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What is online education’s future? Ask the experts.


November 4, 2016 by admin

future of online educationThe current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education marks its 50th anniversary. With the article The Past and Future of Higher Education editors take stock of the most significant changes that have shaped higher education with an eye toward the next 50 years. When it came to the question regarding the most significant change in higher education, the answers were wide ranging, from neoliberalism (not a good thing) to the high costs of a college education (not a good thing either). But what did they think about online education’s future?

What’s the most significant change in higher education?

According to Nannerl O. Keohane, a former president of Wellesley College and Duke University, who is a senior scholar at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University:

The most significant change has been the development of online learning, which has become universal in less than a decade. The consequences have been both positive and negative. On the positive side, it makes possible access to knowledge by people in many different circumstances, and allows faculty members to learn more about what works in teaching. On the negative side, this style of teaching and learning does not work well for courses that require regular, continuing dialogue and probing, analytical discussions, including courses in philosophy and literature.

Having created an online program and taught online for the past four years, I disagree with the negative aspects of online learning Keohane mentions, as I believe discussions online can be as rich if not richer than those in a face to face classroom. My students report that they have more interactions with their online peers then with those students with whom they have taken face-to-face classes. That’s not to suggest that online education is a panacea, but I would emphasize that online holds the potential to provide a very rich learning environment.

The history and future of online education

When we started University 5dotO it was based on the idea that we are now in our fifth iteration of the university. We wrote in a 2014 post, Ten Reasons to Make Time for This Blog About Online Education, that Universities have been around for a very long time, the oldest continuously operating degree-granting institution of higher education was founded in 859 A.D. (that is not a typo) by Fatima al-Fihri, a woman, in Fez, Morocco. And, the oldest continuously operating university in Europe opened its doors in 1088 in Bologna, Italy. There are 10 universities that have been in business since the early 1200s.

It takes some flexibility for an institution to survive for more than 900 years, which should make clear to our readers that universities have demonstrated their ability to adapt, as in more recent times we moved from the development of land grant universities, to research universities, to professional schools and universities and to those that accommodated a broader spectrum of students. Now we are in the midst of another period that requires agility – online education.

Will Online Education be around in 50 years?

The Chronicle also asked which “phenomenon that seems crucially important today” will be forgotten in 50 years? I thought it was interesting to read the response from Tressie McMillan Cottom, an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and a faculty associate with Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, who declared that MOOCS will become a “historical blip.”

There is little doubt, compared to where they were just a few years ago when The New York Times declared The Year of the MOOC that MOOCs have already gone through significant changes: some providers have left the space and others attempt to monetize their platforms. I would posit that MOOCs will be around; however, we can already see that they have morphed into something that is pretty much unrecognizable from the Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course that Sebastian Thrun offered to 150,000 students through his start-up Udacity.

What will online education be like?

But I was most encouraged by Arizona State University President Michael Crow’s response to online education, as he said within 50 years it will be “taken for granted,” as online will provide “an obvious benefit and necessary to successful teaching, learning and achieving excellence.” However, I don’t think it will take that long for online to become seamless within the university. Universities are agile and adaptable. The importance of technology is well understood. It’s only a matter of where new technologies will lead us. LMSs will likely become historical artifacts as we move toward more distributive types of learning. And, we can begin to imagine how the Internet of Things (IOT) will impact higher education and how virtual and augmented reality that is quickly coming to the fore will impact teaching and learning.

For sure, the online education that we know today won’t look anything like the online education 50 years from now. We only need to imagine our way to the future, as those in higher education have strategically and creatively done in the past to get us to this point.

Where do you think online education will be in 10, 20 or 30 years or more? Please consider sharing your ideas in the comments box below.

-Neil Alperstein, PhD





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