The 2013 Sloan survey about Online Learning was just posted this week, and I will be writing a series of reflections over the upcoming 5-10 days. For this first reflection, I would like to focus upon one small change from 2012 to 2013.
In 2012, 70% of “chief academic leaders” described that, “online learning is critical to their long-term strategy.” Interestingly, that number dropped to 66% in 2013. Why the change? The executive summary of the report explains that all of this decrease comes from academic leaders at institutions that do not currently offer any online courses. In other words, those who were not doing online learning in 2012 saw it as even a smaller priority in 2013.
What might have occurred in 2013 to explain this shift? Three influences come to mind: MOOCs, increased and decreased online learning quality, and an increasingly cohesive alternative voice about the nature of higher education in the 21st century.
1) MOOCS – If you read headline in a major news outlet about online learning in 2013, it was most likely about MOOCS. Many such articles used MOOCs and online learning as synonyms, often ignoring the twenty-five year history of small, private online courses that are commonplace throughout higher education institutions. As a result, those who were already uninformed about online learning became less informed in 2013. If all that one knows about online learning is what they read in major news outlets in the last year, then they have a flawed and narrow understanding. While MOOCs amplified important conversations about increased access to education, concepts of openness in learning, and thoughts about digital communities; they muffled a budding conversation about more conventional online courses and programs. For those academic leaders who did not explore online learning before this last year, they are now rooted in an ahistorical one-sided view of the topic. From this perspective, it is no surprise that such leaders see online learning as less critical for their institution.
2) Increased & Decreased Online Learning Quality – As online learning continues to grow, we are seeing third and fourth generation models of increasingly high-quality: rich and immersive simulations, refined online teaching and learning practices, improved use of digital tools to enhance learning and increase motivation, greater understanding of how to leverage peer-to-peer learning, promising experimentation with adaptive learning, learning analytics used to drive quality improvements, and a recognition that high-quality online learning is about much more than filling out a Quality Matters rubric. Of course, that is paralleled with increased growth in low-quality factory model programs that are forcing down class length for the sake in increased cash flow, decreasing and simplifying course expectations to improve student retention (to maintain solid cash flow), and elevating investments in marketing and recruitment far above modest budgets for student support and academic quality. How is all of this impacting the perception of academic leaders who have yet to get involved with online learning? At the same time, they are seeing initiatives with which they can’t imagine competing and others that represent a money-first mindset that does not resonate with their learning-centered commitment to higher education.
3) Coherent Alternative Voices – Partly due to #1 and #2, we saw an increasingly clear and convincing alternative vision to higher education in 2013. Some of this came from professors who gathered to communicate shared concerns and critiques of MOOCs, pointing to false educational promises of MOOCs, the negative impact upon the professorate, and identifying dozens of noteworthy limitations to MOOCs (student dropout rates being their favorite). Along with this we had dozens of articulate and persuasive authors and speakers like Jose Bowen, author of Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning. Bowen makes the case that your typical small liberal arts college is not going to thrive with online learning, not when they are competing with multi-million dollar R&D investments from places like Stanford, Harvard and MIT. Instead, he explains, focus on what you do well. Such messages gained traction in 2013 among those academic leaders who are guiding currently offline institutions.
Put these three factors together, and we have a solid explanation for that small number of academic leaders who have decided that online learning is not in their school’s future. Is it a wise strategic move? Only time will tell. Regardless, I offer three pieces of advice to such leaders and others at their schools.
1) Regardless of whether you embrace online learning as part of your school’s future, get informed about the possibilities. Don’t decide on the basis of a single aspect of online learning like MOOCs. There is a rich and robust body of literature that provides importance alternate perspectives.
2) Use 2014 to consider convergences in your school’s future. Online learning plus face-to-face learning equals blended learning. Even if you don’t see students studying from thousands of miles away, consider the role of learning experiences that blend the best of face-to-face with the best of online. If you stay offline, that does not mean that you can afford to ignore the digital revolution. Technology-less higher education is nearing educational malpractice.
3) Clarify your identity and come up with a compelling narrative for the school. Except for a few institutions that can survive for decades on endowment funds, online learning will eventually challenge your enrollment targets. If you are not going to embrace online learning, then that means having a clear and compelling story to describe what is worthwhile about your school. Beyond that, it requires people hearing and resonating with that story. Whether you embrace or reject online learning as a higher education institution, having that powerful story (or even a couple of them depending upon the nature of the organization) is important to your future.