Some claim it will cut the bloated budgets of American universities, others that it will transform education entirely. We believe these grand claims obscure the real benefits of online education—and could cause actual harm to the educational system.
We never should confuse education with the tools that educators use. A chalkboard isn’t education, and neither is a computer. We always have known what it takes to learn: well-prepared teachers, motivated students, and a social system that values educational attainment. When teachers, students, and the social system are all in balance, education occurs—no matter how it’s presented.
While claims about the Internet’s transformational abilities seem to us to be greatly overblown, we believe that the Internet does indeed offer real opportunities for changes within education. Unfortunately, many of these opportunities are being wasted by politicians motivated by budget savings, teachers worried about job security, and technologists dazzled by new hardware and software. How do we get beyond the hype and the narrow agendas?
We must realize that online education can’t be successful unless we deal with two sets of challenges: understanding how learning occurs and understanding how institutions work.
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT LEARNING
To understand how learning works, we first must consider what constitutes an effective classroom, which means we must recognize the role of the teacher. There simply is no substitute for a well-prepared and motivated teaching professional. Videos, podcasts, tweets, and interactive learning software are limited alternatives that are most applicable in situations where the goal is rote memorization—not true learning. Such tools could play future roles in the educational experience, but by themselves they do not produce educated students.
Second, we must acknowledge that without motivated and prepared students, learning cannot occur. Today’s online education requires discipline and learning habits that most of today’s Millennials do not have. They are not good at self direction; they need constant coaxing and encouragement, which online learning does not provide. At the same time, high school graduates too easily are distracted by the very technology they are supposed to be using to learn.
Third, we must admit that in some countries, including the U.S., public secondary education does not adequately prepare students to be good at reading, writing, and math. It certainly doesn’t prepare students to research data, challenge assumptions, and synthesize information from a host of sources while they work without supervision. Without these skills, students will not succeed at online learning.
Fourth, we must pay attention to how learning actually occurs, whether online or face-to-face. The classroom experience falls into two broad categories: drill/practice and critical thinking. Most subjects encompass some areas ideally suited for the drill/practice context, which also makes them ideally suited for online learning. When students can link classroom or online learning with electronic textbooks and their associated web pages, the professor can spend less time on this rote activity and more time on developing students’ critical thinking skills. This is the area where we believe online education can be truly transformational.
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT INSTITUTIONS
Once we understand what factors will influence the success of online learning, we must deal with institutional realities that could threaten that success.
First, we must update the learning model of higher education, which has changed little in the past 100 years. We still have 15-week semesters, core curricula, course requirements, and courses of study that are based more on faculty specialties than the best interests of the students. Online learning has merely been superimposed over this basic framework.
As a result, our universities are experiencing growing tension between those who care more about how things are taught (often educationalists and technologists) and those who care about what is taught (usually discipline-specific faculty). Both groups must work together to apply technology in the classroom and realize the promise it represents.
Second, we must deal with well-intentioned stakeholders—such as politicians and accreditation agencies—who are inserting themselves into the debate about online education even though they are the farthest removed from any classroom and are the least familiar with educational technology. For instance, some politicians insist that the goal of a college student should be to get a job upon graduation; they see universities more as job training centers than places of higher education. Accrediting bodies require compliance with course and program objectives that can reduce academic content and rigor to a few simplistic goals. These groups can play meaningful roles, but they also can hamper the successful use of online educational tools.
So what do we do next? Despite the hype, no one currently knows the best way forward. We believe the answer is to encourage educational entrepreneurship. We must incentivize educationalists, technologists, and professors to experiment with online, face-to-face, and blended classrooms. Some approaches will fail, and some will be more successful in certain disciplines. But unless we inspire these three groups to take risks, we will not enjoy the full potential of these new educational approaches.
We believe the classroom of tomorrow can leverage technology to create a more personalized learning experience, but this will bring many changes. We’ll no longer expect large groups of students to move at the same pace through a defined semester; instead, we’ll see a more customized and collaborative learning process that’s enabled by technology. While this new model is still evolving, it’s clear that it will be partially mapped and paced by students. This will change the relationship of the professor with the student, as well as the function of the professor.
Collaboration between students and professors is likely to determine how faculty will choose content and practice methods and how students will demonstrate mastery of content. While students still will require specialized face-to-face time with professors, especially to learn critical thinking skills, the timing of these sessions will depend on how much progress the student is making. Thus professors and students together will mix the learning ingredients to produce a new educational environment.
The administration and accreditation of education also will have to change. As more learning takes place off-site, the role of nonteaching staff will need to be reassessed. As students and faculty increasingly rely on technology, educational technologists must be on hand to facilitate the use of that technology. At the same time, to reflect the new educational paradigms, accrediting bodies and university administrators will need to change the formulas they use to assess learning outcomes.
Finally, we will need to address the challenge of online cheating. It’s rampant in online education, and it threatens the educational process. We must find and implement solutions, or all the value of online education will disappear.
Once we address these issues, we expect the 15-week semester, the standardized curriculum, and the lockstep pace of education to become relics of the past. The current rigid model will be replaced with a new system in which learning is viewed as a continuous stream, resources are widely available, opportunities for learning are plentiful, and individual students drop in and out of the learning process. When students, faculty, and educational technologists forge new relationships, high-quality learning will occur.
Charlotte Larkin is an assistant professor in educational leadership at Texas A&M University-Commerce. Steven S. Shwiff is a professor of economics at the school.