DeMillo: Traditional Universities Fear Online Education

Most of the pushback against online education is being driven by fears that it will supplant the traditional instructional paradigm, according to Richard A. DeMillo, a speaker at the IdeaFestival Conference held in Louisville, Kentucky. DeMillo said that the advent of online learning will probably spell doom to many colleges and universities in this country and abroad — unless they have the stature and prestige of the 60-or-so schools that make up the Ivy League and the top tier of the research institutions in the country.

For DeMillo, the sheer volume of knowledge now being disseminated over the internet presents a destructive force to the way that higher education currently works. In his capacity as the director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology, he has firsthand knowledge of how panicked college administrators seem over the growing popularity of online learning.

While many brush off the portents of the higher-ed apocalypse by saying that it will be a long time before online options measure up to the legitimacy offered by grading systems used in colleges and universities today, DeMillo points out that those have been declining in relevance for a long time.

“Two thirds of college students earn A’s and B’s. We live in `Lake Woebegone,’ ” DeMillo said, recalling the fictitious town featured in radio host Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” where all the children are “above average.”

When companies like Coursera and consortia like edX offer online courses from some of the top universities in the world for free, the economic calculation behind investing $200,000 into a college education becomes infinitely more complex. Recently, those operating these kinds of massive online open courses have begun to explore ways to legitimize MOOCs in the eyes of colleges and employers via introduction of proctored exams covering material in the course and administered in testing centers around the country. Once these efforts mature, they could serve as a huge hurdle for traditional colleges to overcome when they attempt to sell an undergraduate degree earned in the “old” way as a good investment in a student’s future.

Spalding University President Tori Murden McClure said before DeMillo’s talk that the school is changing fast to catch up with the online revolution.

In the last 12 months, she said, the university has gone from zero online courses to 50 classes online. McClure said many university officials feel “fear and trepidation,” at the rapidly evolving landscape of higher education.