Is the Future of Higher Education Online AND On Campus?

future of higher educationIn the context of formal academic programs there are multiple ways you can fulfill requirements, many of which involve the use of technology for access, communication, learning assessment, and more. On campus students can enroll in an increasing number of online courses, including Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for credit, and online students are finding support in local learning centers.

I was invited to attend a Google+ roundtable session last week, sponsored by McGraw-Hill and titled “Higher Education in a Digital World: Where do we go from here?” Brian Kibby, McGraw-Hill’s Higher Education President, and Stephen Laster, Chief Digital Officer, fielded questions about the future of higher education. The continued evolution of teaching and learning technologies was among the topics addressed by the panel.

It’s been my experience, both as a student and instructor, that the lines are more blurred than ever between what can, and should, be considered online and what is on campus. I asked the McGraw-Hill panel members to weigh in on how widespread the use of technology has become from their perspectives, and the discussion sparked my interest in finding out more about current trends and how the different modes of delivery are currently defined.

What’s in a name?

It can be helpful to establish a baseline for comparison when multiple approaches or models are under consideration. For the past 10 years, The Sloan Consortium has used the following definitions to describe different types of courses in its annual survey reports on online education:

  • Traditional: “No online technology is used – content is delivered in writing or orally.”
  • Web-facilitated: “Web-based technology [is used] to facilitate what is essentially a face-to-face course.” These courses may, for example, provide some materials posted online (e.g., syllabus, assignment instructions, reading list) in a learning management system (e.g., Blackboard, Moodle).
  • Blended/Hybrid: In these courses a “substantial proportion of the content is delivered online,” with a “reduced number of face-to-face meetings.”
  • Online: “Most or all of the content is delivered online. Typically have no face-to-face meetings.”

In the context of higher education, a line is often drawn between what is online and what is on campus, but the reality is that the experiences are more integrated than you might think. Even the definition of face-to-face is up for debate. In researching a recent article about online high schools, I found references to “face-to-face” student-teacher meetings through the use of video conferencing software.

Creating Opportunity and Access

During the McGraw-Hill session students and faculty alike were described as “time starved.” This struck a familiar chord with me, and maybe for you, too. Our schedules are already often packed with work and family commitments, so adding school to the calendar is a significant challenge.

New strategies for college-level learning seek to make the most of both online and on-ground resources. These tools allow us to connect, communicate, and collaborate in person and at a distance.

Mobile Technology

McGraw-Hill’s Brian Kibby noted that most students currently “have access to at least one mobile device” and research shows that they increasingly want to use these devices for school-related tasks. A 2012 study of undergraduate technology use from EDUCAUSE found that 62% of students owned smartphones and a majority of students want to access course sites and syllabi (66%), the school’s learning management system (64%), and their course grades (57%) from their mobile devices. Mobile apps, like those from the University of Phoenix and Vanderbilt University, allow students to access their courses through a wide range of features.

Social Media

Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, are just a few of the social networks that have become popular among students and educators, as well as colleges and universities, both online and on ground. Active communities invite members to share information and expertise, collaborate on issues of common interest, and build professional networks. Recent research from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education [PDF] found that 96% of institutions are using Facebook, for example, and social media in general is being used to reach a variety of audiences from prospective students and parents to alumni and employers. Kibby highlighted the power of these tools to open new communication channels and provide access to industry leaders.

Webinars, Forums, and Databases

Online and on campus students stand to benefit from greater access to the many support services provided by their institutions. Online students have worked with online career centers and advisors for a while now, but more and more campus-based offices have established web-based counterparts. From class registration and financial aid forms to searchable library databases and live chats with advisors, online tools can extend hours of availability. Take a look at how Grand Valley State University is using Skype to answer student advising questions and an example of Capella University’s professional webinar series.

Learning Centers

For students who seek the convenience and flexibility of online learning, as well as the familiarity of meeting in person with support personnel, regional offices provide an option. Kaplan University’s Learning Centers, for example, offer a hybrid experience for selected academic programs through five regional facilities. Old Dominion University is just one traditional institution that also offers online courses and programs. This school partners with other schools and military bases to provide support for distance learning students at “nearly 50 sites in Virginia, Arizona, Washington.”

What can new students expect?

If you are thinking about enrolling in higher education, whether it’s to take a class or two, complete a certification program, or earn a degree, you have more options than ever before. New modes of delivery and the capabilities of technology engage students in a range of learning environments and activities. McGraw-Hill’s Stephen Laster, described emerging “choice-based models” that even allow you to “decide each week how you want to attend and participate.”

As technology use expands and evolves, you can also expect that some level of digital literacy will be required of all students. While most colleges and universities provide new student orientations, tutorials, and help desks to aid students with the various technologies used in their courses, you should be prepared and willing to learn these skills, as well as the content of your classes. Mozilla.org is actively working to establish web literacy standards for exploring, building, and connecting on the Web in the context of learning.

Laster expressed a desire I think many educators have. As we use technology either online or in physical classrooms, ideally it “fades into the background, so that the communication taking place moves to the forefront.” Hopefully you’ll focus on communication as a student, engaging with course content, instructors, and classmates through the best possible applications of available technologies in your online, blended, and web-enhanced courses.

Join Melissa Venable on Twitter and Google+.

Source: Inside Online Learning Blog