Tech Trends | Research

Education Leaders See MOOCs, Distance Learning as the Future of Higher Ed

If you were to gather together a thousand academics, researchers, university IT and instructional technology leaders, institutional librarians, technology and media company executives, authors, journalists, futurists, association presidents, and other interested people and ask them to consider the possible impact of the Internet on higher education, the outlook you'd get would closely resemble the rich patchwork of perspective offered in a recent report from Elon University's School of Communications, as part of its "Imagining the Internet" project. Most of them would say there's a lot of change coming.

The multi-year project at the North Carolina institution, produced with the Pew Research Center, has taken on the ambitious job of recording what people expect "for the future of communications and the future of the world," according to text on its Web site. In this case, the researchers presented two scenarios describing higher education in 2020 and asked Internet experts, researchers, observers, and users which of the two they most agreed with and why. One scenario suggested that it wouldn't be much different from the way it is now; the other suggested it would be quite different. Responses came from 1,021 people.

Sixty percent of respondents agreed with a statement that, by 2020, "There will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources [and] a transition to 'hybrid' classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings." In other words, most people said they thought education would be quite different. In that scenario, most universities would shift graduation requirements to more "individually oriented" and "customized outcomes."

Some 39 percent of respondents went the other direction: Change would be modest, and most universities would "mostly require in-person, on-campus attendance of students most of the time at courses featuring a lot of traditional lectures." Graduation requirements would be "about the same as they are now."

"The overall findings of the survey stated in the form of an equation might be: Today's tough economy + market dynamics + technological advances = a higher education environment by 2020 in which 1) most people will get at least some of their education in massive open online courses; 2) a fairly large percentage will get all of their education in MOOCs; and 3) only a select few are likely to be able to afford to experience a fully campus-based, face-to-face education," said principal author Janna Quitney Anderson, director of Imagining the Internet and associate professor in Elon's School of Communications. "Some people we surveyed might say that describes where we are already today, while others might say we will not be there by 2020. It depends upon your perspective and on how knowledgeable you are about higher education and technology."

Interestingly, among the majority of people who expect greater change and greater dependence on online components in higher education in the future, many also bemoaned it. "They are worried over the adoption of technology-mediated approaches that they fear will lack the personal, face-to-face touch they feel is necessary for effective education," noted co-author Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. "Most noted that economic forces will compel the changes. Yet, a share of this group was excited about the possibility for universities to leverage new online capabilities and peer-to-peer collaborations that they believe would enhance knowledge creation and sharing."

For example, one anonymous person predicted that because the Internet can help schools "broaden" their student bodies without having to add physical locations, the top-tier ones could "branch out worldwide." While they might still require some form of residence, this could be of a shorter duration, "say, two years, doubling their throughput." The rest of the time, students would be responsible for their own education, this respondent suggested. "Schools will continue to build their reputations through research and even increase the balance in that direction by sharing courses among themselves and creating something like a conglomerate of like schools--think Ivy League conglomerate."

The report shared more than 150 quotes from named and anonymous respondents, many of them offering blue-sky assessments and others staying firmly on the ground. "You won't get an undergraduate degree from Berkeley or Stanford or Harvard or Yale from your parents' basement," wrote another anonymous respondent. "Doing so would belie the real purpose. Universities--where 17-year-olds turn into 21-year-olds and learn to make do for themselves for the first time, buy their first vacuum cleaner and their first cookbook, hold their first dinner party, and negotiate their first lease--these are about making the transition to adulthood and independence and have to be done in the real world."

A lot of the maturation and "firsts", however, may happen virtually in the future because they're already happening that way now, according to futurist John Smart, professor of emerging technologies at the University of Advancing Technology and president and founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation. "The other value of college, the social one, meeting others who you network with to do things like start businesses, is the one that is rapidly moving online as social networks, meet-ups, and Internet television advance," he wrote.

The emphasis on technology shouldn't be underestimated by those in education, said Charlie Firestone, executive director of the Communications and Society program at the Aspen Institute. "The technology will allow for more individualized, passion-based learning by the student, greater access to master teaching, and more opportunities for students to connect to others--mentors, peers, sources--for enhanced learning experiences."

Above all, multiple observers opined, the key for schools is to remain nimble. "There will be far more extreme changes institutionally in the next few years, and the universities that survive will do so mainly by becoming highly adaptive," said Alex Halavais, associate professor at Quinnipiac University and vice president of the Association of Internet Researchers. "The most interesting shifts in post-secondary education may happen outside of universities, or at least on the periphery of traditional universities. There may be universities that remain focused on the traditional lecture and test, but there will be less demand for them."

Report co-author Quitney Anderson said she sees a complementary relationship between what surfaced in this report and what came out of an earlier report in the same series focused on teens-to-20s, a group of individuals she referred to as Gen AO (for Generation Always-On). Subheads in that report include these: "Many argue that reinvention and reform of education are the key to a better future; some predict it will not happen quickly enough," and "Teachers express many concerns about the disconnect they are feeling with students; you can feel the tension in their words."

"As a researcher who carefully read and worked to identify common threads in the responses I'd say the survey respondents who have confidence in the positive evolution and application of educational technology believe that university leaders will do a better job of serving more people more effectively if they encourage the development of blended (integrative or hybrid) learning on as many levels as possible on their campuses," Quitney Anderson said. "Faculty who aren't already incorporating new tools in their courses should be strongly encouraged or incentivized to participate in training and observation of model teachers. There are many ways people can make new approaches work to achieve the goals they set for themselves and their students."

In the meantime, she encouraged anybody who cares about the future of higher education to dive into the latest report. "Read the scenarios, imagine how you would answer this question, and then see how others responded and draw your own conclusions."

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