On the Home Front (very close to Home) — The Future of Higher Education

David Brooks recently suggested in the NY Times that, among other problems of unemployment, university professors could soon be obsolete, replaced by online education.  Today I have invited a guest blog from Linda Zabriski, an educational writer, to discuss the highlights of this process.

Will The Availability of Online Doctorate Programs Foster a More Educated World?
by Linda Zabriski
Online education is still in its nascent stages, however it is quickly growing in popularity and giving many who were once without access to higher education the chance to become educated. While a populace that has completed one of many online doctorate programs, or even just a bachelors degree program, is still a pie in the sky dream, society is moving toward it. In the past ten years, enrollment in online educational facilities has skyrocketed and shows no sign of slowing anytime soon, especially as older workers turn to online education to update an increasingly outdated skill set. In Fall 2009 online education increased 21% over the previous year, a feat that is even more impressive considering that enrollment at traditional institutions has generally seen a year-to-year increase roughly 0.6% All the while, online educational institutions are increasingly regarded as reputable tools for learning, every bit the equal of traditional brick and mortar universities. This is probably the biggest change seen in online education. If the trend continues, the academic world will change dramatically in the next decade. What will happen to traditional universities, and will online education foster a better educated word?
              For many parents and full-time employees,given the rising costs of on-site education, online education is the only feasible option. A graph from OnlineEducation.net shows The Open University in Great Britain teaches the majority of it’s courses online, enrolling 250,000 students. It’s the largest university in the country. Likewise, the for-profit University of Phoenix is the largest university in the U.S., enrolling over 500,000 students. This fact, coupled with the meteoric rise of online education overall, certainly suggests an increasingly educated population in two of the world’s most developed and influential nations.
         These programs, while among the largest, do not account for the majority of online learning experiences. Cost, distance and time are the greatest hindrances to education, and online mediums greatly reduce all three. In turn, people who could not attend a traditional college are now able to pursue the degree of their choice. Organizations like Khan Academy and iTunes U jump over every one of those hurdles by offering courses without charge. Both offer brief, video-based lectures that allow individuals to learn at their own pace, on their own time. While neither offer a diploma, the education received has been touted as first-rate. If neither option is convenient enough, The London School of Business and Finance recently launched the Global MBA delivered entirely through a Facebook application. Recent studies suggest that the quality of these programs may trump that of traditional classroom lectures. The data demonstrates that, on average, students enrolled in online programs actually prefer virtual classrooms to face-to-face environments. Granted, it’s still early for any definitive conclusions to be made; however, education is blossoming through Internet portals. Harnessing this new tool to increase global knowledge will depend on broadband availability. The only thing holding millions of people from joining the ranks of online education is the initial cost of a computer and Internet Service Provider fees. The future of education holds more promise than ever before. 

Linda Zabriske is a currently a staff writer for http://www.onlinegraduateprograms.com, a comprehensive resource for finding legitimate advanced degree programs and related information. Today she is contributing a post discussing the increasing availability on online doctorate programs and its implications.
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This is a happy picture for billions of young people in the developing world who now will have access to courses ranging from those of Phoenix University to those of Harvard and MIT available on-line, for a tiny fraction of the cost and without the obstacles to gaining admission and attending a traditional university.
            I have often thought that in a broadband internet age, the literally medieval productivity of university professors, who still teach face-to-face in lectures to a dozen to at most a few hundred students at a time, is no longer sustainable.  In any modern competitive market, the best producers will squeeze out the weaker producers if they can access the same market. Harvard on-line courses will not replace hands-on tech courses for people seeking vocational work.  Nor will every engineer want or need an MIT-level education.  But a new internet world of open access to the best professors will make it very difficult for large state universities to attract the top-tier students who fill their honors programs because cost or distance or limited admissions at elite schools discouraged them.
          Small liberal arts colleges will still have a niche providing personal attention and custom-tailored education to talented students, and large state schools will still attract those wishing to combine a reasonable quality education with a social whirl or big-time athletics. Perhaps schools will seek niches in the vast on-line educational market enabling many hundreds of universities and colleges to survive.  But winner-take-all markets suggest that many schools and faculty will be unneeded in a world where the best professors and curriculum are available on line, with local graduate students or low-paid adjuncts providing discussion sessions, tutoring, review sessions, grading papers, and doing the other labor-intensive work of higher education.
          The one area in which on-line programs have so far not proven themselves is the ability to bring students through a full four-year degree program.  The drop out rate for ordinary state universities is disappointing; the drop out rate for on-line programs is outrageous.  Only the most ambitious and dedicated students will be able to complete a rigorous college curriculum online with nothing but their own will to push them forward.
         So we will not see an instant transformation of higher education, but we will undoubtedly see new competitive pressures, a blossoming world of internet education, and new choices for students.  That is all to the good.
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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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