Published on 2012/08/07

Online Learning Vastly Reshaping Higher Education

Higher education institutions are seeing a major change in their student bases, and the success and growth of massive open online courses show that there is great potential for more disruptive models of teaching and learning. Photo by Urszula Trzaskowska.

The EvoLLLution recently sat down with journalist Margaret Wente, a columnist who has been with The Globe and Mail since 1992. Wente has written at length about issues in higher education and she recently wrote a piece discussing the accessibility-growing potential of massive open online learning. In this interview, she discusses the growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), their impact on the value of higher education and how their certifications measure up against those available through traditional higher education.

1. You have been fairly critical of some of the practices of traditional colleges and universities in the past—what drew you to cover the expansion of online higher education offerings?

Finally, in the last few months, we’ve seen some very exciting things happen as major universities in the United States have announced big new initiatives to invest really significant amounts of money in online education programs.

This is really a breakthrough, the fact that Harvard, Stanford, MIT and other leading, very prestigious institutions are beginning to take online education seriously is a sign to the rest of us that big changes are in the works and that Canadian universities too will have to sit up, pay attention and get involved.

2. You note in your column “Online university for the masses!” that online learning has “plenty of appeal for…people who don’t need or want the kind of immersive university experience that’s so important when you’re 20”. There is a large number of students, both traditional-age and adult, who are working their way through university. With increasing numbers of students more focused on academics than university experience, do you think the expansion of online options will spell the end of the brick-and-mortar university campus?

That’s a many-layered answer, and I think the answer is very mixed. The expansion of online learning is going to affect different institutions in very different ways. One thing that we have been very slow to acknowledge is that there are many different groups of constituents for higher education; you have the typical group of students in their late-teens and early 20s who are making that transition into adulthood at the same time as they are getting their degrees. You have lots and lots of people increasingly going for some kind of professional certification who may be older; may be in their late 20s, early 30s, even older than that. Then you have older learners—maybe semi-retired or retired—who are pursuing university education for yet another set of ends. So you have all these different groups of people and they have many, many different needs, only some of which are delivered in a way that universities do particularly well. A lot of the things that these students need are not delivered particularly well by universities right now. Especially students who are pursuing a credential; something that will lead to a certification such as accounting or computer technology—something like that—where they need to show they have gathered the skills and qualifications, but they may not need any of the other things that a typical university has to offer. They may not be interested in campus life, or sports life, or pub life, or personal development; any of that stuff. They may be working full-time already! What they need is to get their credentialing quickly and efficiently. They may not even need to be there in the university at all.

The bricks and mortar universities are not going to disappear anytime soon, but some of their offerings could very easily gravitate into cyberspace so that brick and mortar universities will no longer be an essential requirement for higher education, which I think is a very good thing.

3. In our last interview, you felt the value of liberal arts degrees was diminishing rapidly. However, in your column “Online university for the masses”, you point out a major hurdle to the success of online learning was the certifications on offer. How do you think a liberal arts degree (say, a bachelor’s in sociology) would weigh up against a certificate of completion from Coursera or edX?

First of all, the Coursera and edX initial offerings tend to be more in science and technical fields rather than in liberal arts fields. So they are beginning by offering degrees in mathematically-oriented fields, computers, artificial intelligence, things that are very quantified and quantifiable; where you can… take quizzes and tests and exams, and where the answers and your standing and ability are not very subjective, they are really, really objective. So that when you are able to say “well I got this certificate of completion from MIT in a really, really hard course,” employers—especially in areas where there are big employee shortages—are going to maybe, eventually take that really, really seriously. Even if you don’t have a degree from MIT, you took a course from MIT and you passed it. That is not a small thing; most people can’t do it.

General liberal arts degrees… are going to become less and less useful as a ticket to employment. Already, now, they’re mainly used I think by may employers simply as proof that you can read and write to a high enough standard to have gotten through university. But, they have absolutely no bearing on the particular job skills that you may bring to bear on whatever kind of employment you are looking for. In that sense, I think the traditional liberal arts degree is already on the wane, and will keep waning as students realize that that credential is really not as useful as it once was.

We see that even today, where a BA in a liberal arts field is almost what a high school degree used to be. And now, if you really want to stand out, you have to go back and get an MA or you have to, in Canada, community college, to get a degree in something practical. And that’s the only thing that will give you an edge in the job market and differentiate you from everybody else.

4. It’s an interesting phenomenon that we see in Canada where people wind up going through a four-year degree program then go to a community college for a year or two years to gain practical skills.

It is credential inflation and you get something even worse; they get a bachelor’s, then they get a master’s, then they do community college. Eventually people are going to start asking themselves… why it is necessary to go to school—post secondary [education], which after all is not cheap—for six years, in order to gain the credentials needed for an entry-level position which, probably in the end, will not use the skills that you’ve picked up. That seems like an awfully round-about, time-consuming and very expensive way to get to a point where you can get an entry-level position in the job market. It’s really inefficient.

5. You’ve spoken a little bit about the costs of higher education and the expense of a four-year degree. We’ve certainly seen in Canada major calls for change in the tuition field coming out of Quebec. Do you think the expansion of online learning options is going to impact this call for lower tuition fees and do you think that as more and more universities, provinces and states start to come under pressure to decrease tuition fees, we’ll see a legislated move toward online learning?

A lot of push into online learning… has pretty much well come from the States, and the reason is the cost-pressure there has become absolutely fierce. In the United States, there is over $1 trillion-worth of tuition debt outstanding, which is just a phenomenal figure. And the costs of getting a university education have soared, so that they’re really now unaffordable by the middle class; and universities are really worried about that, governments are really worried about that—as they should be—so they have got to find a way to bring tuition costs and university costs down very substantially.

It’s not the same here in Canada because we have pretty well all public universities, but the pressures are going to be very similar because governments pay more of a piece of the share here in Canada. Governments can no longer support the rising costs of tuition and university education, so it’s getting unaffordable here for governments and, secondarily, for students as well.

There is a big drive on to look for any way possible to get those costs back in line; they simply cannot continue to increase so much faster than the cost of living. In the United States now there’s a very interesting experiment afoot, started in Texas, to say “Okay, can we invent a $10,000 BA? Can we invent a university degree that you can get for $10,000 in tuition?” That would be a truly, truly revolutionary breakthrough. It of course will not happen without very, very substantial use of online learning, which gets rid of the bricks and mortar component, allows you to deliver a great deal of material a lot more cheaply than you can do now.

You know, the model we have now is extremely expensive; partly because of the bricks and mortar, partly because we’re delivering boutique-sized education units to large numbers of people. The thinking is if you can standardize a lot of that, especially introductory courses, use the same basic materials across the board for every course… you may be able to reap huge gains in costs which you can then pass along to students and make the whole university education experience far more affordable to far more people. So that’s what’s driving this.

I think it offers very, very exciting ways to break out of the old university education model, which basically hasn’t changed since the 15th century, and do something that not only uses economies of scale, but starts to explore ways that we can make technology deliver the learning experience more effectively. Which may involve many quite different ways of doing things than we do them now. I think digital technologies offer both those potentials; cheaper, maybe better, and also of course much wider access to anybody who can basically dial in on their computer and take the course.

6. Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think we’re very early days yet and I would caution that universities are among the most conservative institutions in society; they really hate change for a lot of reasons. So this is going to take a while to play out. But I think, over the next 20 to 30 years, we’re going to see a massive new alternative that will be very exciting.

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Readers Comments

Rhonda White 2012/08/08 at 6:15 am

I actually think the growth of online learning is going to inspire massive changes in the traditional campuses. Students are increasingly concerned about what they are learning and how it will improve their job prospects; they are less enamored by the campus lifestyle and other irrelevant aspects of their education. When you’re paying thousands of dollars a year, and find yourself drowning in debt, you could care less about what social event is being hosted at the student union.

Hopefully the popularity of online learning is going to show institutions that their focus must return squarely to academics

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