In his recent State of the University address, Luis Proenza highlighted the “disruptive innovations” in higher education. The University of Akron president had in mind the arrival of “massive open online courses,” technology altering in profound ways traditional learning. Harvard, Stanford, MIT and other schools have opened wide their doors, conducting classes via broadband, students surfacing across the country and around the globe.
As Proenza explained, all of this is in its infancy. Yet the potential is clear, especially as a response to the soaring cost of a higher education the past decade or more. Universities feel the pressure to examine and update their business model, improving access and easing the price tag. Proenza pointed to UA weighing an “integrator/assessor model” that aims through technology to provide multiple platforms and pathways for students to learn.
The concept seems ripe for lifelong learning. An education could be customized more easily. The familiar seminar might adjourn to a chat room, where far-flung students could engage a topic.
Even school districts in Ohio have been examining more closely the possibilities for online learning, or “blended learning.” The Springfield City Schools have taken the lead. A task force created in the most recent budget bill has been looking at how to take advantage of the technology.
If much promise can be seen, significant obstacles still exist. Proenza asked the question: “So, how are we in higher education going to credential this mastery of knowledge and skills in this new environment?” There long has been a consensus that a college diploma reflects value added, say, in knowledge gained or a capacity to think and solve problems. What is the assurance that a university course taken online will deliver as much?
As Tamar Lewin of the New York Times recently reported, some courses, especially in computer science and engineering, are suited better to online grading. Other classes in the humanities present a larger challenge. One experiment involves students evaluating the work of their classmates, the grade reflecting the average of the marks awarded. Then, there are more fundamental concerns about cheating, not to mention missing the intangible aspects of sitting in a room with a professor and peers, the real classroom adding crucial dimensions.
Proenza stressed to his audience that “however these new university models take shape, I am convinced that the student-faculty relationship will remain at the core of learning.” Thus, the test is how well the technology will be incorporated. The online world is expanding, and it represents a huge opportunity as greater knowledge and higher skills become premiums in the global economy. What the country cannot afford is the illusion of technological advances making us smarter.