Is Online Learning the Electric Car of Higher Ed?

Will colleges and universities follow the same path as GM and VW?

August 12, 2019

"If I had a dollar more to invest, would I spend it on a hybrid? Or would I spend it on the answer that we all know is going to happen, and get there faster and better than anybody else?" GM president Mark Reuss said in an interview.

From: “GM, Volkswagen Say Goodbye to Hybrid Vehicles,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 12

The WSJ is reporting that GM and Volkswagen plan to stop producing hybrids and instead focus on building the market for electric vehicles. Over the next four years, GM will introduce 20 fully electric vehicles worldwide. Volkswagen is investing billions in developing battery-powered models.

In explaining this strategy, the head of VW's US division commented, "Our strong preference is to go all-in where the market is heading, as opposed to hybrids as a way to hedge our bets."

Is online learning the electric car of higher education?

Let's consider.

Few of us doubt that, at some point, we will all be driving battery-powered vehicles. The potential to charge our cars with non-carbon-emitting fuel sources -- using electricity produced from renewable sources of solar or wind or hydro -- is too enticing to ignore. Who wants to contribute to climate change and spend time at the gas station when we can drive cleanly powered vehicles that we charge in our garages?

When this changeover from internal combustion engines to batteries will occur is up for debate. The tipping point could come as soon as 2030. Others say this shift will not happen until 2040. Others say that battery-powered cars are overhyped and that the shift away from gas will take many, many decades to occur.

For most of us, the question of moving to electric cars is not one of if, but of when.

Will teaching and learning in higher education move from mostly a face-to-face activity to one that is mainly done online?

This shift from residential to online learning is occurring rapidly at the graduate education level. Of the approximately three million graduate students studying at U.S. institutions, about one in five are studying exclusively online. (That's about twice the proportion of undergraduates who are only enrolled in online learning.)

M.B.A. programs are a leading indicator of the shift from residential to online. The University of Iowa, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Stetson University in Florida are all closing their traditional residential M.B.A. programs in favor or a variety of online offerings.

To be clear, residential education is alive and well. Selective liberal arts colleges and top-ranked professional schools have no plans to abandon campus programs for online or low-residency degrees.

A residential degree program offers a bundled experience. Learning is not only about what happens in the class (physical or digital), but it also comes from immersion in the variety and intensity of campus life.

There also is some evidence that online education can disadvantage low-income students, particularly if it is not accompanied by robust learner-support structures.

Still, it is not crazy to think that online education -- like electric cars -- is the future.

Online learning has the potential to be both high quality and significantly less expensive than its residential counterpart.

Yes, quality online programs are expensive to put together. But these costs are front-loaded and can be amortized over many cohorts. At some point, the savings available from not having to pay for the maintenance and heating/cooling of physical classrooms should add up.

And while today it is true that the majority of online students live within 100 miles of the schools in which they enroll (some estimates are 80 percent), this could change in the future. A global student market for postsecondary learners can only be efficiently reached by online education.

The challenge is that many colleges and universities persist in thinking of online education as something different than their core operations. We see this when schools outsource the development and running of online learning to online program management companies.

Or when online learning occurs only within schools of continuing and professional studies, and where the methods and approaches of these programs are not integrated with the core teaching and learning operations.

At what point should university leaders from traditional institutions start to treat online learning as the future?

What would this mean for investments in online education?

What might traditional colleges and universities stop doing if they believed that, in the future, most learning will happen online?

Is online learning the electric car of higher ed?

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Joshua Kim

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