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How has the University of Phoenix managed to attract so many students?

By Lisa Neal / May 2002

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Brian Mueller is Chief Operating Officer at the University of Phoenix, the largest private university in the U.S. with 110,000 students, 37,000 of whom are online students. I had the opportunity to meet with him in New York recently and asked him about how the University of Phoenix Online works, why it has grown so much, and why it elicits both admiration and criticism from the educational community.

LISA NEAL: How does the University of Phoenix online program relate to the classroom program?

BRIAN MUELLER: It's an exact replication. When we started the online program in 1989, we had been teaching in a ground-based format since 1976. We had developed a learning model that enhanced the ability of working adult students to learn. We took that model and we put it into an online electronic classroom environment in an almost identical form. In fact, if you're a University of Phoenix classroom student and you've become accustomed to how we teach, you will feel like you're still a University of Phoenix student if you transfer into our online program—once you're familiar with the technology. Because the learning model is the same.

LISA NEAL: Is that the best approach to online learning? Diana Laurillard, in Rethinking University Teaching, talks about not trying to replicate the classroom online but instead exploiting technology's capabilities.

BRIAN MUELLER: I don't disagree with that. But our learning model sets us up to be very successful in an online model. We don't try to replicate what most people think about in terms of higher education in an online classroom. The elements of our learning model are a practitioner faculty member, a working adult student, simply created curriculum, a small-group process, implicit emphasis on heavy amounts of interaction—student-to-student, and student-to-faculty member—a great deal of collaboration, and a heavy emphasis on practical application. And almost every single course has a heavy emphasis on written and oral communication. We believe all those elements provide the best environment for working adult students.

We have created a very interactive environment, one in which students and faculty are required to be online five out of seven days every week. And at least 15 percent of a student's grade depends upon both the quality and quantity of that interaction. We're one of the few online institutions to take attendance.

LISA NEAL: If your students are working adults and you want to teach them skills they can apply in their jobs, wouldn't a synchronous approach prove beneficial? Most people work synchronously with others. For instance, when someone comes into your office or calls to assign you a task, you've got a few seconds to ask questions, without contemplation time.

BRIAN MUELLER: That's a good argument. Here's the counter to that: What many companies really like about our program is that it mirrors the virtual teaming [now required in the corporate environment]. Much of that is done asynchronously. We really, really believe in the strength of asynchronous online learning for working adult students. And we believe that as we expose people to how effective it is, we'll [attract more] degree students.

LISA NEAL: Are you part of EArmyU?

BRIAN MUELLER: We were not part of the winning contract. What I've heard is that they're doing fairly well. Ever since that thing got started our enrollments from the military have gone up. So I think it's working for the Army, and it's certainly working for us.

LISA NEAL: When the University of Phoenix applied for permission to open in Massachusetts, there was a scathing editorial in The Boston Globe because the columnist thought the area should have enough educational resources to figure out how to meet local educational needs. Is that a fair assessment?

BRIAN MUELLER: Interesting. State by state, you get one of two reactions…and either is good from a quality perspective. They may say there is a demand for what University of Phoenix does so they're going to bring us in, or they may say there is a demand, but they're going to handle it on their own. [Either way] the consumer wins, and that's good. We have caused a lot of introspection.

LISA NEAL: How much do you pay instructors?

BRIAN MUELLER: We've got three levels of salary depending upon your academic achievements, your academic degree, and the amount of experience you've had teaching and the number of courses you've taught with us. Faculty members are hired one course at a time, each course is an individual contract, and you're going to get paid anywhere between $850 and $1,500.

LISA NEAL: Do you find that your pay scale is competitive?

BRIAN MUELLER: It depends. Putting a strategy together for all elements of what we do is very critical. You have to have the right technical infrastructure, the right student services, the right library system, and the right curriculum conversion. Everything's got to be taken into account. And the ratio we try to maintain is one faculty member for every ten students. We put a lot of money into a four-week faculty training program and faculty evaluation, and we are looking at courses all the time to make sure the quality is where it needs to be.

LISA NEAL: Where do you want The University of Phoenix to go in the next 3-5 years?

BRIAN MUELLER: A major priority for us is to make learning as efficient as we can possibly make it for students. We have tremendous potential given the permanent archive of all of our courses, and all the feedback we get from instructors, students, and companies.

We are working with a company in India who develops computer-based interactive simulations. We went to our best instructors and asked, "What are the most difficult concepts for you to teach and learners to grasp by workshop?" We'll design interactive simulations that allow students to interact with material and manipulate data on their own. They'll be able to observe and evaluate the result of this manipulation so that they can learn difficult concepts more efficiently.

LISA NEAL: What other major goals can you tell us about?

BRIAN MUELLER: We want to get even more efficient about what we do as an institution so that at some point we can lower tuition, making it more affordable for people that don't have access to company tuition reimbursement mechanisms. That's a priority of ours. And that encompasses almost every aspect of what we do. That means more efficient with faculty training, more efficient with learning, so that maybe we can take our group size from 10 or 11 students to 13 or 14, which is a more effective business model.

LISA NEAL: What if you find out that you move in all of these directions and the quality suffers?

BRIAN MUELLER: We won't go there—and that's strictly a business decision. I think a lot of institutions have looked at online education the way they used to look at adult education: Let's use it as a cash cow. Let's put 100 students in a classroom with an instructor and make a lot of money. And we'll use that money to fund some budget deficits we've got in our core business.

LISA NEAL: Don't you think many people perceive online learning as a way of saving money?

BRIAN MUELLER: Well, I don't believe there's anything wrong with that. The problem I have is with institutions who say, "Let's get a rock-star faculty member, put a thousand students in a class, and make a lot of money"—there are people who are going at it that way.

LISA NEAL: What do you think of the MIT initiative to put all their courses online?

BRIAN MUELLER: If they want to take outstanding lecturers and put them online and make information available to people, I think that's great. It's like an expansion of a library, and they're providing a tremendous benefit to the world. But would they be successful if they told a student to access the lectures online, read the textbook, take a test and then we'll give you credit? I don't think that would be a successful education process. I don't think that's education. But to make that material available is great.


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