By Ronald L. Trowbridge
March 24, 2013
Digital learning to higher education will become what the forward pass was to football: It will revolutionize education.
A professor at Northwestern University asserted: “I predict the mandatory back to campus/back to debt move-in will soon become extinct for all except the elite. It will be more common for students to click on a course from their parents’ basement.”
On March 20, a bill was introduced in the California Legislature that requires public universities in California to award credit for courses taken online from other institutions, both public and private. Students may select this option if a needed course at their school is full or is not offered online by their college.
The New York Times reports that if the bill passes, “as seems likely, it would be the first time that state legislators have instructed public universities to grant credit for courses that were not their own – including those taught by a private vendor, not by a college or university.” Students might, therefore, opt to take online classes from Harvard or MIT or from Oxford University in England. What is truly remarkable about this is that local education can now become national and international – from the best courses offered in the world.
Another advantage to this California model is that academic advancement can be based, not on seat-time in a classroom, but on actual achievement. In the words of one scholar, the modularized university will enable “the spread of degrees built on externally credentialed courses that identify measurable competence.”
In a related matter, the state of Wisconsin has recently launched the UW Flexible Degree program that is based on students’ “competency-based completion” rather than on seat time. The program will “benefit highly motivated students who are able to move through course materials at a faster pace.” The conventional system treats all students as one monolithic entity where one size fits all.
This model will also help low-income and working students because it will enable them to get a degree or certificate faster and cheaper.
On March 19, in a revolutionary “Dear Colleague” letter, David Bergeron, acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education, wrote that the U. S. Department of Education endorses the competency-based model as an alternative to seat-time credits and will provide financial aid for eligible programs. “The Department,” says Bergeron, “plans to collaborate with both accrediting agencies and the higher education community to encourage the use of this innovative approach.”
In Texas, rapidly growing numbers of students are taking classes online with computers in their homes or offices. The model for the future is shifting toward “hybrid courses” where students combine face-to-face classroom instruction with work done on computers at home or work. So students will attend the classroom, say, on Tuesday, but on Thursday do the course work at home.
As computers become more integrated into the educational process, student costs will drop.
Online modularized education will better equip students with skills that employers actually value. But there is a mammoth downside here: What will happen to a liberal arts education? As a former English professor, I must ask: How does one teach Shakespeare online?
In their book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa demonstrate that in the areas of “critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and writing,” college students generally do poorly. As a college teacher for 26 years, I can certainly confirm that. I can see how these student deficiencies might be addressed face-to-face with students in the classroom, but I’m not certain how online instruction would handle such shortcomings.
Still, the California model of online access to some of the best courses, public and private, offered in the world is intellectually exciting, and I hope that Texas follows California’s lead. From the student’s basement, he or she can learn, as Matthew Arnold put it, from “the best thought and said” in the world.
Trowbridge is a senior fellow, Center for College Affordability and Productivity.