Will Online Learning Save Higher Education (and does it need saving)?

A lot (an awful lot) of education industry rag real estate has been devoted to the topics of online learning, MOOC’s, Udacity, edX, etc., etc. and to the uninitiated you’d think that the education equivalent of the cure for cancer had been discovered. There are certainly skeptics (whose voice is usually swiftly trampled upon by the masses) who feel we could over steer and damage or destroy something vital to teaching and learning (i.e. the classroom experience and direct interaction with human beings known as instructors), but for the most part prevailing opinion seems to be that online learning will take over the world and that higher education will never be the same.

Now I’m sure that since you all know I work for a technology company you think I’m going to come down hard on the side of online learning proselytizers. Yes, I do believe that this revolution can and will provide access to massive numbers of individuals that either couldn’t afford (from a fiscal or time perspective) a traditional education, and that in some cases the online modality will actually be an improvement over certain traditional forms (such as courses taught by an adjunct or teaching assistant that has no business being a teacher).

But I think several things need immediate attention or we’re likely to get so caught up in the delivery that we miss some of the real issues (and opportunities) around online learning. First and foremost, we’ve got to give some thought to how traditional information systems are going to accommodate thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands) of individual students each taking courses from many, many different “deliverers” with an expectation that successful completion of these courses will result in credit at many or most institutions. There’s also a huge opportunity to refine the delivery platform (no, LMS is not a commodity when you are talking about online delivery being your sole mode of operation) as well as the course itself by mining all kinds of data from the interactions that the students have with the material each time they take it. Social data analytics tools will be key in achieving this goal. What about accreditation (badging or competencies vs. traditional degrees)? And again, will the information systems in place today adapt to changes in this area fast enough?

The type of scale that this shift in learning could drive has the potential to abruptly overwhelm just about every system in place today in higher education. I would like to (with a not so gentle reminder) refer you back to a blog entry I wrote when I first stepped into my current role at Oracle in which I talked about how higher ed needs an “Oracle” more than at any other time in it’s evolution (despite the somewhat mercantilist reputation it has in some circles). There just aren’t that many organizations that can deliver the kinds of solutions “at scale” that this brave new world of online education will demand. The future may be closer than we think.

Cole

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Comments, news, updates and perspectives from Oracle's global vice president of the education and research industry--which includes higher education, research, and primary/secondary education (K-12) organizations worldwide.

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