By Walter Wendler
With the growing pervasiveness of online and distance education opportunities (Clicks), future students will have transcripts peppered with courses from different modes of instructional delivery at different institutions. At West Texas A&M University, rarely will a student’s academic record come completely from courses taken on campus (Bricks). This “academic diversity” will become the norm in public higher education.
Demands for convenience create growth in online delivery. As the number of working adults engaged in study increases, the benefits of online learning opportunities likewise increase. Currently at West Texas A&M University, one in five students is engaged in some form of the online study. Competition between various online/on-campus providers, both for-profit and non-profit, also grows.
The challenges of online education are not limited to the United States, but are equaled by the United Kingdom, Turkey, South Korea, South Africa, Brazil, China, India and Russia where digital delivery is increasing. These nations are home to over 50% of the world’s population. Recent studies report growth in online enrollment everywhere. Online education is increasingly perceived as a legitimate means of study.
Traditional strengths of intentional on-campus delivery have value, but well-conceived online offerings also provide effective learning potential. At WT, the Paul and Virginia Engler College of Business provides guidance to proactively ensure quality in delivery of online instruction. Hiring a faculty member to teach from a bedroom in New Hampshire is not the same thing as having an online faculty member who also teaches on campus and lives in the region of the home institution, as is the case in our most subscribed online programs in business, education and nursing. Enlightened leadership recognizes the importance of addressing these challenges.
Private companies—not typically educational providers—are “getting into the game” of providing directed educational opportunities to their employees. Kettering University was originally established as The School of Automotive Trades in 1919 in Flint, Michigan. When acquired by GM the name became General Motors Institute of Technology (GMIT). GMIT provided a means for advancement and learning potential that fit the GM mission. This specificity, desirable for corporate effectiveness, is rational in a for-profit enterprise. Today, US News ranks Kettering University, the name that it has held since 1998, as number 13 nationally among non-PhD degree granting engineering schools, first in Michigan for salary potential and 10th nationally for return on educational investment. A trade school has adapted to a changing educational environment. Agile online providers married to adaptive on-campus educational providers create “fields white for harvest” in purposeful partnerships.
Changes in the educational ecosystem create consternation for institutions that covet a 17th-century mindset of university education. I have little sympathy for that hide-bound perspective, but I also recognize the power of a traditional on-campus experience. Over the last two decades, expectations accompanying a bachelor’s degree, such as increased lifetime earnings, a changed view of the world and other outcomes of a college experience, have diminished. Value and debt forcefully affect these perceptions. A good pipefitter can earn as much as a good teacher. In addition, that same pipefitter, as well as the teacher, can study 17th-century German art in the evenings, online, at no cost.
The ubiquitous nature of knowledge and insight, and accessing both, has changed everything. Bi Sheng’s invention of moveable type in 1040 enabled Gutenberg to develop his lead, tin and antimony type systems. Without the Gutenberg Bible, Martin Luther might as well have been speechless.
The prosaic challenges of online learning are manifold. Cheating is more common in online courses. The number of students who start and complete online courses is less than on-campus instruction, yet lenders and grant providers make little distinction between those who study online and those who study on campus. Passive students with inferior study habits and little peer interaction find online settings tough. Even with well tested online technology, there are still obstacles to overcome when a technical issue at the home institution causes communication to cease.
Online study and learning is mildly disruptive to universities and colleges that seek to maintain a traditional approach to college. However, online instruction does not diminish the value of on-campus education, but sharpens, focuses and augments that experience while opening it up to an ever-widening range of people.
This is likely: the on-campus experience in the next decade will decreasingly be a four-year experience and increasingly become something different with less time spent on campus. The residential four-year baccalaureate degree as the only effective framework for learning is already a historical artifact.
Thoughtful universities will not argue the variety or veracity of online education but rather find ways to integrate that learning experience with the more traditional on-campus experience.
Clicks plus Bricks. Never, any longer, Clicks or Bricks.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at www.walterwendler.com.