Blog: The Educated Reporter

What Online Education Means for College Classrooms

What Online Education Means for College Classrooms

Early registration is now open for EWA’s 2013 Higher Education Seminar, to be held Sept.28-29 at Northeastern University in Boston.This is a journalists-only  event, and you can register and apply for a scholarship here.In the meantime, EWA’s 66th National Seminar was recently held at Stanford University, and we asked some of the education reporters attending to contribute blog posts from the sessions.Today’s guest blogger is Mary Beth Marklein of USA TodayStream sessions from National Seminar in your browser, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes. For more on MOOCs and higher education online learning, visit EWA’s Story Starters online resource. 

“There’s a tsunami coming,” Stanford president John Hennessy famously warned last spring in a New Yorker profile on how Silicon Valley, with all its Stanford-pedigreed entrepreneurs, is transforming traditional higher education. At EWA’s national conference, Pearson chief education adviser Sir Michael Barber also warned of impending disaster – except he predicts an avalanche.

Barber based his remarks on a paper he co-authored, published a couple of months ago by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a British think tank. The 77-page essay, “An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead,” describes how technological advances are paving the way for bold changes in higher education. To survive and thrive, Barber urges all players to “seize the initiative and act ambitiously.”

(The full paper is worth a look, and you can find it here.)

Flipped classrooms and massive open online courses (MOOCs), which dominated discussions in several of EWA’s higher ed sessions, are just some of the most visible elements of this transformation. But they came on the scene quickly and provide clear evidence that change is on the way. In her central question for panelists, moderator Claudia Dreifus picked up on the somewhat mixed metaphor in the title of Barber paper: “Is this really an avalanche, an act of nature?” she wondered. “Or is it something we can control?”

Barber went first. He stressed that fundamental aspects of education will always remain relevant, especially the need by students for human interaction in the form of mentorship and inspiration. But, he added, technological innovators are coming up with methods of delivering some aspects of education more efficiently and productively than what’s happening today.

“Bundling” was his buzzword. The services provided by traditional universities, he said, are being unbundled. Those that want to survive and thrive must rebundle their various functions. Some educators may focus exclusively on teaching and learning, others on the student experience, others on administration or assessment. While these changes have already been set in motion, Barber suggested there’s time for education leaders to respond thoughtfully, though they better do something, and sooner is probably better than later: “One thing you don’t do in an avalanche is stand still,” he said.

John Mitchell, Stanford’s vice provost for online learning, seemed to want to put the brakes on all the talk of speed. Innovations being tried today are still in the early stages and “will take years to develop,” he said. In his view, technology’s greatest contributions include its promise in helping researchers figure out how students learn, and its ability to scale up, to provide access worldwide. “The potential is huge … especially to reach once unreachable people,” he said.

Mark Smith, senior policy analyst of higher education for the National Education Association, raised concerns, as you might expect, that faculty remain central players in the quality control of these disruptive innovations, wherever they might lead. He was not impressed by some of the examples cited in Barber’s paper, such as the 21-year-old gamer hired to manage an Azerbaijani soccer team based on his mastery of a computer game called Football Manager. On the other hand, Smith said a famous film producer who can teach film ethics at three universities without leaving his home in Ireland exemplifies what distance learning can do well.

Smith also urged journalists to beware of the hype. Several times, he noted that the recent developments in distance education are mostly a variation on a theme dating back to the day “when Plato started writing Socrates down.”

“Technology will constantly improve education but you still need some type of interaction among students, and between students and faculty,” he said. It is “still important to have that person-to -person contact.”