Challenging orthodoxy has never been the best way to ingratiate oneself to the people who hold power. Socrates was forced to drink hemlock for the crime of posing difficult questions to the influential members of society around him, and for corrupting young minds to do the same. Galileo Galilei was placed under house arrest for espousing a heliocentric theory of the universe instead of the widely accepted, but faulty, geocentric theory. Dr. Martin Luther King was hated, vilified, and eventually killed, for daring to ask that people adhere to the idea that all men are created equal.
While not as drastic as any of the changes these three men tried to make, the struggle that online education and its supporters are enduring is a substantive one. With student loan debt surpassing credit card and auto loan debt, many students are forgoing the traditional college route simply because they can’t afford it. Finding ways to earn a degree without having to mortgage their future is important, and experimenting with online degree programs may help create a solution.
The Teagle Foundation, a group dedicated to improving undergraduate education in the arts and sciences, recently brought together college leaders to discuss the changing tide of higher learning. At the meeting, the former president of Tufts University, Lawrence Bacow, stated that “online is here to stay” and that new technologies will become increasingly attractive at the college level. “Faculty are going to run to that. Our students are going to demand it.”
According to the Babson Survey Research Group, over 6.7 million students enrolled in at least one online college course in fall 2011. That number has been growing since 2002 and looks like it may continue to grow as students and faculty learn more about the technology. In fact, distance learning has been around in some form for a long time. Students used to take correspondence courses through the mail, and then institutions began to offer platforms for taking courses online when the Internet blossomed. Those grew into fully online degree programs, and now students have the option of taking on-campus courses or enroll in school through an online format.
Bacow sees several issues keeping schools from fully adopting online education, one of which is cost. He believes that building a competent framework that will help institutions lower their operating costs in the future will be expensive in the short term. That will change, however, “when we really get smart enough to fundamentally rethink how we teach our students.”
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) may be able to help educators experiment with different ways to reach their students, as well as the technologies associated with online learning. It is important to exhaust all possibilities, as the future of students may depend on the affordability of earning a college education. MOOCs have already exploded in popularity, leaving traditional schools scrambling to keep up with the growing trend. At the Teagle Foundation meeting, Steven Zucker, co-dean of art and history at online education provider Khan Academy, estimated that one million students will partake in the site’s art history offerings this semester.
“There is a tsunami that is crashing over us right now, and I think that we need to pay attention to it,” Zucker said. “We need to not bury our heads in the sand, pretending it’s not there. The wave is hitting us, it’s hitting the shore, and it’s transforming our students.”
“Digital Rescue,” insidehighered.com, April 12, 2013, Carl Straumsheim
“New Study: Over 6.7 million Students Learning Online,” sloanconsortium.org, Jan. 8, 2013
“The looming crisis of student loan debt,” cnn.com, Dec. 6, 2012, William J. Bennett