Online is Inevitable

The October 5th, 2012 Chronicle of Higher Education Special Report on Online Learning marks a turning point of sorts. While it is true that there have been several past Chronicle supplements concerning online learning, this issue marks a major departure in terms of tone and content. If I would have to characterize it, I would say the “war is over, and online has won.” Whereas past supplements either cast doubts about the effectiveness of online or its staying power, the proverbial while flag has been raised in this issue. There are articles on the impact of MOOCs, online collaborations, finances, and pedagogy–all positive regarding the future of online and its efficacy. There are also several articles written by professors who were formerly skeptics or opposed to online that now embrace this format.

Increasingly I see the forces promoting online learning coalescing on different fronts. These days, the issue of economics is never far from the minds of campus administrators, particularly at public universities. While I would never suggest that a cost-saving rationale for adopting online is a good thing, more and more the impact of online is being felt positively on the bottom line of many universities.  For example, in her article entitled, “The Economics of Online Education,” Goldie Blumenstyk makes the case that 40% of UMass-Amherst’s School of Management online business program supplying 60% of the total revenue of that school, with online students having twice the revenue impact per student as the traditional business student. According to business school Dean Fuller, this has meant opening” new markets for high-quality students with work experience who are place bound.” (pg B-14). How long can traditional institutions ignore this type of bottom-line impact?

Not surprisingly, there were several articles on MOOCs in this edition. The issue of free classes of high quality, structured for the convenience of the student in ways that allow for highly interactive, self-paced learning, should strike fear into the heart of traditionalists. While their tenured positions may be secure for their careers, innovations like MOOCs are causing a sea-change in what constitutes effective pedagogy and how learning is delivered to students. Articles entitled, “5 Ways that EdX Could Change Education, ” and “MOOC Mania” give you a sense of where these articles come down. One point I found interesting is that MOOC resources could potentially be used to supplement hybrid courses or even traditional courses. Such sharing could allow for a transition period where courses evolve to include more online content.  Eventually, there will be a continuous spectrum of courses utilizing digital content in teaching, even in face-to-face classes.

The EdX article also spoke of computers being used to grade computer programming code and provide students automated feedback.  This frees professors from the drudgery of grading routine assignments, hopefully so they can create new and compelling content.  Some of that content would be “gamified” to create entertaining and enjoyable environments where students can engage with real-world contexts for their learning.  An example of this is Sim City, a program that simulates managing a city for students studying this field. Students wrestle with the impact their decisions have on their virtual city, and try to cope with the consequences of their actions.  This type of program is clearly superior in learning impact to the case studies provided in books or lecturers by professors.

The article, “From Self-Flying Helicopters to Classrooms of the Future,” profiles the co-founders of Coursera, a new start-up that houses some of the largest MOOCs in existence today. The founders are two Stanford computer scientists, with a goal of transforming education from the outside. The company’s main directives are to do what’s best for students, which means keeping costs down (currently free) and giving students from around the world access to high-quality courses. In a short period of time, this company has already entered into agreements with over 30 higher-ed institutions, with an online base of over 1.5 million students. The scope of Coursera already dwarfs any brick and mortar university in the world, and more institutions are entering into agreements with them each passing month.

The Chronicle Special Report reflects a blizzard of recent new articles about these new modes of teaching and learning in the conventional and academic press. It reflects a trend that is not a passing fad, but rather, a disruptive and transformative shift in the delivery and structure of learning organizations. The flexible and innovative nature of companies like Coursera will pose even greater challenges to traditional colleges if and when they solve the crucial issues of credentialing and employment links. CUNY, and other public institutions, need to start looking at and even embracing the coming changes to teaching and learning ushered in by these “disruptive technologies.”


(October 5, 2012). “Online Learning: MOOC Madness: An Inside Look,”  Special Supplement, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from:

Note: Some of the articles  referred to in this post are designated as “premium content” by The Chronicle of Higher Education and will only be available to subscribers.


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