Administration

How ‘Elite’ Universities Are Using Online Education

April 10, 2015

After years of skepticism, higher education’s upper class has finally decided that online learning is going to play an important role in its future. But what will that role be?

Recently, conversations about "elite" online education have revolved around the free online courses, aka MOOCs, which Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and dozens of other top universities started offering several years ago. But it soon became clear that high marks in those courses would not translate to academic credit at the institutions offering them (or anywhere else).

So how exactly does online education figure into the future of elite higher education? Judging by what we’ve seen so far, the answer can be divided into three parts.

1. Free online courses for everyone.

MOOCs are the McMansions of online higher education — capacious, impressive-looking, and easy to supply to the masses once professors have drawn up the blueprints.

Families who want to work with the architects directly are not opting for a sequence of free online courses instead of an exclusive residential program that ends with a degree. Even if the MOOCs lose money, wealthier universities can afford to take a hit — especially if it means increasing their visibility in valuable overseas markets.

Despite their flagging hype, MOOCs remain very popular. Top institutions will probably continue to build them.

2. Paid online courses for professional graduate programs.

Yale University recently unveiled a new master’s program for aspiring physician assistants, offered through its medical school. The program will also involve a lot of fieldwork, but much of the academic coursework will be delivered online. It is the second program Yale has created along these lines; the other is a partially online doctoral degree in nursing, which the university announced in 2011.

Degrees in fields like health care and teaching are in high demand, and many lesser-known players have grabbed big chunks of that market online by assuring prospective students that they can go back to school without upending their lives. Yale is not alone in its effort to claim its slice of the pie; graduate schools at the Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, the University of California at Berkeley, and others have also started offering online versions of their professional master’s programs.

Online does not fundamentally threaten the appeal of professional programs, where the "student experience" is not as sacrosanct as it is at undergraduate colleges. Most people who enroll are working adults who already went through dorm life and student organizations and late-night philosophical chats with future members of their wedding parties. They are now mainly interested in learning a trade.

3. Online components in face-to-face undergraduate courses.

In November 2012, a consortium of 10 prestigious colleges announced that they would collaborate with 2U, an online "enabler" company, to build fully online courses that undergraduates could take for credit. The stigma on virtual learning had faded enough that administrators at those colleges — Duke University, Emory University, Washington University in St. Louis, and others — were willing to give it a shot.

A year and a half later, the consortium was kaput. The faculty at Duke nixed the partnership with 2U. Other colleges went ahead with the experiment, but quickly came to a verdict: Thanks, but no thanks.

That does not mean online education has no role to play in undergraduate courses. This spring, Bowdoin College is offering a partially online course in financial accounting, taught remotely by a professor at Dartmouth College’s business school. (The Maine college is supplementing those online sessions with weekly meetings on campus, led by a member its own faculty.) Selective outsourcing could become a trend at top colleges that want to add (or license) specialized courses without hiring new professors.

For the most part, though, it appears as if online education for undergraduates at "elite" colleges will mostly be dictated by individual professors introducing digital teaching techniques, such as video lectures and online quizzes, at their discretion.

Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.