Perfecting the online university

Some classrooms will survive, but digital advancements will draw more students away from traditional higher ed

Online degrees are poised to shake up the academy, says Kevin Carey, director of educational policy at the New America Foundation. That they haven’t yet is not the fault of technology as much as it is the perceived value of a traditional college diploma. That document tells little more than the applicant attended classes at a particular institution. Carey says digital assessments and data gathering from a “University of Everywhere,” pioneered by projects such as edX and Coursera, will provide far more insight on a graduate’s potential for success.

“When that happens,” Carey says, “the economic foundations beneath the academy will truly begin to tremble.”

In his book The End of College (2015, Riverhead Books), Carey shows how technological innovations—and a sense that the current higher ed model is outdated—are forcing a rethinking of an industry that hasn’t fundamentally changed for more than a hundred years.

You began this project by taking an online MIT course. How did that match your expectations?

It reminded me that it’s been a long time since I was in college. Learning is hard work, particularly if you are learning in a field that is outside your expertise. I really had to push myself to stay on task. But it was also a great experience. It was interesting to do it simultaneously with thousands of people around the world as well as in Cambridge.

Was it more work than a typical class?

It was more work than many college classes that I have taken in my life. I feel pretty confident saying that. I took undergraduate classes and passed them without going to many classes. The overall level of work and of intellectual rigor involved here was certainly greater.

With that in mind, will the “University of Everywhere” require students with different skill sets than are typically expected in college these days?

We’ll need to teach different kinds of students in different kinds of ways. The class that I took was the barebones. It was everything that you needed to finish the class if you didn’t need anything else. That is, if you had the level of personal organization to move steadily through the material and if you didn’t need much one-on-one tutoring.

Other people are different. The great challenge of any organized

education is in providing the same thing to very different people.

One thing the class did not do was adapt to me. There are ways to design digital learning environments that can determine your needs and direct you to different learning experiences that can shore them up, given where your strengths and weaknesses are. These adaptive learning environments rely in part on artificial intelligence to find a unique path through a learning experience for unique people.

In talking afterward to both Anant Agarwal, the head of edX, and to Eric Lander, who taught my course, they immediately identified that as the biggest need for improvement.

Do you see the current generation of MOOCs and online learning as basically just proof of concept at this point?

Yes, but we should be careful about what concept we think it’s proving. To me, they prove that you can take a very meat-and-potatoes approach to teaching lower division classes that don’t involve much, if any, one-on-one interaction between the student and the professor, and replicate that perfectly in an online environment and provide it to people at essentially no marginal cost. We ought not to miss how important that is, because what I just described is the educational experience that many people have every day in college. It’s not the same as being in a mentor/mentee relationship. It’s not the same as being in a small seminar.

So, it proves that we’ve already crossed into the realm of classes as they are offered by universities for significant amounts of money today, and the direction only goes up from there. As people get better at creating educational experiences in these environments, the number of university-based classes that can be either replicated or replaced by a different learning experience that is as good—and those are two different things—will grow over time. I think that’s an obvious trend.

Many online courses offer certificates of completion. Do they carry much weight yet in the business world?

That’s very much the next thing to be figured out. It’s going to take some time for employers to figure out what to do with all these new credentials. It’s almost impossible to overstate the extent to which traditional college degrees are embedded in employer hiring systems. Everybody understands what a bachelor’s degree is. There are whole systems based around those kinds of credentials.

We’re not going to switch to a different credential regime overnight. But I do think we will eventually switch to one, because there are many deficiencies to those traditional credentials. They don’t really provide that much information. A firm that can do a better job at hiring people is going to have the advantage, because who you hire is how good you are.

These new digital learning environments collect so much more information about what happens to people. EdX and Coursera realize the path to sustainability is to be able to provide credentials that have value in the labor market, so they are going to be very focused on trying to make that connection stick.

We have two educational models: One for people who want the so-called college experience, and the other for people that can’t or don’t want to take the traditional route. Now, for the first time, these nontraditional students are the majority. Can the two coexist?

Sure. We have a higher education system where only a minority of people will actually live in a dorm somewhere for four years and graduate. But that’s not the typical experience of an American college student today, and it won’t be in the future. Institutions that can make a plausible claim to providing a high quality, intensive, in-person learning experience will continue to be able to do that forever, because people like to learn that way.

But that still leaves an enormous number of people both in the United States and around the world who don’t have the time. They don’t have the money. They don’t have the inclination to work that way. And I think that creates a lot of opportunities to create new kinds of learning organizations.

I try to be really careful in the end of the book talking about the future to note that while some people will learn online, I think most people won’t. Most people will have some relationship with a higher education organization. Technology will be part of the way they learn, but they will also learn in non-technological ways.

How will the admissions process change as online learning opens the doors to more people?

The current admissions process is archaic and non-empirical and biased toward people of class. Existing colleges struggle to enroll the students they want. They want bright students. They want well-off students. They want students who will succeed.

It’s hard for them to find those students. It’s hard for them to make matches. Matches between organizations and people are always complicated and always difficult.

One of the interesting side effects we see with MOOCs is that they help elite colleges figure out who to recruit. This is not speculation; it is happening. I wrote a piece recently where I spoke to the dean at MIT. He said, “Absolutely we see MOOCs as a way to identify talent.” So rather than guessing about talent based on SAT scores and college transcripts, which are crude measures, they can actually see who thrives in an MIT class and then recruit them to come to MIT.

You’ve been criticized for glossing over obvious flaws in online education. How do you respond to that?

I think that the online/non-online dichotomy itself is a really limited and ultimately incorrect way to think about what students need and what the future will bring. The fact that some students don’t succeed in an educational environment that provides no human support doesn’t mean that other students can’t succeed in those environments. You can’t characterize online learning monolithically.

That doesn’t make any sense.

The reaction to the book has generally been very positive. I’ve gotten a lot of interesting responses from people in university leadership. I think they really engaged the arguments in a way that was exactly the conversation that we need to have.

On the other hand, some of the reaction from individual professors has been more negative, but I don’t think that’s surprising. I mean, the book is called The End of College, so I would expect that would be the reaction.

Tim Goral is senior editor.


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