The Pew Research Center recently released “The Future of Higher Education,” a report in which educators and tech experts shared their opinions on the twenty-first century university. Online education was one of the most contentious topics, and respondents’ views of it ranged from optimistic to downright disparaging.Despite this controversy, over three-fourths reported that their schools have already implemented internet-based courses – and that doesn’t even include exclusively online universities.

As the cost of the formal, four-year college experience continues to rise, it seems that most institutions will have little choice but to expand their online offerings. Distance learning is still a mixed bag, however, and some traditionalists even believe it’ll be the death knell for widespread, high quality education.

Cost and Value

For most people, the greatest benefit of an online education isn’t physical accessibility, but cost. Online credits tend to be cheaper: even when they’re offered at brick-and-mortar universities, students can avoid costly commutes and exorbitant room and board fees.

Peter J. McCann, a senior engineer at Futurewei Technologies, asserted that, “The cost/benefit ratio of today’s university education is grossly out of balance. A four-year degree can cost upwards of a quarter of a million dollars and often leaves graduates without the skills needed to compete in the job market.” Adams State professor Ed Lyell likewise said, “since higher education is funded by student choice – with money following the student – it is likely that both private and public universities will expand their use of technology and diminish their dependence on everything based on ‘seat time.’”

McCann and several others also noted that “open” universities like the Khan Academy and MIT’s Open Courseware are already offering free or low-cost access to critical knowledge and skills. One respondent even claimed that,“If traditional universities don’t move in this direction, they will find themselves facing daunting, start-up competitors who will deliver educational value at lower prices for students coming from a contracting middle class.” Online credentials currently lack the market value of traditional degrees, but that may change if tuition costs continue to rise out of the average American’s reach.

Another advantage to online learning is that it frees up that costly “seat time” for more productive purposes. UC Berekely professor Marti Hearst said “The idea of having students watch video lecture and/or read the material at home and then work on problems or case studies together in the classroom with other students is a powerful model.” Mike Newton-Ward, a social marketing consultant for the North Carolina Division of Public Health, agreed, noting that “While class members like the convenience of studying when and where they want through technology, there is still a strong desire to be able to meet in person.” Overall, the “hybrid” classroom may be the best way for in-person schools to raise value and retain enrollment.

Potential Problems

For most respondents, the biggest drawback to online education was the reduction or total lack of face time. Brian Harvey, a lecturer at UC Berkeley, acknowledged that, “It’s been a long time since people needed to come to a university to find knowledge,” but asserted that “What students find at a university is each other – a culture of learning.” Another expert bemoaned the fact that “non-verbal communication cannot be conveyed using online media, and the efficacy/efficiency of offline groups is still too much higher than online groups.”

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