This is the Year Colleges Will Start Taking Online Education Seriously

ByRoss Cunningham

“Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary." — Thomas Friedman

At its best, the American education system has been the engine behind unparalleled economic prosperity, a military without equal, limitless invention, and the unquenchable ambition that put a man on the Moon. At its worst, it has reinforced the barriers that divide and weaken us, further distancing the haves from the have-nots and opportunity from those who need it most. But the future of schooling in America could look very different. Recent and rapid development in online technology and pedagogy is providing ways to break down these barriers and perhaps reassert America’s credentials as a world leader in education and innovation. 

We arrive in 2013 at an inflection point for American higher education and a time for big ideas. The adaptive and accessible nature of the internet has changed how we communicate and interact and is now yielding new tools and methods capable of revolutionizing the ways in which we teach and learn. Much of the media coverage of this nascent enterprise has been focused on Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, offered by private companies like Coursera — which offers courses taught by some of the world’s boldest and most well respected faculty from schools such as Duke, Princeton, Berklee, and the University of Edinburgh — and Udacity — which offers courses focused on computer science taught by leading programmers and engineers, including Google luminaries Sebastian Thrun (who is also Udacity’s founder) and Peter Norvig. Enrollment in any given Coursera or Udacity course routinely runs into the tens of thousands.

But the potential for online education at traditional brick-and-mortar institutions of higher learning is equally exciting. A few historically enterprising and ambitious colleges and universities — notably MIT, Harvard and Stanford — are leading the charge, but all schools — from your local community college to the Ivy League — are currently engaged in a conversation about what online education will mean for them. By their very nature, adaptive, machine-guided Learning Management Systems and their evolutions are impossible to predict, but there are certain obstacles and opportunities that all institutions are facing and will continue to face.

“This is the single biggest change in education since the printing press.” — Anant Agarwal, President of edX

The Idea

Throughout America’s short history, the traditional classroom has had little competition. In the early twentieth-century, with the advent of the postal service, “correspondence classes” emerged and were massively popular for a short time before subsiding. More recently, companies like the University of Phoenix and The DeVry Institute have offered more synchronous remote learning but their offerings are not directed at the typical college student and offer scant student engagement and interaction. In fact, these for-profit institutions have proven far more adept at delivering debt than jobs and, ultimately, they have done little to affect in any profound way the methods by which we teach and learn.

The new wave of online programs and techniques fundamentally changes the way we educate by both expanding the classroom to anyone with an Internet connection and augmenting the ways teachers, students and administrators can engage that classroom. This movement is premised on the idea that the lecture is an ineffective and inefficient use of an educator’s expertise and that students absorb new material best when they can move at their own pace. The popular name for this new breed of classroom is the "flipped" or "blended" classroom, owing to its "flipping" or "blending" of traditional classwork and homework. At its most basic level, the blended classroom replaces the traditional lecture with short instructional videos, often with quiz assessments peppered throughout, which are viewed outside of class in a way that allows the student to watch and re-watch a lecture or topic until he or she fully understands the material. Class -time is spent engaging in more interactive and collaborative homework-style questions, problem sets and case studies, providing students with greater contact and feedback from their teachers and professors. Where a physical classroom isn’t accessible, online discussion groups and labs supplement the lecture material.

This change in the higher education value chain is about far more than just the delivery of content or a new technology; it encompasses a broad collection of tools, methods and philosophies that engender self-paced, adaptive, and active learning and decouple the traditionally yoked components of a higher education: admissions, instruction, interaction, assessment, certification, and networking. The online classroom yields reams of data, including how long a student or class takes on a particular problem or what lecture format is most effective for an individual. The accumulation and analysis of this data yield far greater insight into which teaching styles and learning methods work and which do not, creating a system built on empirical evidence and analysis rather than tradition and conventional wisdom. The data collected from a class can be used to tweak and enhance a particular course or lesson both for current and future students, and can also be carried by a student from course to course, like a digital passport. Larger data sets beget more adept learning systems capable of providing the right lesson, in the right format, at the right time.

Currently, it is only the assessment components of these courses that are adaptive (ETS, the company that designs the GRE and TOEFL exams, utilizes this type of adaptive platform, also), but it is hoped that, as data accumulates and our understanding of their analysis becomes more complete, the methods of teaching and content delivery in our universities can be equally adaptive, taking into account a student’s preferred learning style. The successful adoption of these tools and methods by existing campus-based schools requires original and innovative conceptual, organizational and administrative thinking.

"The attitude, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the enemy of disruptive thinking. It’s the seemingly unbroken aspects of a situation that provide the richest opportunities for innovation. They tend to be the things we ignore, precisely because they don’t change." — Luke Williams, frog design fellow, Professor of Marketing at NYU, and author of Disrupt

The Disruption

The scale of the challenge is daunting, for sure, but it is also an opportunity for existing institutions to develop big ideas and offer a more valuable and comprehensive product, moving beyond the customary boundaries of higher education. Currently, the standard model for higher education is based on either a four-year track (for undergraduate degrees) or a two-year track (for graduate and postgraduate, and most associate and trade programs); a school delivers a set number of courses of predetermined content, the student receives a certification of achievement, and then the relationship, in large part, terminates.

Online tools and components — aggregated into larger Learning Management Systems  — will allow higher education to be a non-discrete, continuous process: a university for life. Prospective students will be able to investigate and explore far beyond superficial guided tours and orientations. Newly accepted students will have access to preparatory courses that bring incoming freshman to a common starting point upon arrival on campus and introduce and emphasize the culture and expectations of the school. Matriculated students will take courses alongside classmates on every continent and benefit from a massive accumulation of data that will greatly enhance the customization and efficacy of their instruction. Students may even be able to shorten their time to graduation by having greater access to courses and content prior to freshman year and outside of the typical semester-based academic year. Graduating students will benefit from advanced recruiting services and a more engaged alumni network. And alumni will remain active parts of the university, taking new courses, interacting more easily with other alumni and connecting with the current student body on a far deeper level.

A law school graduate of Harvard, for example, may need a more advanced business education to set up his or her own practice but be unable to commute or make time for a campus-based business education. Through edX, the online teaching platform Harvard created in concert with Cambridge neighbors, MIT, that Law School graduate could take individual courses in accounting or management or, eventually, enroll in an entire online degree program at Harvard Business School. The benefits for both the student and the university are obvious, desirable and attainable, and the path described barely scratches the surface of online education’s capabilities. America’s higher education system isn’t broken beyond repair; it still produces some of the world’s foremost thinkers, research, patents and products. But brave, disruptive minds can make it more engaging and more accessible than it’s ever been before.

Probably the only candidate left for a bubble ... is education. The education bubble is predicated on the idea that the education provided [by traditional residential colleges and universities] is incredibly valuable. In many cases that’s just not true. It's basically extremely overpriced. People are not getting their money's worth, objectively, when you do the math. And at the same time… there's this sort of psycho-social component to people taking on these enormous debts when they go to college simply because that's what everybody's doing. — Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist

The Cost

Perhaps the most troubling issue in higher education today is the spiraling cost of a degree. Undergraduate tuition at a top-tier private university in 2012-13, with textbooks, room and board, can cost over $60,000 a year. That’s almost $10,000 more than the average U.S. household earns annually, a number that is already moving in the wrong direction. Tuition costs and fees at public universities are rising at twice the rate of inflation. The total student loan debt in the US now exceeds one trillion dollars — more than our housing debt and our credit card debt — and shows no signs of abating. And nobody within the higher education system seems to have a plan to fix it. 

All this is occurring as the value of an undergraduate degree continues to diminish and America increasingly falls behind the rest of the world in preparing the next generation of professionals and citizens. Education, as with other so-called "personal" industries, like health care, has been inherently expensive. Some say that we can afford this ‘"cost disease"’ but, at a time when Americans should be looking for every edge and advantage possible in competing for jobs and prestige in a global economy, our educational system simply isn’t as efficient and effective as it could be. Nobody doubts the American higher education system’s ability to recognize talent, but its ability to add value, commensurate with what is being paid, is coming under far greater scrutiny. It is an unavoidable fact that millions of students each year cannot afford to claim the educational opportunities of which they are capable, a circumstance that becomes even more inexcusable when an entrepreneur and employer like Mark Zuckerberg plainly states that there are just not enough qualified applicants for Facebook jobs.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or even a computer scientist, to connect the dots. American tech companies are creating high-paying, skilled jobs faster than America's educational system can fill them. So how do we produce a greater number of highly-skilled workers? By making higher education more effective and more accessible. Everybody benefits, across every industry and every state. As the price of an undergraduate degree creeps upwards of a quarter of a million dollars, it is time to think big and use the tools and methods of adaptive online education to escape the current cost dynamic.

Most students at large public and private universities barely have any contact with full professors during their freshman or sophomore year and instead work mostly with graduate teaching fellows and assistants or adjuncts. Using remote online tools more effectively in this setting could lower costs to students in the thousands of dollars, free up professors to hold more office hours and labs and do more research, reduce strain on campus facilities and could even grow revenue by offering paid introductory courses online to nonresidential students or licensing courses to other schools. As Coursera, Udacity, edX, The Khan AcademyThe Minerva ProjectGeneral Assembly, and countless other new players in the education game have shown, there is an insatiable appetite for knowledge and instruction, both within the U.S. and abroad. While we are still very much at a budding stage in the life cycle of online education, these companies and programs are already employing exciting and substantive techniques to engage under-served student populations, while crucially maintaining a low barrier to entry.

It remains to be seen exactly how traditional residential universities will attract and connect with these nontraditional student cohorts but the options are wide and varied. For many schools, it may not be feasible in the current financial climate to propose a massive investment in a new teaching model without a clear path to recouping costs and generating revenue. These schools may wish to follow Carnegie Mellon’s lead in experimenting with initiatives that can be “financially solvent… from the get-go,” allowing them to expand their reach to a global audience with more limited risk. Another possible route is the "freemium" model used by online content providers such as Spotify, the New York Times and, now, Coursera and Udacity, where all users have access to basic, free content, with premium content, apps and services provided at additional cost. For a university, this premium content could take the form of official credentialing or certification and recruiting services, and could be an invaluable tool in bringing alumni back into the classroom. It could be some time before online educators begin to make a profit using the freemium model (it costs roughly $15,000-$30,000 to design and build each Coursera course). Just as Spotify initially had problems persuading customers to part with what amounts to a fraction of the cost of a CD on a monthly subscription, Coursera is experiencing the growing pains that any new tech firm experiences in monetizing its services after starting from scratch. Starting from scratch has its benefits, in that these new companies are far more agile than their older counterparts and don’t have to deal with tenure, entrenched bureaucracy, convention, a campus and the other sometimes-burdensome realities of a university education. But a brick-and-mortar school already has a customer base, respected credentialing, a reputation, a staff of faculty and administrators ready to work, and, unlike new online companies like Spotify and Coursera, we, as consumers, feel sure that these residential schools will be around for more than a year or two. It is for these reasons traditional campus-based colleges and universities — and, more specifically, American colleges and universities — are well positioned to take advantage of the globalizing power of online education.

“I taught more students AI, than all the AI professors in the world combined.” — Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, on his first online course at Stanford University

The Globe

When I spoke with Pankaj Ghemawat — a leading academic figure in globalization and business strategy, who, in 1991, became Harvard Business School’s youngest ever full professor — he noted that the major discoveries and developments in online education will remain largely unknown until we begin to fully “attack the data” being accumulated in these emerging programs and services. But, in the meantime, all American universities can “pull the same levers,” adaptation, aggregation and arbitrage, to take advantage of a new global audience. Ghemawat believes that it is essential that schools adapt “a mix of courses and content to local environments,” meaning that a class taken in New York on financial systems should not look or feel exactly like a financial systems course being taken in Shanghai. Ghemawat’s CAGE distance framework has been adopted by businesses across the world to better understand the distances, cultural, administrative, geographic, and economic, companies and organizations must navigate when developing international strategies. This framework can be utilized by schools hoping to adapt to and communicate more fully and effectively with a new student population.

Some fields of study, such as circuit design, may require far less adaptation and this is where schools should aggregate and seek partnerships at home and abroad to take advantage of “economies of scale across borders. We’re seeing this with Coursera,” where, according to Ghemawat, “doing something well in another part of the world helps you do it better at home.” Many American universities already have well developed international programs and satellite campuses. Properly exploiting these resources alongside a sophisticated Learning Management System could open up new markets and add a great deal of value to a university’s offerings. Finally, and perhaps most significantly in these early stages, American universities are a luxury brand abroad with “cachet and mystique” that can be leveraged and marketed to great effect.

Ghemawat is no stranger to free and open education. His Globalization of Business Enterprise (GLOBE) program, a 12-session course on the implications of globalization for businesses and those who lead them, is freely available and widely used in business schools worldwide. He recognized that such a tiny percentage of the world’s population has access to the education they need to progress and reach their potential, and that free, computer-based education is an ideal stepping stone for developing nations, like Ghemawat’s native India.

Applying this line of thought more locally, it can be argued that it is not the highest echelon of American schools — the Harvards, the MITs, the Stanfords — that need to be most concerned and active in the online education marketplace; students will always seek the Harvard brand and Harvard will always attract top teachers and researchers. It’s the other 99% of schools — the schools whose potential customer bases may, in a year or so, be genuinely torn between attending the local state university at a cost of up to $80,000 for a bachelor’s degree or enrolling in, say, a far cheaper Udacity degree program with courses taught by a more accomplished faculty — that need to be most agile and manifold in their experimentation.

David Stavens, a founder of Udacity with Sebastian Thrun, concedes, “There’s a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.” But the online innovators are narrowing the gap between the virtual and the real campus and there should be real worry and, more importantly, real action at all institutions, especially medium-sized state universities and less-selective private colleges. Without action, online education could be a death knell for many of these institutions.

“Everyone is both a learner and a teacher.” — Peter Norvig, Udacity Professor and Director of Research at Google

The Collaboration

To fully exploit online education, colleges and universities must build partnerships and share data. The intellectual property ensconced in course materials is a complicated issue but it would be redundant and wasteful for each school or institution to develop entirely independent systems and protect their data from wide analysis, just as it would be absurd for a school to only use reading materials written by its own faculty and not share those reading materials with anyone else. In fact, a powerful force behind the online movement, so far, has been the spirit of collaboration and collective experimentation shared by many of its pioneering figures and programs, including Salman Khan, whose Khan Academy and 2011 TED talk inspired countless educators, and the open-source edX platform. Schools should endeavor to establish partnerships with other universities, private online education companies, content providers, engineers, Learning Management System designers, and investors to get the very most out of their online product.

Last October, Coursera entered into an agreement with Antioch University in Ohio whereby Antioch will license two Coursera courses taught by professors at the University of Pennsylvania, and offer them for credit as part of its bachelor’s degree programs. San Jose State University recently announced an even more ambitious pact with Udacity, through which classes will be designed specifically for SJSU students. The credentialing of MOOCs has been a significant obstacle for online educators and these new partnerships, coupled with initiatives like edX’s proctored exams and Coursera’s Signature Track, have provoked an increased willingness among America’s credentialing agencies to begin accepting online credits. These developments represent a vital mainstreaming of online courses.

It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to envision a student, in the not-too-distant future, using a Coursera or a Udacity to take top courses from top professors at top universities at his or her own pace for little or no cost, and emerge with a legitimate and respected degree and no debt. This scenario is boon for American students and employers but a terrifying thought for most university presidents. Online education should have all faculty and administrations taking a long hard look at the value proposition they can offer students — and what they will charge — once lectures become as commoditized as textbooks.

If you have an idea that seems worth doing, don't wait to hire other people and get funding and all those things. Just start doing it, wait to see what happens, and then iterate on that.” Salman Khan, founder of The Khan Academy 

The Innovation

In developing new projects and initiatives, Google has a simple philosophy: launch and iterate. This credo encourages "permissionless innovation," whereby employees are empowered to experiment and pursue original ideas, often with only a basic grasp of their future utility. Recognizing that ‘"perfect"’ is often the enemy of "good," Google values unconventional and disruptive thinking over the perfect plan.

When Steve Jobs set about designing Pixar headquarters, he aimed to create a workplace founded on collaboration and cooperation. He built a central atrium, connecting all the different branches and departments, which houses the cafeteria, mail center and other vital infrastructure, where all Pixar employees, regardless of specialty or status, are inevitably forced to mingle and converse. This fostered collaboration in a workforce with kaleidoscopic skill sets but a common goal.

Using the principles utilized by Google and Jobs, colleges and universities can similarly establish creative environments for professors, administrators and students to develop robust, sustainable and customizable online platforms, upon which new concepts can be discussed, tested and implemented. It is vital for this work to be an unrelenting process, guided by a collective resolve to improve education through experimentation and the systematic analysis of data. As Peter J. Stokes, Executive Director for Postsecondary Innovation at Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies, stated more succinctly, “[i]t’s not about eureka moments... [i]t’s about continuous evaluation.”

“A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates. You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.” — Mark Edmundson, Professor of English at the University of Virginia

The Dissent

As schools develop more comprehensive online courses and programs, advocates of the new methods will continue to encounter debate and disagreement. Online education does necessitate a realignment of the traditional teacher-student relationship and it will be seen as a threat to a status quo that has served many professors rather well. Any initiative that involves significant investment and a reduction in faculty ranks will be met with stern and often reasonable dissent.

Professor Edmundson, in his New York Times op-ed, takes a position common among faculty: The live, ‘high-touch’ relationship a student develops with his or her professor is sacred and is not replicable through some online quizzes and YouTube videos. He argues that there is a value to and a place for online education, but for students to learn best, they must be in the room with a professor, not in front of a computer. Implicit in his message is that the problems in our education system can be fixed at the margins.

Edmundson is right in one regard: the traditional relationship between teacher and student is special and valuable, but this dynamic is at the heart of higher education’s runaway costs and lack of accessibility. The lecture has been our best attempt at making education affordable and accessible, but we can do better now. Edmundson’s argument supposes that we can’t keep the best parts of American higher education and merge them with digital tools and methods; that we must deny education for all in order to preserve it for the few that it currently serves well. But by refusing to utilize what is now available, we would limit the opportunities for all our students and the talent pool available to our universities.

Edmundson also makes the mistake of assuming that online education is some uniform and immutable constant, and that schools must choose either professors or the Internet. Instead, what we’re observing is a complete re-imagining of education – a blending of old and new — and, more slowly, the institutions that provide it. Novel technologies and disruptive minds are disassembling the components of teaching and learning and reassembling them in ways that make them more than what they were before, for more students than ever before. Online education can be whatever we want it to be. For those that still can and want to pay top dollar for the traditional residential experience, they should be able to do so. But for the vast majority of students, online education provides a quality of instruction that has previously never existed, and that’s powerful stuff.

Professors are, by definition, an older and more conservative group than the students they teach, and many will be unable or unwilling to adapt to this brave new world. Unions and committees of tenured faculty represent powerful lobbying groups with countless ways to throw sand in the wheels of change and progress. To mollify and convert those opposed, to herd the cats, it is vital that communication remain open and development remain transparent. Schools must incentivize professors to adopt and experiment with online tools and establish a clear administrative framework for reducing the strain of producing new blended classes; any effort to implement online education at a school-wide level will be as much a question of investment and commitment at the administrative level as one of creativity at the pedagogical level. A professor’s time is a university’s most precious and vital resource and it is incumbent upon university leaders and innovators to show how classes will not only be improved for the student by online integration, but that remote learning can also be a potent time-saver for professors who, due to the flexibility of recorded lectures, may no longer be tied down to a particular location or schedule.

Inevitably, professors and administrators must confront the reality that effective online courses and programs will eventually threaten the jobs of those that teach and support them. An adjunct professor teaching an introductory computer science course at the University of Nebraska may be deemed surplus to requirements if the university can enlist a more distinguished professor to create ‘master’ lectures to be used across all its introductory courses, or license a comparable Udacity course taught by one of the world’s preeminent computer scientists, at a fraction of the cost. The state of Florida may conclude that its students are better served by online courses with physical meeting points on its state university campuses than an expensive network of community colleges. Assuming that the blended courses can be as effective as traditional courses — an assumption that will continue to be tested – it is difficult to rationalize maintaining faculty and administrative ranks at their current levels. This isn’t a matter of trying to do “more with less,” a slogan that almost always accompanies in an inferior product. It’s about doing more, better — an option that online education makes possible.

While it will be essential to the continued functioning of a school to consider those faculty members and administrators opposed to a new online paradigm for philosophical reasons, the needs and expectations of students past, present and future should be put first. Professors will want to teach the way they were taught but if it is shown that this model doesn’t represent good value - for the student, the school or, indeed, the professor - change must be encouraged and incited. Students will demand that colleges and universities invest financial and human capital in online education, not simply for the pedagogical benefits, but also because they will emerge from their formal education into a society and into work environments premised on digital communication and collaboration. If students are not well versed in this new language, they will inevitably fall behind their colleagues and competitors.

"My two principal questions at the start were: Was it possible to provide quality education to students all over the world via the Internet and, just as importantly, could Coursera help augment the learning experience for students at Princeton? The answer to both was a resounding 'yes.'" — Mitchell Duneier, Professor of Sociology at Princeton and Coursera

“A high-quality education is now a critical need for most people who aspire to a better life, while it continues to be out of reach for many. [New online technologies and methods allow] us to establish education as a basic human right, so that anyone with the motivation and the ability would have the opportunity to get the skills that they need to make a better life for themselves, their families and their communities.” — Daphne Koller, founder of Courser

The Conclusion

Over the past eighteen months or so, Coursera, Udacity, edX, the Khan Academy and other innovators have provided teachers, professors and students — from elementary schools to Ph.D programs — the opportunity to dip their toes in the online waters, but 2013 will be online education’s biggest test. This is the year colleges and universities stop thinking of online education as just a fad or a niche product, as something inherently inferior to the traditional lecture experience, instead regarding it as an integral part of any student’s education.

Schools will fail if, like the music industry just a decade ago, they choose to keep their products as inconvenient, inflexible and expensive as they have been in the past. Students have seen outside the cave and want change. Any school that considers ignoring the benefits of online teaching and learning needs to examine whether it is truly acting in the best interest of its students and the future of that institution.

This year, all American colleges and universities will have the chance to make a bold statement of intent and philosophy: Is a top-class education something we want to block off, to put behind a velvet rope for only a select few to enjoy? Or is it something that, given the opportunity, we share with anyone with a little curiosity and desire? It may be that Coursera and Udacity, as impressive and advanced as they seem now, will fail. But there is no stopping the movement, just as there was no stopping the mp3. What is desperately necessary is now suddenly possible. It’s time to raise our expectations of what an education can be.