Published on 2013/03/14

Autonomous Learning and the Future of Higher Education

Autonomous Learning and the Future of Higher Education
It is undeniable that campuses will continue to exist as centers of learning in 10 years’ time, but students will be more self-directed in their education than ever before.

I am able to watch any Ohio State University football game I want on my widescreen, high-definition television. I can use the restroom anytime I want without standing in line. I can, if I desire, walk to my refrigerator and get a beer (no beer served in Ohio Stadium). And when it’s 35 degrees and raining outside, I can stay warm and dry in the comfort of my living room as I enjoy the game.

And, yet, 105,000 people attend Ohio State home games every Saturday, regardless of the weather and whether or not they can easily get to the restroom or enjoy a beer. Fans sit on hard seats even in cold and rainy (or hot and humid) conditions. There is just something about being physically present at the game — the roar of the crowd, the spirit of the marching band, the sounds, even the smells — that even the most high-resolution screens cannot capture, and that compels many to seek out the game-day experience.

I share this story as an analogy for where I believe higher education is heading in the next 10 years, especially with regard to “online” vs. “on ground” education. When I’m asked to peer into the future of higher education, I am inevitably asked if we are destined for a technologically-mediated, online-only experience. Indeed, online education is going to become more and more commonplace, because it will be advantageous for many to receive education and training in this fashion. But there will still be those who, like intrepid football fans, will crave the traditional physical college experience.

There was a time when online education meant “distance education,” and the chief advantage of learning online was that you did not need to travel to a physical location. Today, I think online education is more about time than location. Students wish to learn at times convenient for them, for those who wish to include schooling as part of their busy work schedules.

Going forward, online/technologically-mediated education will deliver self-paced learning. This is a different kind of time management; students who desire online learning options will be seeking to learn at a speed they will determine. I sense that online education (and indeed higher education as a whole) will start to look more like Rosetta Stone. For those who have not yet tried to learn a language via this method, Rosetta Stone has developed sophisticated courses that allow a learner to move at his or her own pace through an online course. In theory, a learner who is particularly adept can successfully finish a course in six weeks; another leaner might take six months to move through the same materials. As Salmon Khan has popularized in his Khan Academy, learners should be permitted to master the material at their own rate, determined by their own abilities.

Our learning environments, correspondingly, will be structured such that students move through a curriculum at a pace determined by them and their abilities. Customizable learning is difficult to manage in traditional face-to-face courses, structured as they are by the clock and the calendar, and the assumption that cohorts move through the material together. Self-paced, customizable, autonomous learning is easiest and best managed through technology.

What will a physical campus mean to autonomous learners? These students, I suspect, will still wish to meet with faculty, who will serve more as personal tutors than as traditional instructors. Autonomous learners will teach themselves via online courses, but will seek out one-to-one discussions with knowledgeable faculty practitioners when they need help, or when they crave deeper discussion of a topic. Learners might work directly with faculty on research projects, as an extension of the learning they gain through their self-paced courses.

In such a learning environment, classrooms will inevitably be altered. Large theater-style lecture halls might go unused, whereas the faculty office, seminar room or laboratory becomes the preferred physical venue for interactions between teacher and learner. Communities of self-learners might gather for mutual benefit. Autonomous learners will call upon universities to provide them with staff who will serve as sherpas, guiding and advising them along their individual learning paths. All of this suggests that online and on-ground learning will blend in new ways, and that “the course” will become decentered, not confined only to a particular time, place, duration or pace. It is also possible, of course, that many of these autonomous learners will have little need for a traditional campus at all.

Autonomous learners will soon represent a significant fraction of the overall student population.  However, there will continue to be those (many, in fact) who will crave the discipline and routine of the traditional classroom experience. Many students will seek out a face-to-face, physical, time- and space-bound campus experience, complete with the other trappings of campus life: dorm parties, seminar discussions, inspiring lecturers. Like a college football game, there is something about the traditional campus experience that will not be disappearing anytime soon.

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Readers Comments

Greg Allen 2013/03/14 at 9:38 am

I appreciate the analogy used in this article. Like Staley, I do not believe we will reach a point where the physical campus will cease to exist. However, I do agree there is certainly a need to reimagine what the physical campus will look like and what its function(s) will be. Often, when we discuss the move to online education, we see it as replacing the traditional campus.

I think it will be more useful to start discussing how it will change the traditional campus.

Crystal Moore 2013/03/14 at 10:54 pm

Thanks for a stimulating article! This is a subject I have thought a great deal about lately. I have begun to compare much of the debate about turning to online learning to the new debate about e-readers versus good old fashioned books. I personally enjoy the moment of cracking open the spine of an old book, it’s dusty smell of adventure and learning, and the feel of running my fingers across the page. When using my Kindle, my fingers become strangely clumsy and I find myself focusing on clicking buttons and trying not to skip over five pages at a time. For me, some of the magic of reading seems to get lost when it happens on this cold, hard, device.

Part of my great fear about turning to online classes is that it does not create an atmosphere that celebrates true learning. Instead, students are trying to get through a checklist of assignments, video lectures, and assessments. At least when I have face to face interaction, I can spark their creativity and passion with my own enthusiasm for the subject that I teach. In addition, I sometimes find during lectures that subjects I thought were quite simple, are in fact extremely confusing for students. I would not know to give further clarification if I were not privy to their confused looks or the immediate raising of hands. I’m not certain that online learners would be as likely to seek out explanations for their questions and truly engage in the material. The ability to have intellectual discussions and debates that build upon the thoughts of your classmates is a heady experience that online users may miss. I also worry about the ability of many young students to be self motivated or disciplined when the current U.S. primary education system does not nurture such qualities.

Perhaps the issue that worries me the most is the impersonal nature of online courses. My husband is currently a full-time student who takes half of his classes online. The lack of a true relationship with the course instructor has dissuaded him from visiting with the professor for office hours or otherwise. Many students point out that they feel comfortable seeking out help or instruction outside of the classroom only after the instructor has proven themselves to be someone they can rely upon and trust.

While the article doesn’t necessarily imply that online learning will become the dominant teaching methodology, I know that I would stop teaching if it were. The reason that I teach is because I have a true passion for not only teaching history and women’s studies, but also for interacting with students to help them build more worthwhile lives and encouraging their pursuit of social justice. While not everyone will agree with this, I personally feel that my responsibilities as a teacher extend far outside of the classroom as a counselor, role model, and mentor. I understand just how helpful and possibly necessary online learning can be for many students, but the facilitation of online learning is not something that would satisfy me professionally or personally.

Eugene Partnoy 2013/03/15 at 2:11 am

The Rosetta Stone language learning series has been around since the early 1990s. This shows that this kind of self-paced learning is not a new phenomenon, particularly among for-profits. As institutions begin to adopt this delivery method, it would serve them well to look at how some of the for-profits have successfully implemented this model.

Rhonda White 2013/03/15 at 2:23 pm

I agree with Staley that there will likely continue to be a demand for some type of physical space where students can meet to discuss course material or share in the overall experience of learning. However, I’m not convinced this will necessarily take place on a campus.
Online education has created the possibility of having students from different states, or even countries, in one course. Looking at the example of massive open online courses (MOOCs), where this type of student demographic tends to exist, some students taking MOOCs have started to meet in person with fellow students, but in settings of their own choosing. This could be coffee shops or the local library or perhaps even one student’s house, in other words, not necessarily a campus. I don’t know what this means for the future of postsecondary campuses. I can’t say definitively that they’re nearing extinction. At the same time, Staley can’t guarantee their continued existence.

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