Experts Predict More Remote Learning, Despite Concerns About Its Effects

July 27, 2012

The college experience of 2020 will further shift from in-person lectures on brick-and-mortar campuses in favor of Web-based learning, according to a majority of technology experts, education administrators, and Internet users who responded to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and Elon University.

Sixty percent of the 1,021 respondents agreed with a statement predicting that technology will have a powerful influence on education in the coming decade, foreseeing "mass adoption" of online classes, and graduation requirements customized to individual learning. Thirty-nine percent sided with a contrasting prediction that institutions will incorporate new technology without changing educational paradigms.

Regardless of which prediction they chose, participants were doubtful that adopting technology was best for students.

The findings are described in a new report, "The Future Impact of the Internet on Higher Education,"which is part of a continuing study by researchers at Elon and the Pew center's Internet & American Life Project.

The researchers posed the two scenarios to elicit a variety of opinions on technology's role in higher education. Written comments from the survey revealed that most participants expected reality would be somewhere in between the two options. The extent of change in higher education, according to comment themes, hinges on institutions' responsiveness to new technology, the success of new business models, and the effectiveness of remote learning.

A common opinion among respondents, regardless of their favored scenario, was disdain for online classes. Respondents felt that such formats "will lack the personal, face-to-face touch they feel is necessary for effective education," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project.

Tapio Varis, a professor emeritus at Finland's University of Tampere and a research associate with the United Nations, wrote in his survey response that "traditional face-to-face higher education will become a privilege of a few." Many other respondents expressed similar concerns and added that decreasing traditional classroom learning would disproportionally leave students from the lower- and middle-socioeconomic classes to learn online, increasing the educational divide.

In contrast, some respondents championed the idea that Web-based education could increase access to the lectures of top experts in academe. Technology will create "more opportunities for students to connect to others—mentors, peers, sources—for enhanced learning experiences," wrote Charlie Firestone, executive director of the Communications and Society program at the Aspen Institute, in his survey response.

Despite debate of the educational value, many respondents felt that new experiments with higher education delving into the digital world were necessary amid economic realities and dwindling applicants.

"If traditional universities don't move in this direction," one anonymous respondent wrote, " they will find themselves facing daunting start-up competitors who will deliver educational value at lower prices for students coming from a contracting middle class."