As we complete our commencement celebrations and look ahead to the next academic year, we have an important opportunity to reflect on broader developments, such as the role and impact of technology on our educational programs.
At the height of the Great Recession, a new orthodoxy emerged with claims that technology-mediated instruction was transforming higher education (see my blog from 2013 here). This view – strongly endorsed by politicians and others outside education – heralded the end of physical campuses and face-to-face interaction, assuming that a technologically sophisticated generation would not only embrace online educational programs, but would demand them. Another important assumption was that technologically mediated education would dramatically reduce costs. How this would occur was not necessarily specified, but the presumption was that technology could somehow replace personnel and facilities – perhaps in the same way that factory automation has reduced manufacturing costs.
Looking at the landscape today, it is clear that online and hybrid educational programs have grown substantially at San Diego State and across the nation. For example, this summer, there are over 5,000 students enrolled in online programs. Similarly, we had nearly 13,000 students enrolled in hybrid courses (courses with both face-to-face and online components) this past academic year, and we now offer six fully online master’s programs. These programs help some students advance in their academic programs and produce some cost savings. For example, hybrid classes facilitate more efficient use of our classrooms, and online summer courses permit students to make academic progress even when they are not in San Diego. Online master’s programs create opportunities for students who might not otherwise enroll due to family or job constraints.
At the same time, predictions regarding the demand for online programs eclipsing demand for face-to-face programs have not been borne out. This past year, SDSU again set an applications record – for enrollment in our face-to-face programs. In the last five years, our annual applications for face-to-face programs from the most technologically advanced generation in human history have increased 31 percent to 81,080.
There have also been significant challenges to online programs. Most notably, fully online programs were touted as programs that would enhance access to education, but repeated analyses show that students facing academic and financial challenges perform more poorly online than in face-to-face programs. The challenges of massive open online courses (so-called MOOCs) have received the most attention in the media (Chronicle of Higher Education update here) as universities and MOOC providers rethink and restructure the classes – and sometimes their business models – based on mixed results. We also review and re-evaluate course formats and offerings at SDSU, and we have seen challenges in our own online efforts. For example, failure rates in lower-division math courses have been significantly higher in online courses than in face-to-face courses and, for this reason, we will not be offering these courses in fully online format until these challenges are resolved.
For a variety of reasons, some of which were predictable, online cost efficiencies have also fallen far short of predictions. For example, technology is very expensive, offsetting cost savings from more efficient use of facilities. Similarly, and ironically, online courses require professors to handle more individual inquiries relative to face-to-face courses. Students are more likely to form support groups in face-to-face courses through which they can assist each other. The greater reliance on the instructor has forced course sizes to be smaller in fully online lower-division courses than in comparable face-to-face courses – reducing efficiencies.
So, where does this all leave us? We are in medias res – in the middle of things. There have been significant changes, significant progress and significant challenges in educational technology at SDSU. Embracing collaboration between our faculty, staff and administrators, continuing to experiment and changing our approaches based on the results will continue to serve our students well.
There are, of course, many implications of technology for our educational programs that go well beyond how we deliver our programs. In my next blog I will turn to some of those topics.