Why the academy *must* embrace its online future

Online education is hot these days. A perfect storm of record-level student debt, stagnating job growth, and soaring tuition prices has forced a knee-jerk reaction among universities now scrambling to offer free courses online, either through their own platforms or partnerships with startups like Coursera and Udacity. Professors, college administrators, and policymakers have expressed sharply divided views over what this shift means for an institutional learning model that has persisted for hundreds of years. But amidst the debate, lost is the voice of the student.

After all, why should anyone care what we think? Teaching is a profession that society accepts as inherently paternalistic. Conventional wisdom says the student must be told how and what to study. Schools dictate degree requirements and mandate class attendance. But the increasing number of unemployed college graduates shows that these traditional approaches must evolve because they are failing to adequately equip students with the skills they need to be successful. The great promise of online education is that it facilitates the transition to a model that gives students greater input into how they learn and challenges instructors to reflect on what students really need. Here are three reasons why universities must adopt online education to remain relevant:

Limited access to on-campus classes

Much discussion around the benefits of online education has centered on enabling access for students who would otherwise be unable to afford or attend college. But a parallel problem exists today: students currently enrolled at colleges can’t get into classes that they need or want to take. Budget cuts at schools have resulted in fewer instructors and oversubscribed classes, causing students to fall short of fulfilling academic requirements and delaying their graduation dates. Lotteries for classes are common, leaving students literally begging administrators to open more spots. The problem extends to elite universities as well. The implicit promise made to prospective students that they will get to learn from marquee professors often goes unfulfilled. Frustration over paying more than $50,000 per year to attend a school without access to the best classes is today mostly confined to students venting amongst themselves. But if costs continue to rise, there will come a day where students, and their parents, say enough is enough. Online platforms are a low-cost way for universities to support, rather than hinder, students’ learning in light of the resource constraints that schools face.

Lack of customized programs

The traditional classroom model also largely ignores the fact that students learn at different speeds. Students who are already familiar with some of the course material are unable to skip ahead, resulting in wasteful repetition. Students who do not grasp concepts taught during class are left to figure them out through a combination of office hours and peer support, often struggling to recall, “What did the professor say about X?” Online classes mean that students can learn at the pace that’s right for them, which translates into better learning overall.

Restricted innovation in course content

Moving classes online also means that content and teaching materials can be distributed on a recurring basis at very low cost, freeing up instructors’ time to further develop new content. Today a professor may spend a few years developing a body of course materials that eventually gets “recycled” in a particular course, year in and year out, for the next decade without much further modification. This model of repetitive teaching is highly inefficient. It consumes time that could be better spent developing new content or engaging with students in a manner that supplements lectures that only need to be recorded once, not recreated in a classroom every year. Online education will drive new, hybrid learning methods and push teachers to create innovative content instead of rehashing what they have already done before.

The value of emerging online platforms today lies in their ability to distribute content to anyone who wants to learn. Of course the value of the traditional university model goes far beyond access to content. Equally, or perhaps even more, important is who we learn with, especially when surrounded by a peer group that is smarter, diverse, and collaborative. It is this community aspect that online platforms will find difficult to replicate, but we should not underestimate their ability to figure it out. The Internet is social by nature and will inevitably invent new ways to implement collaborative learning. Universities must respond to the needs of their students by moving online or risk turning their backs on the very sort of innovative ideas that they are meant to foster.

Online Education image via mtkang/Shutterstock

This guest post was written by Wei Lien Dang, currently a JD/MBA student at Harvard University. He previously attended the California Institute of Technology, Imperial College London, and University of Cambridge, where he was a Marshall Scholar.