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NEW YORK -- The trial and error and rapid innovations associated with online education may be expensive in the short term, but advocates say the efforts will eventually yield a compelling argument to explain the relevance of a liberal arts education.

At a a meeting of college leaders organized by the Teagle Foundation, which is meeting here to discuss how student learning and faculty work is changing in the 21st century, former Tufts University President Lawrence S. Bacow said some form of online education will soon become an expected part of every undergraduate course. But Bacow dismissed naysayers who predict the current model of higher education is destined to fail.

There are no ways to avoid the challenges posed by growing costs, limited public support and rising demands for assessment, Bacow said. The rise of online education represents “unambiguously a good thing," he added.

“Online is here to stay,” Bacow said, adding that as new technologies become available, “Faculty are going to run to that. Our students are going to demand it.”

Most importantly, Bacow said experiments with online education will give institutions opportunities to freeze, then reverse the growth of tuition.

“We’re not only pricing ourselves out of the market, we risk jeopardizing public support,” Bacow said.

But Bacow admitted experimenting with online education can be expensive. Real cost reduction, he said, will only be attained "when we really get smart enough to fundamentally rethink how we teach our students."

Some of those initiatives are already in the works, Bacow said. He suggested that massive open online courses, or MOOCs, will evolve away from being standalone courses to becoming course material that professors can customize based on their preferences. He based the prediction on how MOOCs have changed in the last two years.

“MOOCs didn’t exist when I stepped down as president of Tufts in 2011,” Bacow said.

But Bacow also argued MOOCs are too primitive to supplant the traditional undergraduate experience.

"The fact is: There is virtue in seeing people face to face," Bacow said, adding that he has yet to see MOOCs provide the same kinds of intellectual and personal opportunities for growth offered by a liberal arts education. He said learning how to communicate those opportunities will be key to justify the price of higher education both to the public and policy makers.

"We need to able to document, to explain very clearly what it is that one gets from spending four years confined under temperature and pressure with other students and faculty," Bacow said. "We not only need to articulate what it is, we need to able to document why it is of value. In the end, that’s a big chunk of the differential that people are going to be paying for when they come to our campuses."

He added, "While online education may be perfect for the nontraditional student, I don’t think most parents want their 18 to 21 year old sitting in their basement looking at their computer for four years."

Even to an audience that spent the afternoon questioning the traditional staples of higher education -- from lectures to semesters -- anecdotes about the virtues of online education still dazzled. Steven Zucker, co-dean of art and history at Khan Academy, drew gasps from the crowd when he estimated the organization's art history content will this semester reach about 1 million students.

"There is a tsunami that is crashing over us right now, and I think that we need to pay attention to it," Zucker said. "We need to not bury our heads in the sand, pretending it's not there. This wave is hitting us, it’s hitting the shore, and it’s transforming our students."

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