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Online and Digital Education: Enhancing Access to Higher Education in the 21st Century

The EvoLLLution | Online and Digital Education: Enhancing Access to Higher Education in the 21st Century
The barriers to extending access to higher education are lower than ever with the vast and rapid evolution of online education opportunities, but it’s up to institutions to adopt these offerings and create new pathways to postsecondary credentials.

We shall have done something to enable the farmer to raise two blades of grass instead of one; something for every owner of land; something for all who desire to own land; something for cheap scientific education; something for every man who loves intelligence and not ignorance;” ― J. S. Morrill (US Representative 1855-1867, US Senator 1867-1898)

The 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act is often considered the landmark in the democratization of higher education, assuring postsecondary access to more than the privileged few and ensuring, simultaneously, the education of scholars and the training of a highly skilled workforce. Over 150 years later we need to re-envision the implementation of the concepts put forward through the grand purpose of that step and the series of Acts that followed (Hatch Act of 1887, Morrill Act of 1890, Smith-Lever Act of 1914) in light of today’s technology and needs.

In 1965, when the Higher Education Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson “to strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance for students in postsecondary and higher education,” there were less than 6 million students enrolled in public, private and for-profit postsecondary institutions—representing about 3 percent of the nation’s population. 50 years later, in 2015, a little more than 20 million students were enrolled in these institutions representing about 6.3 percent of the nation’s population.

While there is no doubt that higher education is accessible to a larger number of individuals today than was possible in 1862 or even 1965, it is perhaps an opportune time to ask, among others, two critical questions:

  1. Are we reaching the maximum possible number of students?
  2. Should we be re-envisioning the continuum of higher education?

A recent report from the Lumina Foundation highlights the realities of changing demographics and student trends. They note that 38 percent of our undergraduates are older than 25, 58 percent balance responsibilities of work with their studies, and 26 percent are simultaneously raising children. Alarmingly, 38 percent of students are reported to leave school in the first year itself, not because of academic reasons, but due to financial obligations and family responsibilities.

Anecdotal evidence and personal experience with students clearly indicate that the traditional norms of education being provided exclusively through a location (within the four walls of a university), fixed time periods (as defined by classes fixed in time and the traditional starts of semesters), and based on time-in-seat (through the antiquated concept of a credit hour which in itself was not developed for the purposes of ensuring a consistent level of knowledge provided to students nor the assessment of student performance) are restricting access and decreasing the probability of student success.

Advances in technology have made it possible for us to augment traditional forms of access through digital means using online education to not only reach a larger percentage of those desiring an education but to also address the constraints that make our current system fall short. Just as correspondence courses made it possible for some students to gain knowledge, online education, in large part, now ensures that the attainment of higher education is unconstrained by the barriers of time, space and location. By adding to the modalities of delivery and interaction we can enable a greater percentage of the population to access higher education and build a better future.

Although the number of colleges and universities has increased over the years the necessity of proximity in location makes it difficult for a segment of the population to access a high-quality education. Online delivery enables these students to join synchronously and asynchronously with other students attending in person. Future advances in virtual and augmented reality could well enable these students to even feel as though they were in class themselves taking part in discussions simultaneously.

For those students who have to balance work and family responsibilities the constraints of location and time result in either very slow progress towards a degree or having to drop out. Online offerings provide the flexibility of melding study schedules into the realities of life, enabling them to pace progression towards the attainment of skills needed for bettering their futures through education. While the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake is an important aspect of higher education the development of talent that meets workforce needs is critical to gainful employment today. Institutions of higher education need to ensure that all students gain both intellectual knowledge as learned citizens and the skills needed to succeed as part of the workforce (either through employment or through their own entrepreneurial activity).

The focus on talent development will become even more critical in the years ahead as institutions of higher education, especially those supported by states, need to sharpen their value proposition in terms of economic development. Online delivery of knowledge/instruction enables this segment of the population to continue their education while meeting the full extent of other responsibilities, choosing appropriate times of study that maximize opportunity. The desire to gain a degree and the necessity of meeting family obligations do not have to be in conflict! The ability to take courses that start multiple times a year, such as afforded by the University of Texas at Arlington, rather than just through the traditional fall and spring starts further enables flexibility and opportunity.

The exponential increase in information has led to significant changes in specialization needed for success in the workforce. No longer can we expect that knowledge gained through a degree will last through one’s career. Additionally, economic realities have made it very difficult for people in the workforce to take time off to come back to school full-time for a degree while the pace of part-time progression almost guarantees knowledge becoming obsolete before the degree is completed. Online learning provides a means for the workforce to continue gaining knowledge while being employed. The previous distance between academic offerings and those classified as continuing education needs to be bridged providing a continuum that best meets the needs of the populations we serve.

At the University of Texas at Arlington academic excellence and access are bridged through innovations in delivery of knowledge enabling all those who desire an education and are willing to work for it to acquire the degree and/or certifications necessary to succeed in the workforce and in life. Our fully online programs in nursing, education, social work, and public administration have been structured to meet the needs of an ever-enlarging population and their success can be measured by the growing number of students enrolled, increasing number of degrees awarded, national rankings, and most of all, increasing demand from employers. While our number of students being served through online modalities are high, even the highest in the nation for a public university in a field such as nursing, for example, there is still much to be done and our faculty are working tirelessly to enable opportunities for the maximum possible number of students, also re-envisioning the continuum of higher education from traditional degrees to certifications and credentialing in the future while ensuring that the level of preparation and excellence continues to increase.

At the end of the day we in higher education need to perhaps re-envision the scope of higher education. Is it just for the elite few or for the largest possible segment of our population? Enabling knowledge to be accessed anytime, anywhere, and by anyone who is committed to working towards enabling a better future for themselves and their family—isn’t that a logical extension of the Morrill Act? We need to shift from the 19th century concept of “land-grant” universities to the 21st-century analog that builds on the opportunities and necessities of the information and knowledge age.

To facilitate that shift, digital delivery of an education provides us the ability to continue meeting the big ideas of the past—assurance of higher education to all, sharing of knowledge to the widest level, and teaching of both the liberal arts and the practical sciences. We have the means and the wherewithal to ensure that the attainment of higher education is unconstrained by time, space and location.

All we have to do is acknowledge that the barriers have been lifted.

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