Mass High Tech The true potential and promise of online learning

Mass High Tech The true potential and promise of online learning

By Jack Wilson and David Gray

At the height of the Internet economy, as businesses were adding "e" prefixes to everything, e-learning emerged with the promise to revolutionize education. Every college and university seemed to have an online education strategy.

At the time anything seemed possible; it was irresponsible not to have a dot-com plan. For-profit universities grabbed business headlines with big revenues and IPOs. Traditional universities launched e-learning spinoffs. And the entrepreneurial but woefully unaccredited "degree mills" hawked online Ph.D.s to virtually anyone with an e-mail address.

It has been said that it is easier to move a graveyard than to change the culture in higher education. Today, however, even the most steadfast late adopter of technology in academia will probably admit that e-learning and the Internet have become inextricably rooted in higher education.

Perhaps online education's journey from the edges to the center of higher education has been more of a revelation than a revolution. Stronger online programs and better student services have emerged from healthy academic debates around university conference tables about ensuring quality. Unrealistic revenue expectations have been replaced by the sober realization that it takes hard work, academic discipline and market understanding as well as true innovation to deliver successful, academically sound programs online.

Most surprising, however, is that online education has spawned advances in face-to-face teaching, delivered a better understanding of the value of the teaching-learning relationship and reinvigorated many facets of academic culture with its potential.

A perfect storm of market demands and competitive pressure is propelling e-learning into mainstream higher education. A competitive global economy, an economic downturn and rapid-fire industry advances are creating demand for continuous learning even for students who have already earned degrees. In the future, universities may have to offer students "maintenance contracts" on their degrees - providing them perpetual "knowledge upgrades."

Universities are also facing unprecedented competitive pressure from the relatively new, non-traditional education providers. These non-traditional providers are built to be businesses that deliver educational products. Because they are fierce competitors, the for-profits are driving some change into traditional universities that have realized they can either better respond to market needs or their competitors will do it for them.

Universities are becoming more responsive, offering continuous learning opportunities such as degree "upgrades" for alumni, degree completion options for people who attended college but did not graduate and flexible time frames for professionals. Online education has become a critical long-term strategy for institutions of higher education because it helps position them to better meet the needs of their students.

But online education brings more to the table. UMassOnline, for example, drives innovations in teaching and learning that benefit the university's many constituencies. This year, in addition to delivering 800 fully online courses for distance students, UMassOnline supported more than 1,000 face-to-face courses at the five UMass campuses with its web-based e-learning tools.

Instructors who teach online say the experience can improve their teaching. As they prepare to teach online, instructors must examine their methods, strategies and content in order to redeploy them online. An instructor who relies heavily on lectures in the classroom must use more facilitative strategies in his online classes. Instead of using top-down teaching methods, he must engage students in more exploration, active research and interaction with him and with one another. This rethinking enables better teaching and, more important, better learning.

The online medium provides a fresh take on academic interactions. Because assignments, discussions, documents and multimedia are recorded in the virtual classroom, students and professors can secure the sometimes elusive elements of classroom learning. For example, when a class discussion is captured in a threaded discussion online, participants can return to review it at any time and from anywhere.

A recent study from the Sloan Consortium, an organization dedicated to advancing the quality of online education, reported 1.9 million online students enrolled in fall 2003; this year enrollments are expected to increase 24 percent, to 2.6 million. The truly important issues of education are the what and the how, not the where or the when. Universities are watching the term distance education morph into distributed learning, or simply education. Colleges and universities that perceive this trend will be better positioned both to serve and to prosper.

Jack Wilson is president of the University of Massachusetts. David Gray is chief executive officer of UMassOnline.

Date: 11/29/04