Responding to Susan Resneck Pierce's excellent Views piece, "Beyond Incrementalism."

September 23, 2020
 

I'm grateful to Susan Resneck Pierce for writing her Views piece "Beyond Incrementalism." The column provides a valuable window into how college and universities leaders are thinking six months into the pandemic and offers some wise and actionable advice for presidents, provosts and trustees.

To continue the conversation that Pierce started, I'd like to push back (respectfully) on one suggestion the piece makes around potential COVID-era institutional strategic priorities. That recommendation is to "Move even more online."

The point I'd like to make is that we should not think of online learning as strategic.

Before arguing this point, I should point out that my job title is director of online programs and strategy. I spend each day thinking about online learning from a strategic viewpoint.

From over two decades of working in online education, I've concluded that we should stop talking so much about online education.

Online education is a means, not an end.

Online learning is a method, not a goal.

Moreover, the distinction between residential and online learning is rapidly evaporating. It may make as much sense to talk about online learning as it does to distinguish between in-person and remote work. We will work whenever and wherever we are, be it in the office or at home. It will just be work.

What is strategic is thinking about the institution's goals and then figuring out the learning modalities that support those goals.

For instance, a college might decide that its goal is to be more resilient in the face of exogenous shocks (from pandemics to extreme weather). Building a robust set of online learning capabilities will assist in building institutional resilience.

Or a school might decide that it will prioritize student success, with a focus on lowering attrition rates and time to graduation. Offering a flexible menu of online course options, including winter break and summer term online courses, may help students navigate the obstacles that put them at risk for not graduating. Online courses may allow students to focus their energies on foundational courses or provide opportunities to make up courses or credits lost during a residential semester for academic or personal reasons.

Perhaps a university will expand its educational focus beyond traditional-age learners and provide credentialing and degree opportunities for adult working professionals or retirees. Online learning may be the ideal vehicle to serve nontraditional learners.

What is necessary, and where I think Susan Resneck Pierce has things precisely right, is that online expertise should be represented at institutional strategic planning tables. Without knowing the affordances (and limitations) of online learning, it may be hard to envision the full range of potential strategic goals.

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