A mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Louis Newman, professor of religion and director of Carleton’s Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching, echoes Nixon’s observations: “Are there modules that could be produced and delivered to students electronically, like videos that instruct students on how to use basic equipment without taking up class time? Certainly, and Carleton will continue to investigate and implement those—in order to streamline costs and get content to students even more effectively and because students increasingly expect this kind of technology in their studies. But we’ll do so without compromising what we continue to value: a very personalized, very traditional liberal arts education.”
“We are not,” he adds, “looking to create content and project it out into the world to thousands of people who have no connection to Carleton. We might, however, begin to think of ways to share with others the faculty development work we have done. There’s even been talk about ways that distance learning might make it possible for consortiums such as the Associated Colleges of the Midwest to share instructors in specialized fields. More than that is not likely in the foreseeable future.”
“The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C’, the idea must be feasible.” —A Yale University management professor’s response to Fred Smith regarding a 1965 paper he wrote proposing a reliable overnight delivery service akin to today’s FedEx, which Smith went on to found in 1971.
Delivering online courses to those who want them is clearly feasible in many fields—and many countries. Not only has the number of Americans with Internet access more than doubled since 2000, but also for many, the Internet is as close as their pocket or purse: 35 percent of Americans have data-capable smartphones.
There are plenty of potential customers for online learning outside the U.S., too. Singapore has the largest smartphone user base per capita (with 90 percent), followed by Hong Kong (61 percent), Sweden (52 percent), Australia (47 percent), and Spain (46 percent).
Westfield’s Kimberly Tobin suggests, in fact, that the institutions that should be paying closest attention to online education at this point are those that have invested heavily in attracting international students to their campuses. In her experience, she says, international students are most interested in two things: mastering specific content and the cachet that learning it at an American institution confers. To the extent that those things can be obtained without the expense and difficulty of traveling to the U.S., she says, colleges and universities with sizeable international enrollments should be thinking about how to deliver education to those students via distance learning.
In educating American students, as well, “technology is making us so much more efficient,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted at the March 2012 SXSWedu conference. “It allows teachers to personalize education for more and more students. They can track student progress more closely. Technology offers children the opportunity to work at their own pace and provides access to more information through a cell phone than I had through an entire library. Technology enables working adults to learn on their own schedule. It erases geographical barriers to knowledge.”
Still, the question remains: Is the education being delivered online the same or better than that which students receive in face-to-face courses? Are the learning outcomes comparable? That has been a matter of some contention.
A 2011 Sloan Consortium study found that 67 percent of academic leaders now rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face learning. Yet approximately one-third, a consistent and sizable minority, continue to consider online education to be inferior. And a 2011 Pew Research Center report showed that while 51 percent of college presidents say online courses provide the same value, only 29 percent of American adults say a course taken online provides an educational value equal to one taken in a classroom.
But teaching techniques and learning outcomes are likely to improve over time. And skepticism about online learning is likely to decline as the higher education pipeline increasingly is filled by consumers who have been educated in K-12 classrooms that have been in part or entirely digital, in addition to being exposed to digital tools and toys much of their lives.
“Whatever happens, the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping.” —Frank Knox, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, on December 4, 1941
That’s what the Internet says was said, anyway. Like many memes, its authenticity is hard to verify. But it continues to have legs (along with those anecdotes about the technology company executive who didn’t get the appeal of personal computers and the professor who dissed the founder of FedEx) because we prefer to think that, like the rest of us, even the best and brightest can come to boneheaded conclusions about matters that, with 20/20 hindsight, seem to have been inevitable.
Is online education one of those things? Time will tell. But one thing is certain. As educators consider if, when, and/or how to incorporate online learning into their programs, one topic will be debated repeatedly and probably heatedly: the ultimate purpose of a college education.