Memo to higher ed: get ready for remote learning to rock your world

Like it or loathe it, web-enabled remote learning is increasingly pushing its way into colleges and universities around the world. And, according to a survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project and Elon University, a majority of technology stakeholders expect it to significantly change the world of higher education by 2020.
In a report released today, Pew and Elon University said that 60 percent of internet experts, researchers, observers and users polled said they agreed that by 2020, “there will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources … a transition to ‘hybrid’ classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings.” By comparison, 39 percent endorsed the contrary position that “in 2020 higher education will not be much different from the way it is today.”
The researchers acknowledged that distance learning is a polarizing issue, viewed by critics as as ineffective approach for learning. But they found that even those who anticipate increased reliance on distance learning don’t necessarily like the idea of 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,” Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project, said in statement. “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.”
Online learning sparks debate on college campus
Pew’s report comes at a very interesting time. The growing cost of a college education and the rising prominence of online learning startups, such as Coursera, Udacity and 2tor, as well as open-source edX platform from MIT and Harvard (which this week announced that it has added the University of California at Berkeley), are sparking understandable debate on campuses across the country.
Last month, the role of online learning in higher education was a central issue in the dismissal (and later re-appointment) of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan. Many in the school’s leadership felt that she was not taking fast enough steps to adopt remote learning and, even though she was ultimately reinstated, the school announced last week that it had joined Coursera, along with a dozen other top universities.

Coursera instructors in a video conference online.

Coursera’s announcement that it had added new partners (and raised more money) itself set off a new round of commentary on the topic. In a New York Times op-ed, UVA English professor Mark Edmundson bemoaned the “The Trouble with Online Education” and questioned its ability to be education at its best.
“Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely,” he wrote.
Online ed offers access, convenience, lower cost
But as Steven Spear, an author, consultant and senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management countered in response, online education isn’t intended to replace in-classroom education wholesale, but provide value that the in-person version cannot — namely, access, convenience and a lower cost.
Additionally, the “lonely” version of “monologue”-heavy online learning that Edmundson envisions is being increasingly challenged by platforms, such as 2tor’s, which allow a classroom full of students to have a web-based dialogue with professors in real-time. Instead of just watching a pre-recorded video of a professor’s lecture, students can use their web cams to interact with fellow classmates and the instructor on screen and take part in real group discussions. It isn’t the same as being in a live classroom, but it still enables professors to see when a student is nodding off, when a joke falls flat or when a concept isn’t getting through – and adapt in real-time. (In his post, Spear said MIT is testing similar “multiplayer” technology for online group discussions.)
Also, even though Coursera’s approach, which brings tens of thousands of students into a virtual classroom, doesn’t allow for real-time in-class conversation, it still encourages interaction via online forums (where it says the median response time is relatively quick 22 minutes) and  enables students to experience a global cross-section of perspectives and experiences. Down the line, as a contract with a partner university indicates, the company may add personal, human support to those willing to pay extra.
Questions and healthy skepticism about online learning and its impact on higher education are good and necessary. If it does indeed have the potential to upend such a crucial social institution, as many great minds as possible should take part in the process. But, as the Pew study notes, online learning doesn’t just stand to disrupt the institution of higher education. It also presents an opportunity to totally refashion and improve the way people in a modern workforce need to learn.
“Higher education will not change very fast, although it should,” said Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd in comments included with the report. “But what’s at stake has nothing to do with the amount of technology being used. What’s at stake has to do with the fact that universities are not structured to provide the skills that are needed for a rapidly changing labor, creative force.”
(Image by miha19750405 via Shutterstock.)