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To the Editor:

The shift toward online learning is making higher education more flexible and personalized such that it meets all learners, regardless of their circumstances, where they are. Particularly for those students for whom existing pathways to opportunities have been inaccessible, the ability to receive an education from anywhere in the world, on their own schedule, can be transformative.

Yet as Susan D’Agostino recently reported in her article, University of California System Bans Fully Online Degrees, the University of California system has decided to remain frozen in the past. After discovering a loophole that could enable enterprising students to earn their degrees without ever stepping foot on campus, the UC now requires undergraduates to earn a minimum of six course credits per quarter (or semester) for three quarters (or two semesters) in courses where at least half of the instruction is in-person on-campus. By “closing this loophole,” the Academic Senate Committee has inadvertently missed an opportunity to learn more about the needs of the contemporary student and how more flexible pathways could expand access, improve quality, and result in better outcomes.

D’Agostino notes that colleges tend to design experiences that align with their values and target specific student populations. By disempowering students from fully being able to take advantage of tech-enabled learning, the University of California Academic Senate repudiates current and future realities and propagates a perception that college is for the selected, privileged few.

Such a move highlights a surprising disregard for demographic shifts and technological advances that could make higher education vastly more accessible. Today, 85 percent of undergraduates are considered post-traditional: often over the age of 25, from low-income backgrounds, working at least part-time, paying for school independently, and/or responsible for the care of children or other family members. While the benefits of online learning extend to all students, the flexibility afforded by online learning can make all the difference for adult working learners who shouldn’t have to choose between the ability to earn a living, care for a loved one, or earn a credential that could transform their lives and that of their families.

It’s equally perplexing that a system comprising 10 institutions known for being at the forefront of learning and knowledge appears to be basing its decision on personal preference and information that is outdated and easily debunked. Indeed, one of the more pervasive misconceptions about online learning is that it is equivalent to what many students experienced at the onset of the pandemic, when in-person institutions abruptly pivoted to emergency remote instruction. On the contrary, quality online learning is purposefully designed for the virtual environment, leveraging digital tools that have been strategically selected and in which faculty have received sufficient training. It is deliberate design—not learning modality—that ultimately makes the difference. Even the Socratic Method approach to learning, which admittedly is done more easily in person, is possible through intentional virtual design. 

Tech-enabled learning does have a leg up, however, in that faculty have far more tools at their disposal to enhance the quality of their courses and tailor to their students’ unique needs. Drawing on best practices uncovered in learning and social sciences, innovations in EdTech enable faculty to pull from diverse sources of media and content, leverage motivational techniques, and engage their students in ways that would be difficult to replicate in-person at scale via virtual labs, peer-to-peer interaction, and practice environments. Readily available data on how students are engaging with learning resources also empowers faculty to adapt and personalize learning materials and experiences through timely, relevant interventions. With online learning the possibilities to create a rich, individualized, virtual world are endless. It’s no wonder that a 2022 report from BestColleges found 70 percent of students believe online education is better than or equal to on-campus education.

Today, both long-respected brick-and-mortar colleges and innovative online universities like my own are leveraging online learning to remove cost barriers, develop programs that align directly with employer needs, and help fill America’s talent supply chain with a diverse set of skilled graduates. In 2018-2019 79 percent of colleges offered either stand-alone online courses or entirely online degrees, and by fall 2020, 75 percent of undergraduates were enrolled in at least one online course. While this surge was undoubtedly propelled by the pandemic, a 2021 survey showed that 73 percent of students would like to take online courses in the future.

As technologies continue to advance and enable more learners to pursue pathways to opportunity, I sincerely hope more university leaders will embrace new learning modalities with the potential to make education more inclusive. If our institutions cannot keep the needs of students—the whole range of students—in our sights, they risk fading into irrelevance and miss out on an opportunity to help more individuals create a better life for themselves, their families, and their communities. As a nation, we must open our eyes to the ways in which technology can create value for more students by improving the access, quality, personalization, delivery, and affordability of education. This is the surest path to ensuring higher education remains relevant and able to create opportunity for America’s diversity of learners.

—Scott Pulsipher
Western Governors University

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