The rush to create large, free online classes has generated anxiety at universities around the country. With finances already tight and with a surge of movement toward online learning, universities are being forced to move quickly to change centuries-old models of learning. Terms like historic, seismic and revolutionary now pop up in descriptions of the challenges that higher education faces in the coming years.
Many institutions have been preparing for these changes for years, building infrastructure and expertise, experimenting and recruiting, and integrating online learning into long-term strategies. Many others, especially traditional research universities, have been caught flat-footed as education has transformed around them.
This point of dramatic — and traumatic — change didn’t swoop in unannounced. Rather, it crept in like a series of streams meeting in a roiling confluence. Only by stepping back and looking in panoramic fashion can we truly understand how we’ve arrived at a point of transformation and how we might deal with it. Let’s take a look.
Technology leads the way
Internet connections, computers and cellphones have become faster and cheaper, providing easier access to online material and creating the potential to speak with, work with, and learn from nearly anyone in the world. Information, once something people had to seek out, now flows relentlessly to them. In education, lecture capture and lesson creation have become easier and cheaper, and online storage has made retrieval cheap and easy. Free tools like Moodle, Jing, YouTube, and Twitter have provided new means of information sharing and collaboration. Smartphones and the iPad have provided portable means of accessing and creating information, making learning more portable than ever.
In their book “Liberating Learning,” Terry Moe and John Chubb say that this technological transformation is “reshaping the fundamentals of how human beings from every corner of the globe communicate, interact, conduct their business, and simply live their lives from day to day.”
It’s also changing the way they learn.
College costs have skyrocketed
The expense of higher education has risen more than 550 percent since 1985, pricing many students out of the market even as a college degree becomes more important than ever for reaching the middle class. At the same time, the cost of technology has dropped, allowing more people easier access to the Internet and to resources for learning.
Colleges and universities have come under increased scrutiny because of rising costs, mediocre rates of degree completion, and lack of willingness to change from a centuries-old model of education.
In the education magazine Change, John Daniel, Asha Kanwar, and Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic have criticized what they call higher education’s “iron triangle”: “the assumption that quality, exclusivity, and expense necessarily go together.” Critics like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, authors of “Academically Adrift,” point to evidence that higher education has become more associated with socializing than with learning. State legislators have also demanded proof that public colleges and universities are using money wisely, even tying additional financing to economic development.
Convenience attracts students online
Online and hybrid education offers students freedom to work through course material when and where they want, and at their own pace, repeating material if needed, and reducing the amount of time they sit passively in large lectures.
In a survey last year by the Educause Center for Applied Research, nearly 60 percent of undergraduates said they learned more in classes that had online components, and 9 percent said they learned best when classes were totally online.
Teachers innovate for a digital generation
Educators have been experimenting with technology, sharing ideas and collaborating as they try to find ways to reach a generation of students that has grown up with computers, cell phones, Xboxes, Nintendo and other electronics. K-12 schools, especially, have shown increased interest in using games, phones, iPads and other unconventional means to engage students in the classroom. Social media have accelerated the spread of ideas, spurring even more innovation.
Online and hybrid education offers new means of engaging students through interactive lessons, videos, animations, games, discussion boards and chats. These are all familiar and comfortable technologies for a generation of students that has grown up with ubiquitous technology.
In the book “Understanding the Digital Generation,” Ian Jukes, Ted McCain, and Lee Crockett argue that members of this digital generation “think and communicate in fundamentally different ways than any previous generation,” even though most adults still view the world and the classroom through a 20th-century lens. Technology-aided learning helps break through these barriers and meets students on familiar ground. It isn’t as panacea, though, as many students lack the skills to create material in the online world, beyond texting and Facebook. Still, it meets students where they are.
Digital education offers a broad reach
Online education allows universities to reach students who can’t or don’t want to move to a physical campus, eliminating physical boundaries for recruitment and making nearly anyone anywhere a potential student.
Distance education is nothing new. It has existed for more than a century in the form of correspondence courses taken by mail. Radio and television allowed educational material, often lectures, to be broadcast, and educational shows such as “Sesame Street“ combined education and entertainment.
CDs and CD-ROMS allowed multimedia lessons to be shared easily, and as the commercial Internet took hold in the 1990s, schools began experimenting with new ways to reach out to students in remote locations. This has accelerated with faster and cheaper technology.
Non-traditional students, those with families and jobs, and those who started but never finished degrees have sought out online education. Many are seeking new job skills to help them through tough economic times, and others are seeking advanced degrees after being laid off or in hopes of finding better jobs. The common bond among all is the inability to return full time to college campuses.
States such as Oregon and Wisconsin are exploring new ways to help students to finish degrees, in some cases allowing them to turn job skills into college credit or to learn from the many free online courses and then test out of college courses.
Related, living standards for millions of people in countries such as India and China have improved, allowing them to purchase new technology and seek out education as a means to a better life.
For-profit colleges compete for students
The University of Phoenix and other for-profit colleges have attracted millions of students and millions of dollars in tuition with online courses. This has caught the attention of traditional colleges and universities, which see many potential students slipping away. Some critics of traditional education have even indicated that a degree matters less than tangible skills, and have suggested using certificates, badges and other means as a way to authenticate those skills.
Research has cast doubt on the traditional college education. In “What’s the Use of Lectures?” for instance, Donald Bligh says that a lecture “cannot be used effectively on its own to promote thought or to change and develop attitudes.”
Hybrid courses, especially, offer the promise of improved learning, though results have been mixed. In a recent analysis by the not-for-profit organization Ithaka S+R, William Bowen and his colleagues warn against the inflated expectations of online and hybrid courses, saying that “there is no compelling evidence that online learning systems available today … can in fact deliver improved educational outcomes across the board.” They see great potential in hybrid and online education, though, and urge educators to explore these options vigorously.
Big online courses gain notoriety
New organizations such as Coursera and edX have made headlines by attracting large numbers of students, large investments of capital, and commitments from big-name universities. That has increased the buzz about online and hybrid education, especially as new deals have been struck and new money has flowed to the organizations.
The success of large online courses, or MOOCs (for massive open online courses), at attracting students and capital, and the success of for-profit colleges have sent many colleges and universities scrambling to avoid the perception that they lack vision or the ability to change in an era of digital learning. No university wants to look like an also-ran.
Those fears have provided opportunities to outside companies that provide consulting, technology, outsourcing and other services for online courses. These companies typically provide capital upfront to help develop online courses and student services systems, and then take a portion of tuition (often about 50 percent) from new online students.
College budgets keep shrinking
Administrators are looking to online education and technology in general as a means to save money. Budgets have been squeezed, especially at public institutions, even as fixed costs remain high.
Bowen and his colleagues at Ithaka S+R offer one of the more persuasive arguments about potential cost savings through more efficient use of technology, personnel, and facilities. Upfront costs are higher as courses are developed, they say, but once a hybrid course is created by a faculty member, additional sections can be added using less-expensive adjuncts and teaching assistants.
Their conclusions assume that a hybrid course meets for fewer hours than a traditional lecture (one hour instead of three or four). Savings grow as enrollment grows, with the same class material used for more students. They see additional potential savings in reduced demand for large lecture spaces, allowing institutions to increase overall student population without building additional classrooms. The same reasoning applies to fully online courses, which allow universities to increase the number of students without increasing the number of physical classrooms.
Where is this headed?
Others have embraced a bring-your-own-device model, which draws on students’ growing ownership and use of cell phones, laptop computers and tablets. Many schools are also investing in tools such as lecture capture, high-speed wireless networks, cloud computing, and social networking, and combining technology-aided education with classroom work.
Despite these many changes, online education is unlikely to push aside a traditional four-year on-campus degree in the near future. That “college experience” allows students to make connections with faculty members, to work closely with peers and teachers, to improve their critical thinking, and, perhaps most importantly, to mature as they live away from home for the first time. With technology changing the way younger students learn, though, and with more new options for learning popping up constantly, universities have no choice but to adapt and make it clear to students what they offer over the myriad online alternatives.
Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the Budig Professor of Writing at the University of Kansas. He is the author of “A New Brand of Business: Charles Coolidge Parlin, Curtis Publishing Company, and the Origins of Market Research” and a former editor at The New York Times. You can find him online at www.kuediting.com and www.journalismtech.com, and follow him on Twitter @kuediting.