Do Colleges Need to Get More Serious About Online Education?

Karen Symms Gallagher, the dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, thinks that colleges and universities around the country are dragging their feet when it comes to deploying comprehensive online education programs. Although constant stories about online higher ed might make some think that the format is being enthusiastically embraced, the reality is quite different.

The confusion seems to lie in the fact that what is being touted – things like massive online open courses – can’t realistically be considered a high quality education option for the average American college student. With the launch of edX and online education portals like Coursera and Udacity, anyone around the world can gain access to some of the best courses from premier universities, any time and for free — but creating an online degree program that can produce similar outcomes to a major pursued on a traditional campus has been substantially more difficult.

Logging on to these lectures is often like watching through a one-way mirror—albeit for free and, say, with 15,000 classmates. Coursera, EdX, Udacity, and others are providing courses, but they are not providing the kind of lively, participatory learning that today’s technology makes possible. I can’t help thinking that the massive open online course explosion so far is a bigger, better delivery system of The Great Courses, which my husband and I have enjoyed for years. Great Courses has sold tapes of the best classes from Stanford, Oxford, Princeton, and others for 20 years.

Yet many university leaders are seizing on MOOCs as an excuse to go no further with online education on their own campuses. Putting cameras in the classrooms is about as far as some schools have progressed when it comes to moving college education into the digital and online domains.

And no wonder. Online ed could be a destructive force in higher education, which means embracing it fully will mean holding up to scrutiny conventional wisdom that has been held as fact for hundreds of years.

Most of all, embracing the promise of online learning requires leadership. It calls for the hard work of cultivating and winning over skeptical faculty, who are some of the most talented and change-averse people on campuses today. And while I salute the free availability of greater knowledge on the web, we in higher ed must be forthright in saying that providing high-quality, fully interactive degree programs online is costly and, at this point, cannot be free.

Gallagher cites efforts at Rossier to demonstrate what bringing online learning to a school really entails. So far, the school offers several online masters programs, with some including credentialing, to all comers both in the U.S. and abroad. By contracting with online education company 2U, Rossier can deliver these programs securely and make them as demanding as those offered on campus.

12 13, 2012
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