Higher education has a history of adapting technologies that are flexible enough to fit into the existing system, while ignoring or pushing aside technologies that are not. Online education has been earmarked for the latter. Critics believe that the new technology will not “penetrate the core of schooling,” often making claims that online education is less effective than expensive face-to-face education. The evidence indicates that such claims are faulty. Technology proponents, on the other hand, envision the cessation of a long lasting tradition of the physical classroom.
Online education provides an alternative to the classroom education model that has persisted for centuries – an approach in which the teacher “is an expert whose job is to transmit that expertise to large groups of students through lecture, recitation, drill, and practice,” and is guided by anachronistic technologies such as the textbook, blackboard, overhead projector, copy machine, pen and paper. This sacrosanct model of education whose “idea of school as a building, with kids and teachers always concentrated in the same physical place” now includes teaching aids such as computers and projectors that permit the showing of prerecorded lectures or the display of PowerPoint slides. While such technologies have allowed colleges to implement auditorium-style classes that have helped them to achieve economies of scale in teaching some introductory courses, it is “simply more of the same teacher-centered past.”
Today’s students grew up with the internet at their fingertips and mobile devices in their pockets. They are tech savvy, as is the world around them. With the antiquated lecture model still prevalent in higher education, is it any wonder that students increasingly cut class, fall asleep in the back of the room, or worse, drop out in droves? As some technology proponents argue, “Trying to prepare students for the 21st century with 19th -century technology is like teaching people to fly a rocket ship by having them ride bicycles.” Higher education needs to undergo a change in which technology is utilized not only to reduce costs and improve productivity, but also to engage students in learning. Online learning ostensibly presents such an opportunity. The emergence of primarily online universities such as The University of Phoenix, Britain’s Open University, and the University of Maryland’s University College, which enroll more than 700,000 students combined, demonstrates the potential online learning has to provide affordable access to postsecondary education.
The Benefits of Online Learning
According to higher education management consultant Keith Hampson, “Except for the occasional ambitious project, online learning at traditional colleges and universities in North America has had limited success breaking from the organizational (and yes, educational) conventions of classroom education.” If higher education is able to overcome the implementation problem that Hampson attributes to an outdated organizational and business model, then online education has the potential to confer a number of benefits over traditional face-to-face education. These benefits fall into three main categories: cost reduction, access expansion and product improvement.
First, online education presents the opportunity to significantly reduce the cost of college education in the long run by substituting technology for labor and physical facilities. The current residential model of college is a centrally-located campus that requires hordes of employees and a multitude of expensive facilities to produce educational services. Online education presents an opportunity to substitute technology for capital and labor into the higher education production function. This will enable colleges to reduce costly face-to-face instruction and other non-instructional services, as well as overcome constraints of time and capacity, all of which contribute to the rising production costs in higher education.
Colleges continually expand their scope by adding new programs and courses. This requires an increased number of instructors to teach the classes, as well as additional classroom and office space, which adds to operational expenses such as maintenance and utilities. Moving more courses online would alleviate many of the costs associated with these problems by decentralizing the campus classroom and moving it to the internet, thus decreasing the physical capacity needed for classrooms and offices, and the operational expenses related to maintaining these facilities. Online courses still require an instructor or facilitator, but this person, as well as the student, would not need to gather on campus in an institutional facility at a specific time. This would effectively reduce capacity and time constraints, as well as the costs of luring qualified instructors to sometimes remote campus locations. Rather, course facilitators and students could reside anywhere with internet access, eliminating the costs associated with relocation to campus.
With the residential campus model, colleges strategically bundle a plethora of additional nonacademic fees into the price that students are ultimately charged. These fees include, but are not limited to charges for recreational facilities, athletics, entertainment, health insurance, prepaid legal services, computer labs, room and board, and diversity programs. Each program or service provided requires both onsite facilities and labor resources to function, adding to the cost of college. With online education, students could choose not to reside on campus. With a larger off-campus population, colleges would be encouraged to make such service fees optional and thus adjust their tuition structure to reduce the cross-subsidization of activities and facilities that are not being utilized by online students.
The state of California’s fiscal nightmare prompted University of California at Berkeley law school dean Christopher Edley Jr. to suggest that the California system of higher education develop a cyber-campus because “online learning could save the California dream of a topnotch education for all” with the only possible drawback being that “online students might miss the keg parties, but they would have the same world-class faculty, UC graduate student instructors, and adjunct faculty.” The continually rising costs of college in the U.S. could be viewed as a crisis in which “the best offense…is often innovation.”
Reducing all of these expenses will inevitably reduce the marginal cost of instruction, a savings which could then be passed on to the student. The National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) has a course redesign model for the implementation of information technology into college courses. The NCAT project has enabled capacity expansion that allows for increased enrollment and access at a reduced marginal cost. In addition to the evidence provided by that project, the cost savings of online education are evident by examining providers such as East Carolina University, which offers online courses for $100 per semester credit hour, and StraighterLine, which offers unlimited online courses for $99 per month plus $39 per course enrolled. Such relatively low-priced online courses are indicative of the potential to substantially reduce the cost of instruction.
The second benefit is that online education presents an opportunity to expand access to higher education. Many students are currently constrained financially in their choice of schools due to the proposition of moving out of their parent’s home, giving up their job, or sacrificing familial obligations in order to attend class on weekday afternoons. Such students are often also geographically limited in their educational options by what the local community college offers, or in the worst case scenario, turned away from college altogether due to overcrowding at the only local option. According to Eduventure’s Richard Garrett, residents in less populated communities are more likely to prefer online study, as it provides them with increased choice.
As discussed above, online courses can be provided at a significantly reduced marginal cost and students can attend from anywhere with access to the internet, reducing both the financial and geographic constraints of college. It is for these reasons that the for-profit sector has experienced a rapid increase in market share in recent years, as such providers often employ distance learning opportunities that meet the needs of an underserved segment of the population (note: the for-profit sector maintains 42 percent of the online student market). Online education presents a financially viable solution to increasing access to postsecondary education, as students can “attend” class when their schedule permits, from virtually anywhere in the world, at a much lower cost than traditional brick and mortar colleges.
Lastly, online instruction is an innovative approach to education that has the potential to improve learning outcomes. The evidence, which will be discussed in the challenges section below, suggests that the online medium does not detract from the educational outcomes of students with the motivation to learn and may in fact improve outcomes, as online courses can be customized to adapt to the pace of each student and provide valuable feedback to the individual. In essence, information technology presents an opportunity to individualize learning in a manner that overcomes the shortcomings of traditional classrooms that are partially attributable to larger class sizes and the growing demand of faculty time for research and service.
The potential for online education to make college more affordable, more accessible and improve the quality of education is increasingly realistic. The NCAT course redesign project provides supporting evidence that “transformed versions of online, blended and e-learning hold the potential to be essential elements of the reimagining of American higher education, post recession, to make it sustainable worldwide,” with opportunities to “reduce the total cost of achieving competence objectives and improve the success of learners by providing a range and mix of options that meet their personal and financial needs.”
The Growth of Online Education
Online education arguably began in 1993 thanks to Dr. Graziadi who experimented with a project called VICES to deliver a lecture via computer and to disperse notes, tutorials and assessment tools by electronic means. Since Dr. Graziadi’s experiment, online education has grown substantially. An estimated 4.6 million students–or a quarter of total enrollment–were enrolled in at least one online course during fall 2008, an increase of 17 percent from the previous year. The number of students taking an online course increased by 188 percent during the six-year period between 2002 (1.6 million) and 2008 (4.6 million), a compound annual growth rate of 19 percent, while the overall enrollment in higher education grew at an annual rate of only 1.5 percent.
Students enrolled at institutions granting associate’s degrees, which comprised about 37 percent of the total postsecondary education market, accounted for more than 50 percent of all online students in 2007. This means that approximately 30 percent of two-year students took an online course in 2007, whereas only about 17 percent of all other students did so. The greater use of online courses at two-year schools allows colleges to better adapt to their typically more volatile enrollment trends. In addition to single courses being offered online, entire academic programs taught online are beginning to emerge. The University of Phoenix offers more than 100 online degree programs, ranging from associates to doctoral; in a variety of fields that includes arts and sciences, business, criminal justice, education, human services, health care, psychology and technology. The University of Maryland’s University College offers numerous online undergraduate and graduate degree programs in traditional academic fields, as well as specialized degrees in business, health care administration, information and technology systems, teacher education, legal studies and criminal justice.
Limitations and Challenges Facing Online Education
Despite the recent growth and potential benefits of online education, it is not without limitations or challenges. There are several categories of challenges, including skepticism about quality and access, political & regulatory barriers, technical issues and costs.
Skepticism about Quality— The Social Interaction Argument
Many skeptics of online learning espouse the view that traditional education is more effective than online, presumably because greater value is placed on face-to-face instruction than the actual content being delivered. This social interaction argument assumes that physical classroom interaction is needed to engage the students in learning and that this experience is not replicable in a virtual classroom–even ones that makes use of advanced communication tools such as email, forums and social networking that encourage even bashful students to participate. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests this argument is misguided—that online education is as effective if not more effective than traditional face-to-face instruction.
NCAT, as mentioned above, has developed a course redesign model that stresses the implementation of information technology into an institution’s 25 most common courses. It has been tested at 30 institutional locations thus far, with significant improvements in student learning, retention, and course completions. In fact, improvements in student learning were reported by 25 of the 30 projects, with the remaining 5 indicating equivalent learning; and 18 of 24 institutions that measured retention reported “a decrease in drop-failure-withdrawal rates, and an increase in course completion rates.” A similar effort is underway at Carnegie Mellon Universities’ Open Learning Initiative (OLI), which has developed a prototype for how online courses can be designed to respond to individual student needs. Early testing of OLI suggests that, “students in a traditional classroom introductory statistics course scored no better than similar students who used the open-learning program and skipped the three weekly lectures and lab period,” implying that online courses are just as effective as traditional ones, with room for improvement. The positive results reported by NCAT and OLI are indicative of the overall effects of online education as reported by the Department of Education and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).
The Department of Education (ED) released a meta-analysis in 2009 that examined more than 1,000 empirical studies of the effectiveness of online learning, finding that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, that those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction,” with the effect being greater for blended (online combined with elements of face-to-face) than for purely online instruction, relative to face-toface instruction only. The report noted that “online learning is much more conducive to the expansion of learning time than is face-to-face instruction.” Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection. The results of the ED report were enough to persuade some skeptics, such as University of Wisconsin sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab, to conclude that “I'm a bit more convinced that online ed is a reasonable way to move forward”.
The 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which randomly surveyed nearly 380,000 students at 722 U.S. baccalaureate-granting institutions, found that “courses delivered primarily online seem to stimulate students’ level of intellectual challenge and educational gains,” adding that “relative to classroom learners…online learners reported more deep approaches to learning in their coursework.” The NSSE report did note that students who pursue online courses may be those “who embrace the spirit of independent, student centered, intellectually engaging learning,” with online learners more likely than their counterparts to very often “participate in course activities that challenge them intellectually and to discuss topics of importance to their major.”
Skepticism about Access – The Digital Divide Argument
Some critics of online education suggest that low-income and rural students may not have the same access to computers or the internet as students from more affluent families and thus would be excluded from benefiting from online education – this line of reasoning is often referred to as the digital divide. This argument has becomes less substantiated as the price of computers continues to fall and access to the internet continues to expand. A 2008 Nielson report indicated that 80.6 percent of all households have a computer in their home, with more than 90 percent of those also having access to the internet in their homes. Additionally, the digital divide argument against online education assumes that the current higher education system is accessible to low income and rural families. With the rising cost of college, this becomes less true every year as tuition inflation continues to outpace general price and wage increases. The fact that access to computers and the internet continues to grow coupled with the fact that online courses can be provided at a much lower cost than face-to-face courses, suggests that online education has the potential to increase college access for low-income and rural students, rather than exclude them as the digital divide argument claims.
Because the faculties at many colleges have a significant say in governance issues, faculty resistance is a significant barrier to online education. According to the results of a national faculty survey, faculty opinion varies regarding online learning, with significant resistance often coming from those who have never designed or taught such a course:
“Faculty with no online experience remain relatively negative about online learning outcomes,” whereas faculty with “experience developing or teaching online courses have a much more positive view towards online instruction than those without such experience.”
Among faculty who have never taught or developed an online course, more than 80 percent perceive online learning outcomes as inferior or somewhat inferior to face-to-face instruction. Meanwhile, of the faculty who have never taught or developed an online course, around 42 percent have recommended an online course to a student or advisee, presenting somewhat of a paradox: why would they recommend a product believed to be inferior to a student whose best interests they are supposed to serve? This suggests that such faculty members are expressing a personal bias due to a perceived threat to their job or unwillingness to learn a new technological method of teaching, rather than an opinion based on pragmatic or empirical evaluation. Instructors who have embraced the technology appear to be having success with it, believing that online education offers students a number of benefits, including flexibility as well as the potential to improve learning outcomes.
Political & Regulatory Action
Political and regulatory actions pose a barrier to the proliferation of online education, as a few recent cases illustrate.
Accreditation is one of the biggest regulatory barriers hindering the growth of online education due to its tendency to promote conformity in higher education. Students are generally only willing to take courses that will lead to credit and/or a degree, and courses must be taken at an accredited institution in order to count towards a degree. StraighterLine, a private firm that specializes in offering very low cost introductory courses online for as little as $99 a month, has been battling to overcome the accreditation barriers since its inception. Because it does not fit the traditional definition of an institution, StraighterLine is unable to obtain accreditation for its courses, which have been independently reviewed and found to be of high quality. It thought that it had found a loophole in the system by partnering with accredited institutions such as Fort Hays State University and Grand Canyon University to offer its courses, but this partnership soon faced opposition from the accreditation community after faculty and student protests generated media attention. Several of StraighterLine’s partnerships were terminated due to pressure from the accreditation associations, depriving both students and the institutions involved from benefiting from the innovative business model.
Turf protection is a political game that has proved to be an impediment to online education. Morgan State University was able to use the political process to successfully block the University of Maryland’s University College (UMUC) from offering an online doctorate program in education to students in the state of Maryland due to a civil rights precedent set by the Supreme Court which protects historically black colleges and universities from the competition of other public institutions for programs that it offers. In other words, although out of state students can enroll in UMUC’s program, any student living in the state of Maryland who wishes to pursue a doctorate in education is limited in choice to Morgan State University’s program, and is not able to take advantage of an online program that may be better suited to their particular needs.
Finally, there are cost issues to overcome for the successful migration to more online education. The costs associated with an effective system of online courses fall into one of two general categories –development and maintenance. First, as with the development of any new IT system, there are design and implementation costs that must generally be financed upfront. The resources necessary to develop and implement online courses must be paid prior to the benefits being realized. This entails an opportunity cost, as the resources necessary to finance the development of online course must be drawn from another use. One way to reduce such costs would be to partner with another college or private organization that has expertise in online course design and implementation. There are also maintenance costs such as security, software or hardware upgrades, and the occasional revision of course content. Most colleges and universities already incur similar costs with their faculty and IT employees, so the maintenance costs would likely require a reallocation of labor resources rather than additional costs.
The number of students taking courses online continues to grow, with nearly 4.6 million taking at least one course online in the fall of 2008. This is a positive trend for higher education, as the migration towards online education presents an opportunity to achieve goals which are almost universally agreed upon—reduce costs, improve learning outcomes, and expand access. Costs can be reduced by reducing the number of campus facilities needed to house courses and employees in favor of moving more classes online. Empirical evidence indicates that the learning outcomes of students taking courses online are comparable, and in some cases better than, traditional face-to-face courses. Online courses also present an opportunity to reduce the physical and geographic constraints to college access.
There are several very promising models for online courses currently on the market including the NCAT course redesign project, StraighterLine’s $99 a month model, open access models such as MIT’s Open Courseware and Carnegie Mellon’ Online Learning Initiative, and the growing number of online programs offered by providers such as the University of Phoenix and University of Maryland University College.
While the potential benefits of online education are very attractive, there are challenges that need to be overcome before the full benefits can be derived. The biggest obstacles standing in the way are skepticism and resistance, political and regulatory action, and implementation costs. However, as Kevin Carey suggests, these barriers will fall as the public increasingly accepts online courses and bemoans rapid tuition inflation:
All it takes is for one generation of college students to see online courses as no more or less legitimate than any other—and a whole lot cheaper in the bargain—for the consensus of consumer taste to rapidly change. The odds of this happening quickly are greatly enhanced by the endless spiral of steep annual tuition hikes, which are forcing more students to go deep into debt to pay for college while driving low-income students out altogether.