How Online Education Went from Teaching Reform to Economic Necessity for Colleges

Mar 05, 2020

When the Sloan Foundation had the bright idea to stimulate digital education at the nation’s colleges and universities a quarter of a century ago, it christened online learning as “asynchronous learning networks,” an eccentric name for what is now known simply as online learning. Since it was in its very early days, Sloan had no idea what to call it. But it surely bet on a winning horse.

Eventually, the foundation invested nearly $75 million in institutions willing to test electronic teaching to see if it worked. I received some of that largess 20 years ago in grants to launch virtual master’s degrees, among the very first in the nation, when I was dean of ”web-based distance learning” at Stevens Institute of Technology, a small New Jersey college perched on the Hudson.

At Sloan-sponsored summer workshops in upstate New York, some 20 years ago, I listened eagerly to pioneering faculty who imagined that virtual classes would be taught with radical education methods that had been proposed earlier by giants in progressive education—John Dewey, Jean Piaget and Paulo Freire, among others. The idea was to deliver digital instruction as a student-centered, peer-to-peer active-learning practice.

Frustrated by conventional lessons—given principally in mostly soporific lectures—they dreamed that one day their constructivist approach of student-led discovery, would infiltrate residential classes. Sloan also launched one of the first online learning professional societies, now known as the Online Learning Consortium (OLC).

Today, while education reform is still on the nation's academic agenda, these days many colleges going online are doing so for economic reasons. Virtual education is now seen as a way to bring in new students—and therefore new revenue—as students for traditional programs have become harder to come by. At high-level strategy sessions at conference tables in president’s and provost’s offices at colleges across the country, academic leaders are not commonly arguing over the pedagogical merits of constructivist theories, but are anxiously calculating how to go online without going under.

In the roughly two decades that virtual instruction has evolved—initially run by online amateurs (like me) in experiments dotting the country—few participating institutions expected to generate sizable financial returns. We were all tinkering with what worked and what didn’t. Pedagogy was more on our minds than profits.

When online was first introduced as a pedagogical advance, faculty members often rose up against it—or more often, just ignored it, the most devastating form of resistance. If it weren't for economic necessity, online might not have grown to the force it has today—these days a third of the nation's higher ed students take courses online.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, when Wall Street got wind of the billions to be made from government-backed loans for tuition, for-profits hit the jackpot. To some extent, the present boom in online learning is a consequence of traditional colleges following the enterprising techniques introduced by for-profits who left small-scale institutions in the dust. For-profits were happy to build giant education factories with thousands of online students. Inevitably, nonprofit institutions were forced to adopt for-profit strategies when state legislatures withdrew support for public universities and when, for some small colleges, idyllic Jeffersonian campuses could no longer be sustained.

Some state schools have now emerged as giant online institutions with tens of thousands of online students—Arizona State University, Western Governors University and University of Central Florida are among the most notable. New online schools have been announced for Massachusetts, California and elsewhere. OPMs (companies that help build and finance online programs at colleges) and MOOC providers (groups that help colleges build large-scale online courses, some of which are free to take as a form of outreach) have given colleges new options to launch online degrees.

Millions of working adults must turn to digital degrees to improve their employability in a post-industrial economy that demands higher-level skills than on the assembly line. Corporations are being pressed to find agile, high-tech workers for their digital processes and products. Powerful new digital-recruitment techniques now make massive global markets open to any college with deep enough pockets.

At the same time, thoughtful academic faculty are urging these new online initiatives to be built on a foundation of student-centered active learning, even as digital education increases its scale. In their just-published book, Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, Joshua Kim, of Dartmouth College, and Edward Maloney, of Georgetown University, argue that the broader introduction of digital education across the nation creates even more opportunities for active learning to be adopted more widely.

And to my surprise, even as virtual education balloons, those giant online programs at nonprofit colleges are trying imaginative digital alternatives to deliver virtual peer-to-peer, active learning.

Except that they are doing it at a scale unimaginable to those attending those Sloan workshops decades ago.

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