The recent PBS News Hour series, Rethinking College, posed the question we’ve heard countless times: can “computers” truly provide a quality of education equal to in-person teaching? To create conflict, the broadcasters juxtapose proponents of online education with those that believe that “real” education only occurs when the student can see the whites of the instructor’s eyes.

Rethinking Education, PBS News Hour, 2014. 

What strikes me as peculiar about these debates, other than the tendency to ignore evidence about the effectiveness of online learning, is the tendency of both the critics and advocates to talk about online education as if it is a mature, established style of teaching and learning; that what currently constitutes online learning is the end of the road; that we can expect no more improvements.

This is odd because the most striking difference between in-person teaching and online as of 2014 is their relative potential to improve. Online education, unlike in-person education, is in its infancy. It will improve dramatically. The only questions are how quickly and who will lead the way.

While online education is still in that early, awkward stage, the classroom format long ago reached the plateau. This isn’t to say that in-person teaching isn’t often of great value — that’s not the point. The point is that our capacity to dramatically increase the value of in-person learning is relatively limited.

New technologies and new ways of doing things tend to follow a common (“s-curve”) trajectory: at first they offer little value, but in time — as conditions change and improvements are made — the value escalates rapidly. Eventually the rate of progress subsides, and the value of the once new approach settles into a plateau, at which point improvements are merely incremental, unless you significantly increase costs, which in turn, reduces value. (Value: a balance between quality and cost.)

In-person teaching is a mature format. At the plateau stage, the focus is on trying to extract more value. Examples of this include hiring more adjuncts and creating teaching and learning support offices. These tactics may help, but the improvements in value are predictably incremental.

By comparison, online education still has a tremendous amount of room to improve. As of 2014, most online courses in traditional, brick and mortar institutions in North America are still built and delivered according to a model borrowed from the classroom. Lone instructors without the necessary time, incentives, skill-sets and funds maintain ultimate responsibility for course design and development. Funding for course development is limited to what can be generated by offering the course at a single institution for a few semesters, until such time that it needs a revamp. It’s still built in a cottage-industry fashion, like the classroom. It’s not surprising that online education has not yet led to lower tuition for students. Costs haven’t declined. The value proposition to students is still largely based on convenience, rather than improved educational value.

But in time, new instructional strategies and technologies will join forces in new ways that will drive up quality and reduce costs. There’s already pockets of innovation on the fringes: The Open Learning Initiative and NCAT, albeit in different ways, have shown that new approaches can increase value, whether in reduced costs, improved learning outcomes or both. Innovative program designs from institutions like Western Governors University, Arizona State University, SNHU, and Rio Salado, and Capella University will provide templates for other institutions to follow and — as a result of their fast enrolment growth — stimulate healthy competition.

What the future of online education will look like isn’t actually all that mysterious. We’ve been talking about many of these instructional strategies and features since the late 1990s.

  • Provide students with hundreds of opportunities to practice and test their understanding of the material (rather than, say, a midterm and final);
  • Use high-production value instructional media that explains difficult concepts and processes through sophisticated illustrations, animation, video and audio;
  • Employ adaptive software that personalizes learning to meet students where they are at that moment;
  • Design courseware that is customizable so as to enable economies of scale, thereby driving down costs per student;
  • Draw on the best instructional design strategies that are based on the rich field of learning sciences;
  • Leverage learning analytics to provide learners with constant feedback so that they come to learn how they learn best.

Institutions that recognize the current trajectory of online education — and can find ways to make it part of their operations — will be well positioned for the coming decade. Those that assume that the future state of online learning will be similar to the status quo in 2014 may miss out on one of the few great opportunities to innovate in higher education.


Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 

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