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Post by Group Founder, Keith Hampson

Johann Neem made a thoughtful contribution to the debate on online higher education in today’s Inside Higher Ed (October 6, 2011) – Online Higher Education’s Individualist Fallacy.

Nevertheless, I think the author makes a common mistake when discussing the role and value of online education – one that’s worth addressing because it is so common, but also important.

While recognizing that online education is here to stay, the author contends, like many before him, that: ” online higher education will never replace, much less replicate, what happens on college campuses.”

We need, once and for all, to stop talking about whether online education successfully “replicates” campus education. This perspective incorrectly assumes (a) that the campus model of education is the standard by which all institutional learning should be measured and (b) students will only learn in one format or the other.

The value of online education – what makes it potentially “disruptive” (Silicon-Valley speak) is that it does not seek to replicate the campus model. Like other innovations, its’ value stems from the fact that it offers “less” rather than “more”. Not all students, at all times, need and/or want the various functions (social life, athletics, dorm life) that the traditional institutional model offers. It is students focussed on career advancement (via credentials) that have turned to online education most quickly.

There’s nothing “natural” or perfect about the particular combination of functions that we have provided through the traditional campus model. It’s increasingly expensive to operate and, as the “non-traditional” student market continues to grow, effectively serves a smaller percentage of the total student population.

Yes, we learn through social interaction. But we learn by other means, as well (outside of institutions, increasingly). Dismissing online education because it doesn’t offer all of the same functions of the traditional model, in the same ways, is short-sighted, frankly. Online education will become one of the many ways that we achieve our educational objectives. We need to take full advantage of its potential.

Having said this, I need to make one important qualification. I’m speaking of how we ought to be approaching online higher education. The majority of institutions are still approaching online education with the objective of mimicking the classroom experience as closely as they can. There is still interest in using video-taped lectures, for example, which – in the vast majority of instances – offers online learners a watered-down, weaker version of an already suspect instructional strategy. (I love a great lecture as much as the next geek, but few people are capable of delivering them. And even the most dynamic speakers lose much of their value when captured on film by an AV team using one camera, poor lighting and sound.)

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