Technology and the Disruption of Higher Education (part 2)

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Henry C. Lucas, Jr. introduces himself as “a business school faculty member who has taught full time in the business schools at Stanford University, New York University, and the University of Maryland.” In the latter institution, he played a leading role in the development of an online MBA program.

Lucas believes that new technology “will prove transformational for universities that adopt it and disruptive for those that resist.” He believes especially in the transformational potential of two educational innovations: blended classes and online classes.

Blended classes

A blended class has two parts. The “synchronous” part consists of the time students spend together in class, but that time is less than in a traditional class. Class time is reduced in order to make up for the time students spend online watching videos and exploring other online materials. That’s the “asynchronous” part, since individual students can do that on their own.

Experience has shown that several short videos can be at least as effective as a traditional lecture. Much of the material normally covered in lecture moves online, and class time can be devoted to discussion and other interactive activities that students hopefully find more engaging. (This is similar to the “flipped classroom,” but there the class time remains the same.)

Lucas would like to see the traditional classroom lecture disappear, but not the direct interaction between professor and student. “I feel strongly that interaction between faculty and students in a live setting, which may be a videoconferencing system or a physical meeting place, is an essential part of a high-quality education.”

A good blended class can help promote problem-solving and critical thinking, as opposed to mere retention of lecture material. But it also places more responsibility on students to be active learners, which not all students appreciate.

Online classes

Lucas was originally opposed to fully online classes because many of the earliest ones seemed to put profit before quality. They suffered from two problems:

The first was the lack of interaction between faculty and students. For the most part, any interaction had to occur on discussion boards or via e-mail. (I talked to one student in an online program who had never seen her instructor even on a video.) The second problem with online education is that it has long been associated with for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix or Strayer University.

Lucas is especially critical of for-profit schools that charge higher tuition than public colleges and enroll mainly low-income students who can attend only by running up excessive debt. He reports that their students are only 13% of the college population but account for almost half of the student loan defaults.

More recently, Lucas has become receptive to incorporating online instruction into regular academic programs, especially at the graduate level. Some of the need for student-faculty interaction can be met through videoconferencing, for which specialized software now exists. If the number of participants is reasonably small at any one time, the instructor and each student can have a live window on the screen. Lucas says that each time he teaches an online MBA course using the Adobe Connect software, “the class comes closer to what happens in a physical, in-person class.”

When he wrote this book, published in 2016, few good online courses were available for undergraduate credit. However, Arizona State University had just announced an online freshman-year curriculum with courses designed by ASU faculty.  Students who completed it could then apply for admission as sophomores.

For students, online classes offer the flexibility of completing a college requirement without being physically present on campus. Lucas doesn’t deny the benefits of the traditional campus experience, but he doesn’t think that it works for students of all ages and situations. For institutions, online classes enable them to reach new markets (but also to lose market share if other colleges can do them better).

Different colleges may choose to be producers of online courses, consumers of online courses produced by others, or both. Private companies can also create courses or assist in their creation. When the University of Maryland developed its online MBA, it “partnered with a firm that helps schools develop online programs, [which] offered to market the program, help applicants complete their application, provide instructional design and multimedia support, provide student counseling, and ensure that 24-7 technical support would be available to faculty and students.”

Another possible use of online courses is to help provide specific skills for the non-college population. “It should be possible to combine step-by-step instructions, as YouTube does, with an overview and concepts provided by a MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] to prepare people for skilled-labor positions rather than college.”

A company called Coursera is the leading developer of online courses, in partnership with a number of universities and businesses. A quick look at their website turned up a number of master’s programs and certificate programs, but only one bachelor’s degree program, in computer science.

In general, Lucas is optimistic about the impact of new technologies on the quality and availability of education:

Now, after I’ve had some experience with MOOCs and blended and online classes, I am even more convinced that these new approaches to instruction will produce a high-quality outcome that equals or exceeds traditional approaches to education. Furthermore, the technology makes a high-quality education available to many more people than the traditional approach, which requires a physical presence on campus.

Lower costs?

Assuming that new technologies can help deliver higher education to more students, can they also help make such an expansion of higher education more affordable? This is a secondary concern for Lucas, but it could be an important consideration for public policy.

For blended classes, any cost savings for students or colleges should be small. Students still have to live on campus or commute to classes. Faculty spend less time preparing lectures, but more time planning other class activities, creating online materials, or at least organizing their use. Shorter classes mean that the same building can be used for more classes, but not necessarily that the same instructor can be used for more courses.

Large online courses have greater potential for cost savings:

[T]hey are highly scalable and offer the possibility for thousands of people who could never attend a major university to take a course offered by a highly regarded professor. Supporters of MOOCs view them as a way to raise educational levels around the world. Second, there are those who believe that MOOCs may be a first step at reducing college costs because so many students can access the work of a single faculty member; the marginal cost of adding one more student is very low.

Since a course can reach additional students with little added cost, programs can be priced below on-campus tuition. Students can more easily avoid on-campus living expenses and reconcile further study with current employment.

However, these advantages have to be weighed against the initial costs of creating high-quality online materials, which can be substantial. Colleges will need either to create the course content themselves, or else purchase or license them from others. (Colleges that do neither may be at a disadvantage in the competitive marketplace.) In theory, the production of more materials and the low marginal cost of streaming them to more learners ought to bring costs down over time, but Lucas thinks it’s too early to tell.

“The bottom line is that technology-enhanced teaching can produce higher-quality instruction, but it is not going to dramatically reduce the cost of college or generate considerable new revenue in the next three to five years for high-quality programs.” Three to five years is a very short run, of course, especially when three years have already elapsed since he wrote that. The longer-run outlook is uncertain, but I think more promising.


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