Can Online Education Transform Higher Ed?

Can online education be the rock that disturbs the placid waters of American higher education? asks Brian Burnsed at

It will have a significant effect on most colleges and universities in coming years, industry experts believe. But only if it's regulated and governed by accreditation standards and accepted by institutions who have long stuck to traditional face-to-face instruction, writes Burnsed.

Director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, Louis Soares, recently denounced online education as being potentially a "disruptive innovator" in the higher ed landscape, citing the massive influx of online student enrollments at for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University.

"A disruptive innovation always starts out at a lower quality," he says. "[But], if you take that for-profit energy out of higher education, online [education] wouldn't have grown the way it has in the last 10 years."

In the coming decade it is predicated that there will be a greater presence of these online classes at more traditional, non-profit schools.

"Already, about 30 percent of American college students take at least one course online," says Elaine Allen, statistical director of the Sloan Survey on Online Education.

Institutions that have established themselves with traditional, high-achieving students are starting to embrace the technology, thought generally to target nontraditional students. The University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill and the University of Southern California are among schools that have recently adopted online-centric programs.

"We're at the beginning of elite schools starting to take online seriously," says Richard Garrett, managing director at research firm Eduventures. "They're trying to marry the online experience with the brand of the institution."

Schools may opt to replace many of their entry-level courses that are traditionally taught in vast lecture halls as technological capabilities expand and more schools embrace online education, experts say.

"Is there a secret sauce to a professor sitting in front of 400 students and lecturing that couldn't be [replicated] online?" asks Soares, of the Center for American Progress.

Standardized methods for training professors to teach online is essential to looking at online education's future viability, experts claim. The need for standardized methods for training could be regulated by an accrediting body, says the Sloan Survey's Allen.

For the quality of online education to increase, mainstream universities need to accept and recognize the possibilities of online instruction, she says.

"Training is all over the map," Allen adds. "We need to do something about that to address quality."

Much of the change will hinge on for-profit institutions' transparency regarding their students' outcomes after graduation. "The Department of Education's long delayed "gainful employment" regulations is a "tipping point" in the evolution of online education," Garrett says.

Should the regulations demand for-profits to better prepare students to enter the job market or risk losing access to federal loans, the sector could drive innovation in online education, writes Burnsed.

"This is healthy intervention for the for-profits. It might be painful now, but will help the sector down the road," Garrett says.

"If the [regulations are strict] it could turn for-profits into a more formidable sector, but that's a big ‘if.'"

Matthew Tabor

Matthew Tabor

Matthew is a prolific, independent voice in the national education debate. He is a tireless advocate for high academic standards from pre-K through graduate school, fiscal sense and personal responsibility. He values parents’ and families’ rights and believes in accountability for teachers, administrators, politicians and all taxpayer-funded education entities. With a unique background that includes work in higher education, executive recruiting, professional sport and government, Matthew has consulted on new media and communication strategies for a broad range of clients. He writes the blog “Education for the Aughts” at , has contributed to National Journal’s ‘Expert’ blog for Education , and interacts with the education community on Twitter and Google+.
09 6, 2011
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