Ready or Not, Here Comes the Higher Ed Online Revolution

In the previous post I highlighted Robert Samuelson, who says we need to re-think who needs a college education. In this post, I draw your attention to John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, who argue in the Wall Street Journal that we need to re-think how we deliver college education.

In particular, Chubb and Moe explore the potential for integrating online technology with traditional, place-based learning. Some excerpts:

Lectures just scratch the surface of what is possible. Online technology lets course content be presented in many engaging formats, including simulations, video and games. It lets students move through material at their own pace, day or night. It permits continuing assessment, individual tutoring online, customized reteaching of unlearned material, and the systematic collection of data on each student’s progress. In many ways, technology extends an elite-caliber education to the masses who would not otherwise have access to anything close. …

The coming revolution is essentially about finding a new balance in the way education is organized—a balance in which students still go to school and have face-to-face interactions within a community of scholars, but also do a portion of their work online. …

College X might have its students take calculus, computer science and many other lecture courses online from MIT-Harvard (or other suppliers), and have them take other classes with their own local professors for subjects that are better taught in small seminars. College X can thus offer stellar lectures from the best professors in the world—and do locally what it does best, person to person. …

This is a revolution, but also a complicated process that must unfold over time before its benefits are realized. The MITs and Harvards still don’t really know what they are doing, but that is normal at this early stage of massive change. Early stumbles and missteps … will show the way toward what works, and what is the right balance between online and traditional learning.

My question is this: Which institutions will adapt the fastest? Will the winners be MIT, Harvard and other elite universities, with their multibillion-dollar endowments, global brand names and world-class faculties? Will they be the for-profit upstarts, who don’t have to contend with tenured faculty, bureaucratic overhead or conflicting priorities such as Research & Development and alumni expectations to deal with? Or will they be someone else entirely?

Chubb and Moe note that for-profit institutions have been the most aggressive at integrating online courses into their technology — and they have doubled their share of the U.S. higher education market in the past decade, now topping 10%. I expect the for-profits to continue gaining market share — not because they’ve perfected the secret sauce but because they are more flexible organizations, and they are more capable than traditional higher ed institutions of evolving and adapting as people figure out what works.

We have barely begun to grapple with these issues in Virginia. Given the enormous investment that students and taxpayers make in higher education, we need to start having that conversation now.


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  1. larryg Avatar

    Think of Education including Higher Ed as the Blockbuster/Kodak of their field.

    I’m reading studies that report that many of the hardest-to-teach kids – do much better with online learning.

    But some things need to be done to get this show fully on the road.

    There needs to be a full array of “challenge” tests …standardized and accepted as certification of proof of knowledge for what they test.

    2nd – these courses need to help the students … the software needs to determine what material they do not understand and drill down to it …in a remedial process to find the root of their problem … this is exceptionally important for material that builds on previously learning ..and it’s critical in the early grades where basic reading and math proficiency are paramount to success in the later grades.

    If I was a betting person.. I’d put my money on the private sector to do this but we do have to find a way to kneecap the scammers…

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    “Distance” learning based on computers has been around for years.
    Describing its potential today as a “revolution” is a bit breathless and over-the-top. Also, dissing college education is way too much the soup du jour.
    My biggest concern about online is diminishing quality.How would you like to have brain surgery and be told on the way to the OR that your doc took all his courses online and really liked the games?

    1. True, distance learning has been around for years. But only now is it reaching critical mass.

      It’s entirely legitimate to raise issues about quality. If I were a student, I would definitely wonder if the quality of instruction and the educational experience was up to snuff. I think we’ll find that in some instances, online/distance learning is very effective and in others it is not.

      As for brain surgeons learning online, who knows? Computer simulations might be an effective intermediate step between book learning and real-life surgery.

    2. DJRippert Avatar


      “Mobile” phones have been around for years too –

      It’s not how long something has been around that determines its adoption rate. It’s a combination of factors including usability and economics.

      As for a doctor in the OR taking online courses – really? If your doctor took calculus from MIT online as an undergraduate you’d find another doctor? Try not to bleed to death while you are doc shopping!

  3. larryg Avatar

    Why should there be ANY high school or college courses in Foreign Language (for instance) when Rosetta Stone offers 30 languages in the $300-500 range per year? could not become a brain surgeon SOLELY by learning online but a LOT of what you learn could easily be online reason at all what it could not be. And guess what? We’re on the cusp of a revolution in surgery – where the surgeon controls robot hands… which have tremendous advantages over human hands AND can be done remotely. A kid in Uganda can have a surgery done by a Doctor in India.

    The world is changing at warp speed and people who are unaware of it are in danger of becoming modern-day buggy whips.

  4. “My biggest concern about online is diminishing quality….”

    Let’s assume all things are equal…the same virtual course, same instructor teaching it, same tests, quizzes, etc., and it’s produced by Harvard or MIT. It doesn’t matter if you take the course at Harvard, MIT, your local community college, or your bedroom. It’s the same stuff! That’s the beauty of it.

    If anything the virtual classroom can be used to increase the quality of learning. We all know there were times in college we took a class because it was easy, or avoided one because it was hard either because of the material or the instructor…or both. Those days could be a thing of the past.

    If Harvard or MIT limit access to their virtual material because they pick and choose who has access to it that’s a different story. But, it’s not unlike what they are doing now in terms of traditional methods. They pick and choose who gets in and who doesn’t. It’s been that way for hundreds of years.

    With virtual learning anyone who qualifies could attend a virtual class at Harvard or MIT….if they choose to let you attend. So, the real question about higher education/virtual learning/access is the same as it’s always been.

    It’s a question of who has access to the information and who doesn’t and what criteria will be used to make that decision.

  5. larryg Avatar

    IF you had National Standards for any/all courses and those standards were comprehensive and valid – then it would matter not near as much as to HOW someone gained their knowledge – as long as they could demonstrate it.

    I always go back to the Armed Forces in which all services use a single test to not only determine initial qualifications but also which career track training will be made available.

    It’s called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery

    this is how the military tests their folks for how much they know and what further training they will receive – and those trainings are also tested similarly with universal tests.

    there is no reason why we could not do that for both K-12 and Higher Ed.

    K-12 is now coalescing around a concept called “Common Core” which is a nationwide standardized approach to testing – and to the underlying curricula.

    The states that sign on to that can then leverage online and distance learning in revolutionary ways. A kid in most any state living in any geographic area could take the same exact courses and be graded the same exact way.

  6. DJRippert Avatar

    You folks crack me up!

    Here’s an idea – take a course online right now and decide for yourselves.

    Given some of the rambling from both the left and the right on this blog, I’d suggest an Intro to Economics. And, since quantitative analysis is always preferable to the “truth through poetry” approach favored by UVA, let’s head to MIT.

    Ready for the first lecture?

  7. I’ve been using Rosetta Stone to learn introductory Spanish. I really like it, and I find it just as effective as the traditional in-class courses I took in college. I’m totally sold. Of course, Rosetta Stone can only take you so far in mastering a language. But there’s no doubt in my mind that programs like this can substitute for a lot of traditional learning.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Jim: Rosetta Stone es mejor que la educación en las aulas de learing española, ya que permite el movimiento estudiantil en rathern su propio ritmo que la media de los 30 alumnos en el aula.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      A classroom can only take you so far in mastering a language. To really gain fluency, most people have to live in a place where that language is spoken. In your case, perhaps 6 months in Herndon would do the trick!

  8. larryg Avatar

    I keep asking : ” what is the purpose of a teacher – in a world where content is readily available on virtually any subject” ?

    if we had a national certification for skills – a standardized test that anyone could take – not matter how they acquired the knowledge. The Armed Services already have such a setup and K12 is working towards a Common curricula.

    but what is the compelling case for a physical (or even a virtual) teacher/instructor and a physical (or virtual) classroom?

    Kids in Spotsylvania who are kicked out of regular school – still have to have access to an education and they do it with virtual schooling online.

    I’ve been told that severely dysfunctional kids who were once thought incapable of learning but the most rudimentary things.. because some cannot even verbally communicate well – can pick up an IPAD with the right “apps” and learn.

    No, I do not think that teachers are an endangered species – but now, more than ever, we need to define what only a teacher can do and software cannot.

    We are on the cusp of big change in the last two holdouts to the internet – education and health care.

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