, emphasis added).  In effect, then, the authors are saying:  we’re doing this only to capture new distance enrolments, even though we know from experience that it will in fact attract mostly existing on-campus students.  That is like scattering bread in the market square and pretending it’s meant only for the birds that are somewhere else.  I noted this contradiction to Associate Dean Brenda Ravenscroft in March, and suggested that if Arts and Science were sincere about not targeting on-campus enrolments, it could put a limit on the number of online courses on-campus students could take. Couldn’t be done, she said, since that would be to imply that the online courses were somehow inferior.

(c) The authors propose extending the expansion of CDS to encompass on-campus blended learning, though they present the idea at the end of a list of “next steps,” as though it were no more than an afterthought or spin-off:

Extend expertise gained in new teaching and learning methods to on-campus courses. Use online  learning in CDS as a skill-building function to develop […] initiatives such as blended learning. (40)

In fact, however, the expansion of CDS has already entailed serious emphasis on  blended learning, with already demonstrable  savings:  when PSYC 100 was blended this year, it went from six sections to four while accommodating 200 (or 13%) more students, representing a leap from 267:1 to 450:1 in student-faculty ratios.[10]

I am not arguing that Queen’s should not consider using on-line courses for on-campus students.  In some cases it can be effective.  But if this practice is to be ramped-up, it must be done above the table so that it can be guided by intelligent academic planning.  It should not be done under the fiction that we are building the new facilities to extend access to distance markets, only to “discover” that we have really been expanding the online component for students on campus.

4.  How good is the market analysis?  I’m no expert in market analysis, but the stuff here seems crude.

(a)  It relies mainly on “staggering” gross market numbers:

Looking simply at the number of undergraduate-educated Canadians, the group that is highly primed for online learning, the numbers are staggering.  There are 3.7 million Canadians with a completed undergrad degree between the age of 25 and 64.  There are a total of 5.6 million Canadians with either a completed or uncompleted undergraduate degree in the same demographic range.  With such a large market, and based  on the interest expressed in the market research, Queen’s has a significant market potential for the proposed programs. (p. 38)

This is a lot like citing the number of Canadian water drinkers as a market analysis for bottled water.

(b) It is not clear that the authors have surveyed the right target groups: “a wide demographic representing current Queen’s students, other post-secondary students, and Queen’s alumni” (p. 18).  Why current Queen’s students, if you are not marketing these “distance” courses to them?  And shouldn’t the survey target secondary students in the “distance” markets?  There is no discussion here of focusing the market survey on entry-level students who would love to be able to study at Queen’s but who cannot for reasons of distance, work schedules, or other factors.

(c) Despite the acknowledgement of the leading suppliers of online post-secondary education (Athabasca in Canada; Ryerson, Waterloo, and Guelph in Ontario) (p. 12), there is no analysis at all of how their presence (and indeed prevenience) is likely to affect demand for Queen’s offerings.  And

(d) When the authors discuss their survey numbers, they seem not to heed their own  results so much as to rationalize and override them:

While the percentage of respondents with high subject interest and high probability of participation in online learning is  between 1% and 5%, it is important to note that this result was judged against a very high survey response standard.  Equally important to consider is the size of the potential market.  […] Even a small number of high/high response rates can […] fill the future programs mounted by CDS well beyond capacity. (18-19)

In other words, if just 1% of the 34 million Canadians who drink water bought our brand, we could be rich.  Again: “the Faculty/Department believes there is significant potential with the Certificate in Medical Sciences and the Professional Certificate in Bioethics.  These programs may have surveyed lower due to lack of awareness of the program content, or simply because they were not priorities for this particular survey group; they may still represent a significant opportunity” (19).

The quality of the distance market analysis won’t matter so much, of course, if the expanded CDS is really content to capture students already on campus, as it indubitably will.

Conclusion:  Perhaps because it was meant to be kept as a confidential document, the “Business Case” is revealingly open in its one-sidedness. It is unafraid of treating students as “revenue opportunities” (therefore to be encouraged) and faculty as debits (therefore to be minimized).  In fact, faculty members are generally referred to in the “Business Case” only as “instructors.”  This reflects the assumption, conscious or not, that “instructors” of online courses need not be faculty.  The term “faculty” is used in the sense of “teacher” (rather than of “Faculty of Arts and Science”) only once, under “Required Costs,” and the context is revealing: “Course delivery:  This is usually accomplished by a faculty member or adjunct instructor, and TAs” (p. 22).  There is, on the other hand, considerable discussion of the need for more administrative and support staff:

  • CDS teaching technology position (required pre-launch) – $80,000
  • CDS Student Services/Admission Coordinator (required for admission to first year offering) – $71,000
  • CDS Marketing and Communications position (required pre-launch) – $66,000
  • Marketing costs (required pre-launch) – $40,000 pre-launch, 5% of gross revenue after
  • Registrar Registration and Fees Assistant (required for admission to first year offering) – $55,000
  • IT Services extended IT support (conservative: required by year three and onward, moderate and aggressive: required by year two and onward) – $55,000
  • Online learning IT support (conservative: required by year three and onward; moderate and aggressive: required by year two and onward) – $66,000 (p. 23)

There is obviously a place for such analyses; even the treatment of students as “revenue opportunities” reflects a certain truth about the BIU system in which the University does depend on student numbers to generate revenue.  But it all needs to be balanced with the academic side of the question.  Students need to be treated also as gifted young people with lives ahead of them and educational rights and needs.  “If the goal of the [F]aculty is to  increase revenue…” (p. 10) needs to be balanced with “if the goal of the Faculty is to educate students…”  But for these two if’s to be balanced intelligently, both need to be out in the open.

Unfortunately, there is no consideration yet of the academic side of the question, for it was excluded from the Academic Plan just as the “Business Case” was being completed.  But a new Academic Planning Task Force has just been struck,[11] and one of its mandates is to plan for “virtualization and online learning.”  Let’s hope it can plan wisely for what has already been set going.

[1] See “Queen’s Secret ‘Business Case’ for Online Learning: Questions for the Provost,” Queen’s Senate Faculty Caucus blog, 13 March 2012, and “’Business Case’ to be Released under FIPPA,” Real Academic Planning, 23 April 2012.

[2] Brenda Ravenscroft, Bev King, and Ryan Bard, “Business Case to Grow Distance Enrolments in the Faculty of Arts and Science“ (August 2011; released May 2012), p. 40.

[3] Page 27. This presumably includes the $93,000 cost of the “Business Case” itself (p. 42, n13).

[4] p. 3.  “The Centre” is not defined.  It probably refers to Continuing and Distance Studies (CDS), but the document uses both terms, and it discusses “options” for expanding, maintaining, or closing CDS (pp. 33-37).  (The latter is proved to be “an unrealistic option,” and the report recommends expansion.)  CDS is not usually referred to as a “Centre,” but there is considerable confusion as to what and where it is.  In the “search” function on Queen’s homepage it comes up as the “Department of Continuing and Distance Studies” (; on the “Academics“ webpage it is listed as a “Faculty”; in Queen’s organizational tree it falls under Arts and Science, and yet it manages courses for Commerce and Pharmacology.  Its courses are not its own, but belong to other units, yet they do not have to be approved by the curriculum committees of their home units if they are nominally the same course as is offered by that unit on campus.  In such a case, CDS has the authority to approve.

[5] See Mark Jones, “On Virtualization, Blended Learning, On-line Learning, and the ‘Greater Differentiation’ of Ontario Universities [Proposed Draft Section for Queen’s Academic Plan]” (July 2011; rev. Sept. 2011), pp. 11-15.

[6] Patrick Oosthuizen reported on matters concerning the OOI in his COU Reports attached to the Senate Agendas for April and October 2011, but there is no record of any more direct discussion in Senate Minutes since March 2010, when the initiative was announced by the Province.  In Faculty Board minutes, the initiative is barely mentioned in the Dean’s Report for March 2010, and nowhere else.

[7] See The Benefits of Greater Differentiation of Ontario’s University Sector (Oct. 2010), also the OCUFA Release, 27 Oct. 2010, and Jones, “On Virtualization,” pp. 31-39.

[8] See Jean-Louis, Maxim.  “Final Report, Engagement Process for an Ontario Online Institute.”  Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, 29 April 2011, and Jones, “On Virtualization,” pp. 11-15, 33-34.

[9] These findings at Queen’s confirm what David Noble says of “distance” education in general: “the great majority of alleged ‘distance-learning’ customers ‘are in the dorms’” (Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education (Toronto:  Between the lines, 2002), p. 57).  “For all the democratic rhetoric about extending educational access to those unable to get to the campus, the campus remains the real market for these products, where students outnumber their distance learning counterparts six-to-one” (p. 29).  Note the similarity in the ratio to that specified for CDS at Queen’s.  Noble calls extension programs “the testing grounds for online instruction and the beachheads, so to speak, for the commercialization of modern education” (p. 39; see also p. 49).

[10] “According to Brenda Ravenscroft, associate dean of Arts and Science, the full-year course PSYC 100 saw enrolment jump from 1,600 to 1,800 because it’s no longer limited by space. Course lecture time has decreased from three times a week to only once per week and four faculty members teach the course, compared to six in the non-blended format” (Vincent Matak, “Blended learning to draw more revenue,” Queen’s Journal, 16 Mar. 2012).

This entry was posted in HEQCO, Ontario Online Institute, Queen's Administration Documents, Virtualization / Online learning. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Mark Jones, Comments on the “Business Case to Grow Distance Enrolments in the Faculty of Arts and Science” (25 May 2012)

  1. Anon. says:

    These might be of interest to readers. The first offers me some hope. Morale among colleagues I’ve talked to is so low some are actively planning on early retirement and some are actively seeking positions elsewhere.

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