Opportunity for Online Learning

President Trump's push to limit entry to the United States makes learning online a more important option than ever, writes Robert Ubell.

March 1, 2017

In his executive order imposing a temporary ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, President Trump not only made life untenable for thousands, but he set in motion a destabilizing rumble at the nation’s colleges and universities. An estimated 17,000 students from the targeted countries were studying in the U.S. in the 2015-16 academic year; three-quarters of them from Iran.

International students represent about 5 percent of the more than 20 million enrolled in the nation’s colleges and universities. In the last decade, according to Moody’s Investors Service, the number of students from overseas increased markedly, by more than 70 percent. At many colleges, heavily dependent on tuition revenue, international students represent the difference between solvency and ruin.

While American universities have courted international students for intellectual and cultural diversity, their contribution to the bottom line has not gone unnoticed by higher education financial officers. Typically, foreign undergraduates receive little to no financial aid and pay top-dollar in tuition. The U.S. Commerce Department reports that last year, college students from overseas contributed more than $35 billion to the nation’s economy in general, along the way, helping to sustain many colleges and universities. Foreign students have helped public colleges fill gaps left by deep cuts in state support.

The capricious order from President Trump kicks a leg out of the future of American higher education. Whether or not President Trump is successful in the courts, or he devises an alternative ban to keep Muslims out, regrettably, the stage is already set for thousands of others, who looked to enter U.S. universities, to turn elsewhere. Over generations, the world has looked to U.S. higher education as the best anywhere, to a large extent because it embraced diversity and welcomed students and scholars from across the globe.

If I were a parent, say, in Indonesia, eager for my daughter to apply to Stanford University, I might hesitate, thinking that she might be better off at the University of Adelaide, even though my heart is set on sending her to a top-ranking American university. If you go to Adelaide’s home page, under a banner headline, “Welcome new students,” you’ll see a bright smile on a young, attractive woman wearing a hijab. Universities in Canada report a surge of applications. Some quickly extended deadlines to foreign students. Rebecca Grappo, president of RNG International, an education consulting firm, says that many overseas families, once eager to have their children admitted to an American college, are now taking a serious look at applying elsewhere.

Of course, Stanford and other notable universities with deep pockets will surely survive the present assault. But what about mid-market colleges with threadbare endowments, whose existence crucially depends on tuition from foreign students? Most colleges and universities do not have an alternative in place to withstand the shock. But institutions  that have introduced online programs may be better prepared to sustain the blow.

Still, investing in new digital programs as a hedge against the loss of international applicants is not foolproof. Many foreign students come to the U.S., not only to earn an American degree, but equally to embed themselves in American culture, to absorb its lessons, hoping to gain marketability abroad after graduation. Others aim eventually to enter our domestic workforce to achieve scholarly or commercial success here, often unobtainable at home.

For many students from abroad, whose values thrive on personal networks, built on one’s family relationships, school friends, neighbors, and co-workers, online study doesn’t feel right. For many Chinese students, for example, guanxi, an idea originating with Confucianism, emphasizing mutual obligations, reciprocity and trust, seems antithetical to virtual education.

Will American universities be able to convince international students to enroll in what they perceive as doubtful online degrees? Will they be able to attract those turned away from coming here, troubled by fear of a toxic anti-immigrant atmosphere?  

It turns out that some of the most alluring qualities that motivate domestic applicants to enroll in virtual programs are the very same that appeal to international students, with convenience rising to the very top. Just like U.S. students, who must confront life’s stubborn 21st century obstacles -- family obligations, frequent travel and demanding jobs -- many abroad are equally unable, even in their home countries, to attend class on campus, let alone fly off far from home to school in the U.S. For foreign applicants -- no different from our own local students -- faced with similar struggles, earning a virtual degree is ideal, since it gives them the flexibility to participate at their own pace, taking virtual classes at two in the morning after the kids are asleep. At a graduation party recently, a senior Indian banking executive, who had just earned her master’s in cyber security online from New York University School of Engineering, tearfully confided in me about how grateful she was that she could take her courses virtually from home where she was caring for her elderly mother.

Typically, in Asia and elsewhere abroad, students sit dutifully in class, furiously typing into laptops . as professors lecture, with rare, if any, breaks for classroom discussion. Faculty authority is the accepted norm. What often draws foreign students to our colleges and universities is the appeal of American-style education. In online classes, perhaps even more than in our classrooms, faculty tend to encourage student participation and engagement, qualities that can go a long way to tempt certain foreign applicants, intrigued by more liberal American methods, to overcome their resistance to digital education.

For American universities to attract foreign students to their online programs, perhaps one of the most obstinate myths to puncture is the widely held notion that virtual learning is an alienating, machine-like environment, in which students act autonomously in isolated virtual classrooms like robots in a science fiction film. The fact is, however, that in a typical classroom on campus, you can sit all semester next a classmate, nearly elbow-to-elbow, and walk out after your final exam, never having said a word to her and not knowing her name. Online, however, that estranged experience is next to impossible, since virtual instruction often demands routine participation in which you and your classmates are required to interact often, posting comments on digital message boards, in forums, by e-mail, and other peer-to-peer communications, held as if your virtual classmates were writing letters to each other weekly, if not more frequently, mirroring Victorian correspondence.  

Massive open online courses, with over 10 million enrolled in China alone, have unexpectedly emerged as the single most myth-shattering advertisement for virtual learning. Now that millions of learners abroad have tasted forbidden fruit, this may be just the right moment to attract foreign MOOC-adopters to your online degree program.

With nearly a third  of U.S. students now taking at least one virtual course (or about  6 million students), colleges and universities without an online strategy may be cutting themselves off from the next wave of U.S. and international digital students, replacing the very likely disappearance of on-campus international enrollments. As the U.S. closes its borders  to many foreign students, those from abroad who are barred from coming here -- or who fear enrolling -- may be able to earn a degree from your college online, helping to steady your potentially rocky academic ship. Online, foreign students enter American colleges without obtaining a visa, leaping over airport Border Patrol officers, to take their seats in your institution’s virtual classroom from anywhere in the world, even from countries targeted by President Trump.


Robert Ubell is Vice Dean Emeritus of Online Learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. A collection of his essays on virtual education, Going Online: Perspectives on Digital Learning, was recently published by Routledge. He can be reached at [email protected]


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