There has been much talk of the “online revolution” in higher education. While there is a place for online education, some of its boosters anticipate displacing the traditional campus altogether. A close reading of their arguments, however, makes clear that many share what might be called the “individualist fallacy,” both in their understanding of how students learn and how professors teach.
Of course, individualism has a long, noble heritage in American history. From the “age of the self-made man” onward, we have valued those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But, as Warren Buffett has made clear, even the most successful individuals depend heavily on the cultural, economic, legal, political, and social contexts in which they act. This is as true for Buffett as it is for other so-called self-made men as Bill Gates. And it is certainly true for students.
But many advocates of online learning ignore this simple point. The economist Richard Vedder, for example, believes that being on campus is only useful for “making friends, partying, drinking, and having sex.” Anya Kamenetz, in her book DIY U, celebrates the day when individuals are liberated from the constraints of physical campuses, while Gates anticipates that “five years from now on the Web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”
For an alternative view
on online education, read this essay appearing
elsewhere on the site today.
These advocates of online higher education forget the importance of institutional culture in shaping how people learn. College is about more than accessing information; it’s about developing an attitude toward knowledge.
There is a difference between being on a campus with other students and teachers committed to learning and sitting at home. Learning, like religion, is a social experience. Context matters. No matter how much we might learn about God and our obligations from the Web, it is by going to church and being surrounded by other congregants engaged in similar questions, under the guidance of a thoughtful, caring pastor, that we really change. Conversion is social, and so is learning.
Like all adults, students will pursue many activities during their time on campus, but what distinguishes a college is that it embodies ideals distinct from the rest of students’ lives. If we take college seriously, we need people to spend time in such places so that they will leave different than when they entered.
Some argue that large lecture courses make a mockery of the above claims. Admittedly, in a better world, there would be no large lecture courses. Still, this argument misleads for several reasons. First, it generalizes from one kind of course, ignoring the smaller class sizes at community colleges and the upper-division courses in which students interact closely with each other and their professors. Second, it dismisses the energy of being in a classroom, even a large one, with real people when compared to being on our own. Even in large classes, good teachers push their students to think by asking probing questions, modeling curiosity, and adapting to the class’s needs. Finally, it disregards the importance of the broader campus context in which all classes, large and small, take place.
The goal of bringing students to campus for several years is to immerse them in an environment in which learning is the highest value, something online environments, no matter how interactive, cannot simulate. Real learning is hard; it requires students to trust each other and their teachers. In other words, it depends on relationships. This is particularly important for the liberal arts.
Of course, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s recent study Academically Adrift makes clear, there are great variations in what college students are learning. All too often, higher education does not fulfill our aspirations. But none of the problems Arum and Roksa identify are ones that online higher education would solve. As Arum and Roksa make clear, students learn more on campuses where learning is valued and expectations are high. If anything, we need to pay more attention to institutional culture because it matters so much.
This does not mean that we should reject technology when it can further learning, as in new computer programs that help diagnose students’ specific stumbling blocks. But computers will never replace the inspiring, often unexpected, conversations that happen among students and between students and teachers on campuses. Because computers are not interpretive moral beings, they cannot evaluate assignments in which students are asked to reflect on complicated ideas or come up with new ones, especially concerning moral questions. Fundamentally, computers cannot cultivate curiosity because machines are not curious.
Technology is a tool, not an end in itself. As the computer scientist Jaron Lanier has written in his book You Are Not A Gadget, computers exist to support human endeavors, not the other way around. Many techno-utopists proclaim that computers are becoming smarter, more human, but Lanier wonders whether that is because we tend to reduce our human horizons to interact with our machines. This certainly is one of the dangers of online higher education.
The individualist fallacy applies not just to online advocates’ understandings of students, but also their conception of what makes great teachers and scholars. Vedder, for example, echoes Gates in his hope that someday there will be a Wikipedia University, or that the Gates Foundation will start a university in which a few “star professors” are paid to teach thousands of students across the nation and world. Of course, this has been happening since the invention of cassette tapes that offer “the great courses.” This is hardly innovative, nor does it a college education make.
Vedder ignores how star professors become great. How do they know what to teach and to write? Their success, like Buffett’s, is social: they converse with and read and rely on the work of hundreds, even thousands, of other scholars. Read their articles and books, listen to their lectures, and you can discern how deeply influenced and how dependent they are on the work of their peers. In short, there would be no star professors absent an academy of scholars committed to research.
Schools like the online, Gates Foundation-funded Western Governors University free-ride off the expensive, quality research completed by traditional professors when they rely on open course ware and curricula. Take away the professors, and many online schools will teach material that is out of date or inaccurate or, worse, hand control over to other entities who are not interested in promoting the truth -- from textbook companies seeking to maximize sales to coal and pharmaceutical companies offering their own curriculums for “free.”
The Web and new technologies are great tools; they have made more information more accessible to more people. This is to be celebrated. Citizens in a democracy should be able to access as much information as freely as possible. A democratic society cannot allow scholars, or anyone else, to be the gatekeepers to knowledge.
Certainly, we will expand online higher education, if for no other reason than because wealthy foundations like Gates and ambitious for-profit entities are putting their money and power behind it. For certain students, especially working adults pursuing clearly defined vocational programs rather than a liberal arts education, online programs may allow opportunities that they would have otherwise foregone. But online higher education will never replace, much less replicate, what happens on college campuses.
Even as we expand online, therefore, we must deepen our commitment to those institutions that cultivate a love of learning in their students, focus on the liberal arts, and produce the knowledge that online and offline teaching requires.
Today, our public colleges and universities are facing some of the toughest challenges they have ever encountered. The choices they make about how they deliver quality education to the millions of students who depend on them will determine whether our country will continue to be a global economic leader, or whether other countries will surpass us in postsecondary achievement. Rising costs and reduced government funding in the wake of an economic recession have resulted in financial burdens that our state universities have never known before, and it is clear that funding is unlikely to return to pre-recession levels. These financial realities are compounded by tech-savvy students demanding a high-quality education when, where and how they want it. Today’s students live lives that are divorced from the static, brick-and-mortar reality of institutions built for 19thcentury economic circumstances, leading Ralph Wolff, president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, to conclude, “Our business model is broken.”
Another Perspective For an alternative view on online education, read this essay appearing elsewhere on the site today.
Addressing these issues in their entirety will take time, but today -- right now -- colleges and universities must embrace new digital and online delivery tools to make educational content available to degree-seeking students wherever they are, whenever they need it. Doing so will allow colleges and universities to raise revenue, increase access and contribute to America’s long-term competitiveness.
The 2010 U.S. Department of Education’s “Review of Online Learning Studies” found that students who took all or part of a course online perform better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction. Similarly, a study conducted in the same year by the internationally known scholars Mickey Shachar and Yoram Neumann that analyzed 20 years of research on the topic showed that in 70 percent of the cases, students who took distance-learning courses outperformed their counterparts who took courses in a traditional environment.
Evidence like this cannot be ignored.
This new technology-powered business model meets the needs of tech-savvy, far-flung, diverse student populations with minimal investment in infrastructure, since dormitories, laboratories and classrooms are not needed for this model to deliver real results.
Most degree-seeking individuals today no longer fit the traditional image of a college student who goes directly from high school to a four-year college or university, lives in a dormitory, eats in a dining hall, and walks from building to building for instruction.
In fact, the vast majority of today’s students fall outside of that paradigm. According to a 2008 U.S. Department of Education study, nontraditional students make up 70 percent of the undergraduate population. Nearly half of them are financially independent; 34 percent work full-time; and 25 percent have dependents of their own. Online degree programs would allow these students, and countless others, to take classes at their convenience while earning a degree from a program with the same admission and graduation requirements as their on-campus counterparts.
The technology is available to make this vision a reality now, and it should be adopted by public colleges and universities so that they can survive and thrive in the short term, while increasing access and revenue, as they take steps to address the other issues they face.
Michael Crow, the innovative president of Arizona State University, is already taking action to ensure that the university will continue to flourish in this digital future. In response to the “new normal,” Crow has called for a “new American university” where access trumps elitism and universities are measured by whom they include rather than by whom they exclude. He is also pushing his institution to reach large, diverse populations by offering online degree programs to those who are unable to attend on-campus classes.
Increasing the utilization of technology and online learning, Crow argues, brings down costs, increases access and leads to successful student outcomes. Arizona State’s goal is to incorporate 30,000 fully online students by 2020, a tenfold increase from today. In addition, thousands of on-campus students would supplement and expand their options by taking some of their courses online.
Arizona State is not alone.
In August, University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa laid out a broad framework that focused in large part on increasing access and accountability. The “Framework for Advancing Excellence throughout the University of Texas System” was unanimously approved by the board of regents, receiving praise from both inside and outside the system, as well as a $243.6 million funding commitment for projects within the framework targeted at enhancing student outcomes and excellence across the system. We hope this is only the beginning of our public colleges and universities acknowledging, as Cigarroa did, that “We must change how we teach future generations of students.”
Setting up the technology needed to deliver high-quality instruction is daunting, but it is a challenge that can be easily managed using the right resources. We believe the answer is public/private partnerships, which was the approach taken by the University of Texas System when many of its campuses decided to start moving courses online. Partnerships like theirs allow the university to maintain control of the content, instructional materials, and admissions standards, while leaving the implementation to the experts.
While state institutions have been analyzing the situation, for-profit universities have seemingly exploded onto the education scene. They have appeared in markets underserved by our public colleges and universities and have launched technology solutions with only other for-profit universities as competition. The time is now for our state universities to capitalize on their proud histories and strong brands and reclaim a portion of that market share by providing broader access to high-quality instruction delivered by the same faculty members who teach on-campus classes.
Our public universities must adopt a new business model that will allow them to return to sound financial footing while addressing the variety of other challenges they now face. Online education may not remedy all that ails the system, but we are convinced that a good dose of it would go a long way.