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If We Cannot Teach, You Can Keep Your Online Revolution

Apr 12, 2013 | Updated Jun 12, 2013

More than 25 years ago, the University of California's Clark Kerr and Marian Gade wrote that in higher education, turmoil and change have been "the rule, not the exception." Yet the winds of tumultuous change are today blowing harder than ever, whipping up a gale that threatens every institution that is slow to adapt.

Online learning is certainly a driving force in the higher education revolution, but the phenomenon of Internet-based courses is only part of the changes to come. In the furious rush to build virtual classrooms, colleges and universities may be confusing the online revolution with the larger need for higher education to embrace much wider change.

As Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman who became one of America's smartest 20th Century philosophers, wrote: "We used to think revolutions are the cause of change. Actually, it is the other way around. Change prepares the ground for revolution."

The lesson: Whatever shape higher education will take in the next few years, the addition of online learning will not in and of itself ensure that individual colleges survive and thrive. Yes, colleges must explore the power of online learning, but it is not enough to build Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and declare victory. If institutions push forward without preserving the value of the traditional education they already offer, they could lose their identity, their power to offer students a path to success and their ability to survive.

Early on, advocates cast online learning as the golden key that would open access to higher education, especially those for whom skyrocketing costs or cultural barriers have placed college out of reach. But even Harvard, partnered with MIT and Stanford in the international online teaching project edX, is now learning that there are some things a college course can do that cannot be done online.

Harvard found out how hard it is to orchestrate a spirited classroom discussion among 27,000 virtual students when it created its first online humanities class. As a Harvard course content editor noted in The New York Times, online discussions "tend to run off the rails."

At first blush, MOOCs appear to offer an attractive, affordable resource for students and families struggling to pay for education. Indeed, online courses are a valuable resource for adults and professionals looking to enhance their skills at lowered cost and heightened convenience. But digital learning is inadequate for young men and women who are not only learning course subjects, but are at the stage of life when they form their social skills and world view.

Digital teaching technologies are not education itself, but just another set of tools in the toolbox of educators. They cannot replace a campus environment. Worse, recent research suggests online learning may preserve the learning advantage held by students from affluent or more educated families, and disadvantage those who struggle with financial or cultural barriers. It is those disadvantaged students who may need the full range of support offered by a college campus, including the mentoring from faculty and the exposure to student peers from different levels of society.

A student from a household that did not encourage learning can acquire study skills from peers and teachers in a physical college environment. A student who was not brought up to expect success can develop the confidence necessary to fulfill his or her potential, in college and beyond, from contact with faculty and fellow students. There is a social benefit to placing young men and women from affluent backgrounds in the same physical environment with students who have not had the same advantages, and the benefit cuts both ways. Those social dynamics cannot yet be replicated online.

The danger is that online learning may create second-class students. Just like traditional higher education, MOOCs must be examined for any inherent cultural bias that makes it tougher for disadvantaged students to succeed. As scholar Michael W. Apple wrote about conventional curricula, certain questions must be asked to examine all coursework for inherent cultural bias that would make it harder for some students to succeed: Whose knowledge is it? Who selected it? Why is it organized and taught this way? To this particular group?

Apple was writing about content, and the MOOCs phenomenon is about delivery of content. But Apple's larger point -- that because society's elites develop content, it is those elites who are deciding what is relevant knowledge -- resonates for those questioning whether MOOCs do or do not help create an unequal society. Those who create MOOCs tend to be oriented to the technology. They build a product that assumes students also have facility with digital tools. Students from economically deprived backgrounds may not even have broadband access at home. That 'Bandwidth Divide' could leave those students behind in a world in which lectures are delivered over the Internet, according to a recent story in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Should colleges and universities throw themselves online without questioning the very bedrock assumptions behind their virtual courses, they will accelerate the transformation of our society into one of haves and have-nots -- the very opposite of what higher education is supposed to do.

Right now, many Americans can go to college; maybe not exactly where they want to go, but they can go. The question is whether we are headed toward a tipping point, where the focus on developing online courses is becoming a distraction. The real focus should be on learning outcomes and student success. If we focus on those two outcomes, the modality of MOOCs will create a relevant, connected, and engaged higher education system, instead of potentially resulting in a de facto decision that reduces access for some students.

Harvard's Clayton Christensen has compared higher education today to the General Motors of the 1960s, when all seemed well and the money flowed and Toyota was about to launch a revolution in car design that almost drove America's mightiest car maker to extinction. GM never saw it coming until it was too late. We do not have to repeat that mistake.

It is easy to anticipate that large numbers of new students could come to college through mass-produced products like MOOCs, but suffer an impersonal experience that causes them to lose heart and drop out. Those students will not have the safety net built by traditional education; the individualized human touch, the interventions that help students to overcome obstacles and succeed.

If colleges continue to blindly chase MOOCs, the result may be a bifurcated nation, where those with privilege will shut out those who begin without such advantages.

MOOCs are new and powerful. They hold a lot of promise. But as we implement change in the rush to online gold, we must build a new higher education paradigm that:

  • Does not create a bifurcated higher education system of haves and have-nots.
  • Creates efficiencies that reduce the cost of a college degree without diminishing its value.
  • Encourages success for students from every segment of our ever-more-diverse population, and does not return us to an unequal system divided along socioeconomic lines.

Those goals present both a conundrum and an opportunity to evolve our higher education system; one that is sound, accessible, affordable, and capable of empowering all Americans to compete in the increasingly global economy of the 21st Century.