Higher Education in the Digital Age: Planning for an Uncertain Future

The nearly exponential growth of information, coupled with the ability to exchange it more rapidly among more people than ever before, is creating a new environment for education, in which the university may have to negotiate its standing as the de facto source of scholarly knowledge.

The explosion of the Internet and associated technologies in the latter half of the 1990s has made combining production and delivery technologies with interactive communication technologies relatively simple. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) encompass many modalities and are underpinned by a plethora of new hardware and software. N-way video streaming, digital library and museum database management, simulations, teleconferencing, telephony, and wireless communications are just a few examples. Each modality has particular characteristics that contribute to its relative strength or weakness as an effective tool for tried-and-true teaching/learning methods.

Determining how these technologies should be used in the service of education is a pressing problem confronting most universities. Rhetoric suggests that ICTs will be an important solution to the triad of pressures facing colleges and universities: 1) holding down costs, 2) increasing access to an increasingly diverse demographic, and 3) maintaining quality. It is in this environment that university leaders are faced with making decisions about internal and external online learning markets, but with no clear models to reference. Not only are answers to questions of educational efficacy, revenue streams, and the nature of potential markets unknown, but the creation of high-quality online offerings is expensive and requires huge capital investments.

Complicating this picture is the fact that our society is rapidly becoming a global knowledge economy. Any academic can verify that ICTs have provided powerful new tools for forging global research networks in higher education and industry. Responding to the ubiquitous hunger for technical and professional education, these tools offer opportunities for traditional and nontraditional higher education providers in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa to provide anytime, anywhere education across international boundaries, and possibly to make money while doing it.

It is in this hyper-charged atmosphere of competition that university leaders are being asked whether their own institutions will remain the sole, or even primary, producers and providers of specialized knowledge. Who among us has not heard pundits such as Peter Drucker and Larry Ellison, who have suggested that ICTs provide a possible breach of the monopoly formerly held by traditional higher education providers?

A New Competitive Landscape

The United States has a highly diversified higher education system—research universities, private liberal arts colleges, trade schools, proprietaries, and community colleges—when compared to other countries. Now, a new breed of for-profit providers is emerging. At first glance, these new entities, many of which focus on global markets, appear well-positioned to go after the potentially lucrative "low hanging fruit" of business management studies, IT training, and other professional and corporate training curricula. There is a real fear among some that the traditional liberal arts curriculum will be threatened by these developments.

Despite the huge investments in these ventures, however, we do not know whether a large enough global market will emerge for online education, whether the traditional higher education sector will dominate the market, or whether students will eschew liberal arts curricula for the immediate economic benefits that can be derived from management and technology education. It is probably safe to assume that as new providers proliferate and consolidate and competition heats up, the range of educational choices available to students will increase, and many mature students will forsake a traditional four-year residential college experience for certification and part-time degree programs. For example, Cliff Adelman’s work suggests that a large cohort of international students is enrolling in corporate IT certification programs.

The Driver of Student Choice and Convenience

Since the advent of the ARPANET, colleges and universities have been at the forefront of creating and experimenting with ICTs in their normal work of research and teaching. Most institutions enhance many of their traditional course offerings and/or provide some courses entirely online, which means that faculty and students can exercise more choice about the modalities they use for teaching and learning. At UC Berkeley, which is not atypical of research universities, we find that many students do not use the library in the traditional way, and that they use many more resources from the Web. From our first year of work on an economic and pedagogical evaluation of the UC Berkeley Digital Chem 1A course—which is supported by the AW Mellon Foundation—we know that, given the choice, many students opt for an online video lecture component as either a back-up or a substitute for attending lectures. Many also appreciate the opportunity to do preparatory lab work and quizzing online. The positive response to the technological enhancements in Digital Chem 1A reflected the increased convenience for students and faculty. Changes were "generic" enough that students could use them flexibly and on their own terms (e.g., reviewing lectures online for exam study, repeating difficult passages by non-native English speakers, taking quizzes several times).

Most university educators would agree that high-quality teaching and learning encompasses a rich suite of activities—lectures, seminar discussions, library research, solitary study, formal and informal peer-to-peer discussion, faculty-student tutorials, and laboratories in the sciences and foreign languages. A live classroom presentation delivered by a poor lecturer may not be the best choice if a charismatic professor is lecturing over the Internet. A well-designed simulated lab may be an excellent substitute for a student who cannot attend a wet lab, or if the content of the lab can be more powerfully communicated as a simulation that allows visualization of complex microscopic processes. An online text chat may substitute for regular face-to face-meetings, but the quality of such interaction may be significantly magnified if students and faculty have an opportunity to meet in person occasionally. In foreign language instruction, learning may be enhanced by technological adjuncts to regular courses, such as online quizzes for drill and practice, real-time communication with native language speakers, and scaling the offering of seldom-taught languages to distributed populations.

University planners must consider that significant questions remain about whether high-quality interactions between student and teacher, and among students—the sine qua non of a quality educational experience—can be replicated, or even approached, in online environments. If one spends any time around computer scientists at a research university, however, one realizes that, indeed, Internet2 (www.internet2.edu) and the myriad applications it can support (tele-immersion and haptic feedback to name two examples) will provide ubiquitous high-quality online interactions among individuals in the not-too-distant future. The nature of the technologies themselves may also foster entirely novel modes of teaching and learning that we have not yet imagined. An additional wild card in future planning is that we simply do not know enough about the students of the future, who will have been weaned on peer-to-peer file swapping, Google searches, and wireless instant messaging. What expectations will they have about their learning environments and the nature of scholarship?

No "One-Size-Fits-All" Model for the Future

How should universities balance their role of serving an evolving on-site student demographic and exploring new, potentially for-profit models of online education? They must first assume that future campus populations will represent a mix of residential and off-site students who will expect an innovative blend of ICTs in their courses. And they should continue to experiment, because university experimentation and evaluation will be an essential contributor to our knowledge about what d'es and d'es not work in online distributed education. To paraphrase President Emeritus of Stanford University Gerhard Casper, university experiments should:

  • Be developed within the context of the residential university
  • Facilitate the production of high-quality software and infrastructure that enhance teaching (expensive, and to date there has been too little investment)
  • Monitor the quality of learning more closely
  • Test whether online education can substitute for classroom experience (a complex task)
  • Test what sources of revenue can cover the costs of both experimentation and scaling.

Second, university leadership should be very clear about institutional goals and possible market niches when planning to serve off-site students. Our ongoing work at CSHE suggests that there are a number of key issues to consider when thinking about the costs and benefits of entering into the expensive and fast-changing world of online residential and off-site distance education. We are all aware of the emergence in the past few years of a diverse array of online education models—for-profit ventures (Fathom.com, NYU Online), equity stakes in external companies (University of Chicago, Columbia University, UNext.com), university consortia (Universitas 21, WGU, University Alliance for On-line Learning), licensing agreements (Pearson, McGraw-Hill), and most recently, the MIT OpenCourseWare initiative. To disentangle this world, types of institutions and their missions, as well as the technologies themselves, must be disaggregated. Choices that make sense for an extension arm of a research university or a well-focused proprietary institution such as the University of Ph'enix, may be entirely different from choices that are realistic for a community college or a small residential institution.

We can safely predict an ongoing market for residential higher education and the unique socialization and networking roles it serves. Such institutions will primarily invest in technologies that enhance their regular course offerings; perhaps secondarily (if at all) getting into the online distance learning business. Others may see the online market as an important new source of students and funds, and will thus capitalize heavily in new ventures to be at the forefront of the predicted boom in global online education. Successful models will provide a flexible mixed or hybrid mode (varying proportions of online and face-to-face methods) for teaching and learning. Whatever model emerges for a particular institution should be the result of careful planning and reflect a synthetic approach that includes wise use of the existing and cutting-edge technologies and is customized to the subject matter, to student needs and schedules, and to the institution’s mission, goals, and budgets.

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