A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Education released a report that looked at 12 years' worth of education studies, and found that online learning has clear advantages over face-to-face instruction.
The study, "An Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies," stated that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”
Except for one article, on this Web site, you probably didn’t hear about it -- and neither did anyone else.
But imagine for a moment that the report came to the opposite conclusion. I’m sure that if the U.S. Department of Education had published a report showing that students in online learning environments performed worse, there would have been a major outcry in higher education with calls to shut down distance-learning programs and close virtual campuses.
I believe the reason that the recent study elicited so little commentary is due to the fact that it flies in the face of the biases held by some across the higher education landscape. Yet this study confirms what those of us working in distance education have witnessed for years: Good teaching helps students achieve, and good teaching comes in many forms.
We know that online learning requires devout attention on the part of both the professor and the student -- and a collaboration between the two -- in a different way from that of a face-to-face classroom. These critical aspects of online education are worth particular mention:
Greater student engagement: In an online classroom, there is no back row and nowhere for students to hide. Every student participates in class.
Increased faculty attention: In most online classes, the faculty’s role is focused on mentoring students and fostering discussion. Interestingly, many faculty members choose to teach online because they want more student interaction.
Constant access: The Internet is open 24/7, so students can share ideas and “sit in class” whenever they have time or when an idea strikes -- whether it be the dead of night or during lunch. Online learning occurs on the student’s time, making it more accessible, convenient, and attainable.
At Walden University, where I am president, we have been holding ourselves accountable for years, as have many other online universities, regarding assessment. All universities must ensure that students are meeting program outcomes and learning what they need for their jobs. To that end, universities should be better able to demonstrate -- quantitatively and qualitatively -- the employability and success of their students and graduates.
Recently, we examined the successes of Walden graduates who are teachers in the Tacoma, Wash., public school system, and found that students in Walden teachers’ classes tested with higher literacy rates than did students taught by teachers who earned their master’s from other universities. There could be many reasons for this, but, especially in light of the U.S. Department of Education study, it seems that online learning has contributed meaningfully to their becoming better teachers.
In higher education, there is still too much debate about how we are delivering content: Is it online education, face-to-face teaching, or hybrid instruction? It’s time for us to stop categorizing higher education by the medium of delivery and start focusing on its impact and outcomes.
Recently, President Obama remarked, “I think there’s a possibility that online education can provide, especially for people who are already in the workforce and want to retrain, the chance to upgrade their skills without having to quit their job.” As the U.S. Department of Education study concluded, online education can do that and much more.
Jonathan Kaplan is president of Walden University.
In a faraway colony, one in a thousand people -- mostly young, rich, white men -- are sent to live in isolated, rural Christian communes. Some are pious, learned, ambitious; others are unruly younger sons with no other prospects. The students spend hours every day in chapel; every few years, the entire community is seized by a several-days-long religious revival.
They also get into lots of trouble. In their meager barracks they drink, gamble, and duel. They brawl, sometimes exchanging bullets, with local residents, and bother local women. Occasionally they rebel and are expelled en masse or force administrators to resign. Overseen by low-paid clergymen too deaf or infirm to control a congregation, hazed by older students, whipped for infractions of the rules, they’re treated like young boys when their contemporaries might be married with children. And, oh yes, they spend a few hours a day in rote memorization of fewer than a dozen subjects.
This was the typical 18th century American college, loosely modeled on England’s Oxford and Cambridge, which date to the 13th century. Nine colleges were founded in the colonies before the Revolution, and they’re all still in business: Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth.
For universities, history is authority. It’s no accident that America’s most prestigious institution, Harvard, is also its oldest, or that some of the oldest organizations of any kind, worldwide, are universities.
Surveying the history of American colleges and universities with a jaundiced eye convinces me that many aspects of the current so-called crisis in higher education are actually just characteristics of the institution. It has always been socially exclusionary. It has always been of highly variable quality educationally. It has always had a tendency to expand. In fact, it is precisely because we are always asking more and more of education at all levels that its failures appear so tremendous.
Still, the United States does seem to have reached an impasse today, given escalating demand for higher education, spiraling costs, and limited resources. Unlike the 1860s and unlike the 1960s, there is little national will to grow our way out of this problem by founding more colleges or spending much more money on the ones we do have. Is this merely one more symptom of national decline? Have we hit some kind of natural limit for an educated population? Or is there a mismatch between the structures of the past and the needs of the present?
America can’t remain a global economic powerhouse while it slides to the middle of the heap in education. Nor can we grapple with the challenges we face as a global community without meeting the world’s burgeoning demand for education. Nor can college leaders get away with claiming that their hands are tied and only more taxpayer and tuition dollars can solve their problems.
There are two basic options the way I see it: fundamentally change the way higher education is delivered, or resign ourselves to never having enough of it.
The good news is that all over the world people are thinking big about how to change higher education. Brick, stone, and marble institutions with centuries of prestige behind them are increasingly being joined by upstarts, both nonprofit and for-profit, and even more loosely organized communities of educational practitioners and apprentices.
The open courseware movement started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001, when the school decided to put its coursework online for free. Today, you can go online to MIT OpenCourseware and find the full syllabuses, lecture notes, class exercises, tests, and some video and audio for 1,900 courses, nearly every one MIT offers, from physics to art history. As of March 2010, 65 million people from virtually every country on Earth have raided this trove.
This opening world presents huge questions about the true nature of a college education: questions that are legitimate even when they are raised with self-interest by traditional educators.
The university is over a thousand years old, older than modernity itself. On American soil it has grown like Katamari Damacy, the Japanese video game in which a magical “clumping spirit” snowballs around the world collecting everything in its path until it attains the size of a star. The latter-day “multiversity,” as it was dubbed by the University of California president Clark Kerr in 1963, clumps teaching with research, vocational and technical education with liberal arts, sports, clubs, and parties with intellectual life, accreditation and evaluation with mentoring and friendship. For students “college” means very different things at different times: the place to grow up, be out on your own, make friends, take leadership roles, prepare for and find a good job, and even learn.
Technology upsets the traditional hierarchies and categories of education. It can put the learner at the center of the educational process. Increasingly this means students will decide what they want to learn, when, where, and with whom, and they will learn by doing. Functions that have long hung together, like research and teaching, learning and assessment, or content, skills, accreditation, and socialization, can be delivered separately.
There’s no good way to measure the benefits of the old-fashioned face-to-face educational model; there’s worry that something important will be discarded in the race ahead. More fundamentally, no one knows if it’s possible to extend the benefits of higher education to the majority of a population without diluting its essence. But those are questions that educators ought to be testing and investigating rigorously. College leaders who want to be on the right side of history won’t hold stubbornly to the four-year, classroom-hour-based “butts-in-seats, nose-to-nose, face to face” model as the only way to provide the benefits of a liberal arts education. They will innovate to meet students wherever they are, and they will reinvent assessment to provide much better transparency about what students are learning.
Here are four trends guiding this transformation, as they might look from the point of view of college leaders:
1. The 80/20 Rule. Is your institution part of the leading-edge 20 percent? How will you attract and serve the “nontraditional” student who is the new norm? Most of the growth in higher education over the next century will come from the 85 percent of students who are “nontraditional” in some way -- older, working adults, or ethnic minorities. They will increasingly attend the 80 percent of institutions that are nonselective. This includes most mainstream public universities and particularly community colleges and for-profit colleges, which saw the sharpest growth in the 2000s.
For-profit colleges are the only U.S. institutions that have both the resources and the mission to seriously expand their numbers in the foreseeable future. Community colleges already enroll half of all undergraduates. Both disproportionately enroll the demographic groups that dominate the next generation of Americans: Hispanics, all other minority groups, and first-generation college students. Some of the boldest thinking is happening in institutions that are far from the ideal of either the multiversity or the colonial “little college.” Yet, they typically lack the opportunity for undergraduates to participate in original research, not to mention many of the intangibles of college life like dorms and extracurriculars. Concerns about quality and affordability in the new mainstream of higher education have to be addressed head-on. The answer is not for established institutions to exclude the upstarts from the conversation.
2. The Great Unbundling. Which services and departments are core to your mission? Where can you partner, outsource, or pool resources across the state, the nation, or the world for greater efficiency? Universities have historically combined many social, educational, and other benefits in one-stop shopping. Increasingly, some of these resources (e.g., faculty time) are strained, while others (like written course content) are approaching a marginal cost of zero.
As it has with industries from music to news, the logic of digital technology will compel institutions to specialize and collaborate, find economies of scale and avoid duplications.
Books can be freed from the printed page, courses freed from geographical classrooms and individual faculty, and students freed from bureaucratic obstacles to transferring course credit between institutions, or designing their own courses of study.
Could any of your departments flourish on its own? Stripped-down institutions that focus on instruction or assessment only, or on a particular discipline or area, will find more and more audience. The most cutting-edge sciences and the most traditional liberal arts can both flourish in a specialized, concentrated, and technologically enhanced setting. I have seen professors elevate the craft of teaching rhetoric, composition, and critical thinking to new heights using social media and applying cutting-edge research about learning.
3. Techno-hybridization. Are distance learning decisions confined to the IT office? Are you creating online courses through a cheap, hands-off process, or are you experimenting across disciplines with the best ways to integrate online and offline experiences? How can you identify and support your internal innovators among faculty? Department of Education research shows that a blend of technology-assisted and traditional class instruction works better than either one alone. This blending can occur with institutions enrolling students on campus or off, in classrooms or online -- studies have shown that students do a better job collaborating online if they meet in person even once.
4. Personal Learning Networks and Paths. How well does your college serve the transfer, dropout, and nontraditional student? How easy do you make it for students to design their own experiences? People who graduate from high school at 18 and go straight through four years of college are already a tiny minority of all young Americans, around one in ten. Pulling America out of its educational slump requires designing programs flexible and supportive enough to reach the 44 percent of students who currently drop out of college and the 30 to 35 percent who drop out of high school. These programs have to provide socialization, personal development, and critical thinking skills, not just job training.
Self-directed learning will be increasingly important. Already, the majority of students attend more than one institution during their college careers, and more than half seek to enhance their experience with an internship. In the future, with the increasing availability of online courses and other resources, individuals will increasingly forge a personal learning path, combining classroom and online learning, work and other experiences.
The open-education pioneer Alec Couros at the University of Saskatchewan talks about assembling personal learning networks that include mentors, colleagues, media sources, books, and collections of links. The existing system will be challenged to come up with new forms of accreditation, transfer credits, and certification so that the value of this work can be recognized by potential employers and others.
Education is an essentially conservative enterprise. If we didn’t believe that one generation had something important to transmit to the next, we wouldn’t need education. So changing education makes lots of people nervous, especially school leaders whose salary comes from the old model.
Still, in an ideal world, we can agree that opportunities to stretch your abilities, test your personal mettle, follow your natural curiosity, and jam intellectually with friends, colleagues, and mentors -- all the good stuff that is supposed to happen in college -- would be more open to more people at all ages and transition points in life. Traditional colleges will continue to find plenty of eager applicants who want the experiences only they can provide.
The 80 percent of American college students who currently attend nonselective institutions will have many more options, and so will the majority of young people, those who drop out or who never apply. Alternatives to the four-year bachelor’s degree will get more visible and acceptable, which might help bridge one of the biggest social divides in American life. Tuition costs would reach sane levels due to increased use of technology, true competition, and better-allocated federal and state incentives. This would lower one of the most important barriers to educational access.
By modifying the economics of the nation’s second largest industry, we’d save money, and tap the resources and energy of a whole new generation to tackle challenges like building a greener society, expanding the middle class, creating better jobs, and providing people with health care. Whether these incipient changes will lead to that kind of positive transformation, however, still hangs in the balance.
It depends largely on whether the guardians of existing institutions embrace transformation, or let history pass them by.
Anya Kamenetz's new book is DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education (Chelsea Green), from which this essay is adapted She blogs here.
As someone who researches and works with distance education consortia in both the United States and Canada, I have received several inquiries over the past week about “what really happened” in the closure of the University of Texas’s TeleCampus. Just two weeks earlier, I had met with Darcy Hardy and Rob Robinson, the leaders of the TeleCampus. They were charged last May with meeting an accelerated timetable for making their organization self-sustaining. Their efforts appeared to be bearing fruit. That was the first of several wrong conclusions drawn by me and others in recent weeks.
In this article, I raise other conclusions that were offered to me.
Is distance education dead? Commenting on Inside Higher Ed’s article announcing the closure, one observer suggested that the pursuit of distance education is driven primarily by monetary motives. He added that universities “find distance education is not infinitely scalable and scramble for some reason to drop such programs.”
It is wrong to conclude that the TeleCampus closure reflects negatively on distance education as an enterprise. Distance education enrollments continually grow faster than the on-campus population. Officials at Colorado Community Colleges Online recently told me about their 49 percent enrollment increase over the spring 2009 term. Although some would like it to do so, distance education is not going away.
Are distance learning consortiums dead? Some suggest that it no longer makes sense to have separate structures, like the TeleCampus, to support distance education. That conclusion rings hollow for me, especially since I heard about two other states considering new consortiums in the last week. In my 2008 study on financing consortiums, I harshly concluded that these multi-institution entities need to evolve or dissolve.
As technology and constituent needs change, so must consortiums. They should focus on services that the institutions cannot do on their own or for which economies of scale improve quality and costs. Consortiums can also add value by conducting research on emerging technologies and teaching techniques. Successful consortiums constantly evolve their structure to assume new roles while shedding activities once they become entrenched on campus. The Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium embraces an entrepreneurial spirit by developing e-portfolio and online tutoring services that have expanded well beyond state borders. If a consortium does not meet the evolutionary challenge, it should dissolve. Failure to evolve was never a criticism of the TeleCampus.
Are services redundant? The TeleCampus was criticized for unnecessarily mirroring services offered by the UT campuses. That conclusion does not universally hold either. Not all campuses have the same level of services. Redundancy multiplies as each campus regenerates lost services once offered centrally. Efficiencies of scale evaporate and the costs shift to the campuses. Collaboration efforts struggle mightily in meeting needs that are urgent on one campus, but absent from another. Now the campuses will be struggling to fill the void in the next few months.
Can we say the TeleCampus mission is complete? The press release announcing the closure asserts that “a new organizational support structure is appropriate as the next step in maximizing distance education opportunities for our students. The UT TeleCampus has accomplished its mission of providing this capability to our campuses.”
Again, a conclusion that is tough to substantiate. As with other consortiums, the Telecampus’s mission is to “extend the reach” of its member campuses. That strikes me as an ongoing goal and not one with a defined endpoint. While I am delighted that the UT System will continue to support its program to accelerate baccalaureate degree completion, I remain very interested in seeing what else the new centralized support structure offers.
Is UT TeleCampus one of the best distance learning consortiums? I have called the UT TeleCampus one of the leaders in the field and an exemplar for other consortiums. Upon reflection, that conclusion is wrong. Given the strength of its staff and quality of its services, it is the best. Oddly enough, Darcy Hardy learned of the closure after returning from a trip on which she was one of 20 national leaders invited to meet with a prestigious foundation.
What lessons can be drawn? Many theories on the TeleCampus closure have been offered, including those around financial, leadership and organizational dynamics. My sincere hope is that others do not draw the wrong conclusions from this experience in assessing the worth of their own consortium. Consortiums are unique entities. While general principles may apply, their value can be judged only in each unique, local environment. The local landscape contains political, financial and historical barriers and opportunities that do not translate well from place to place.
Am I saying that we cannot learn anything from this experience? No. There will be much to learn. WCET’s eLearning Consortia Common Interest Group includes leaders from many consortiums in the United States and Canada. This decision renewed efforts within the group to examine consortium success factors and to identify practices that do (or do not) work. Keep watching for developments.
In the end, why is the University of Texas System closing its TeleCampus? I remain perplexed, and I hesitate to guess, as I will probably draw the wrong conclusions.
Technology, encouraging mass production and homogeneity, could appear a natural enemy to those who still celebrate regional idiosyncrasies. And the online bookstore, ideal for marketing e-books to a global audience, might seem to portend short shrift for regionally themed books that are more suited to a smaller, more local market.