Discussions of “online” learning are everywhere. Stanford professors are offering MOOCs (massive open online courses) to thousands of students. Our governor has very publicly encouraged the California State University and the University of California systems to develop online courses, and both systems have launched online initiatives. Columnists in the New York Times claim that online learning can address the cost challenges in higher education.
How should we at San Diego State think about these issues?
First, it is important to recognize that technology-mediated education is not new. When I was a child, our local CBS television affiliate would broadcast taped college courses. I was surprised to learn recently that over 100,000 people were regular viewers. At the same time, recent advances in technology (e.g., widespread, high-speed wireless access) have been dramatic, and these advances have opened a broad range of new educational possibilities.
In considering these possibilities, we should embrace the best of our academic traditions, combining innovation with a focus on rigorous evaluation. A small sampling of possibilities: Students who are not in residence during the summer can take courses and speed their time to degree. “Hybrid” courses allow more students to enroll when there are classroom shortages. Online professional master’s programs can allow students to enroll even when their schedules do not permit commuting.
In considering these possibilities, we should focus on the quality of our programs. We should carefully evaluate whether online learning is appropriate for individual academic subjects. We should carefully evaluate whether all students have access to, and benefit from, technologies. We should carefully evaluate the financial implications (positive or negative) of offering online courses.
In the last area, there is much work to be done. For example, it is often pointed out that MOOCs enroll thousands of students and, consequently, can generate substantial “profits.” It is also the case that these courses are, currently, free. Student enrollment may drop dramatically when tuition is charged. Despite widespread claims to the contrary, the financial model used by Internet search engines may not apply seamlessly to universities.
Development of online learning raises many more questions than I can answer in detail here. Does online learning signal the end of the residential campus? (Very unlikely, given the role of the residential campus in facilitating student development.) If we could standardize courses across all universities in a state or system, would we want to do this? (We wouldn’t, because of the enormous benefits of having heterogeneous perspectives on academic topics.) Will there be failed attempts in the process of developing online approaches? (There have already been many dramatic failures, and there will be many more as universities attempt to innovate.)
What I can do here is reinforce our commitment to partnering with our faculty, staff and students in developing pedagogical innovations and online learning. In these collaborative partnerships, our faculty, staff and students have generated new approaches to teaching and learning and our leadership team has facilitated and supported these approaches.
Through this collaborative approach, we have developed hundreds of online and hybrid courses, five online master’s programs and online summer courses that now enroll over 5,000 students. Collectively, these accomplishments show the powerful role technology can play in supporting our academic goals and educational mission.