Walk Deliberately, Don't Run, Toward Online Education

March 25, 2013

A far more sophisticated observer of digital trends than I am, President John Hennessy of Stanford University, has been quoted as saying: "There's a tsunami coming. [But] I can't tell you exactly how it's going to break." Since I live on the East Coast, I am even less capable of judging tsunamis, their shape, their force, or their timing, but I, too, am convinced that online learning could be truly transformative.

What needs to be done in order to translate could into will? The principal barriers are the lack of hard evidence about both learning outcomes and potential cost savings; the lack of shared but customizable teaching and learning platforms (or tool kits); and the need for both new mind-sets and fresh thinking about models of decision making.

Lack of Hard Evidence

How effective has online learning been in improving (or at least maintaining) learning outcomes achieved by various populations of students in various settings? Unfortunately, no one really knows the answer to either that question or the important follow-up query about cost savings. Thousands of studies of online learning have been conducted, and my colleague Kelly Lack has continued to catalog them and summarize their findings.

It has proved to be a daunting task—and a discouraging one. Few of those studies are relevant to the teaching of undergraduates, and the few that are relevant almost always suffer from serious methodological deficiencies. The most common problems are small sample size; inability to control for ubiquitous selection effects; and, on the cost side, the lack of good estimates of likely cost savings.

Ms. Lack and I originally thought that full responsibility for this state of affairs rested with those who had conducted the studies. We have revised that judgment. A significant share of responsibility rests with those who have created and used the online pedagogies, since the content often does not lend itself to rigorous assessment, and offerings are rarely designed with evaluation in mind. Moreover, the gold-standard methodology—randomized trials—is both expensive and excruciatingly difficult to use on university campuses.

Also at play is what I can only call the missionary spirit. The creators of many online courses are true believers who simply want to get on with their work without being distracted by the need to assess outcomes or costs. In all fairness, I have to add that these are early days, and it is unrealistic to expect to have in hand careful assessments of potentially pathbreaking offerings, such as some of the MOOCs (massive open online courses) that have been introduced relatively recently. Still, there is no excuse for not working now on plans for rigorous third-party evaluations.

The Need for Tool Kits

There is clearly a systemwide need for sophisticated, customizable platforms that can be made widely available, maintained, upgraded, and sustained in a cost-effective manner. Yet higher education has failed to find a convincing solution to this problem, and immediate prospects for a solution are uncertain at best. In seeking to address this need, we must recognize the high probability that quite different pedagogies—and therefore somewhat different platforms—will be appropriate in subjects in which there are concrete concepts to be mastered and one right answer to many questions (for example, basic statistics), as contrasted with discursive subjects that benefit from the exchange of different points of view (e.g., the Arab-Israeli conflict).

At one point, I was much more inclined than I am at present to believe that a single platform or single tool kit might be appropriate. It now seems clear to me that the notion of a single dominant platform is unrealistic, given the entrepreneurial inclinations of numerous individuals and organizations. I now believe that such a notion is also unwise. There is much to be said for experimentation with different models and for competition among models as we search for approaches well suited to different needs. Adoption of any specific platform or platforms should be driven by a compelling strategy.

The Need for a New Mind-Set

My last category of challenges is something of a grab bag—but a useful one, I hope. Many of the specific issues mentioned in the Ithaka organization's 2012 report, "Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education," share the attribute of requiring strong institutional leadership and fresh ways of thinking about decision making.

These issues include the fact that "online instruction is alien to most faculty and calls into question the very reason that many pursued an academic career in the first place. ... They had enjoyed being students and valued the relationships that they enjoyed with their professors." Other barriers include the fear that online instruction will be used to diminish faculty ranks, and the failure to provide the right incentives for faculty members who are asked to lead online initiatives.

Hard as it sometimes is for beleaguered deans and presidents to confront challenges of those kinds, it is rarely wise to gloss over the most sensitive issues. I am convinced that a new, tougher mind-set is a prerequisite to progress. There is too strong a tendency to respond to financial pressures by economizing around the edges and putting off bigger—and harder—choices in the hope that the sun will shine tomorrow, even if the forecast is for rain.

The upward spiral of costs and tuition charges can be arrested, at least to some degree, only if presidents, provosts, and trustees make a high priority of controlling both costs and tuition increases. Academic leaders must look explicitly for strategies to lower costs. I am not saying that educational leaders lack courage (though, sadly, some do). The reality is that controlling costs is a hard sell, in part because strong forces are pushing in the opposite direction.

I continue to believe in the potential for online learning to help reduce costs without adversely affecting educational outcomes. Absent strong leadership, however, there is a high probability that any productivity gains from online education will be used to gild the educational/research lily—as has been the norm for the past 20 years.

What We Must Retain

As we contemplate a rapidly evolving world, in which greater and greater use will surely be made of online modes of teaching, I am convinced that there are central aspects of life on our traditional campuses that must be not only retained but strengthened.

First is the need to emphasize the great value of "minds rubbing against minds." We should resist efforts to overdo online instruction, important as it can be. There are, of course, both economic constraints and practical limitations on how much education can be delivered in person. But those of us who have benefited from personal interactions with brilliant teachers (some of whom became close friends), as I certainly have, can testify to the inspirational, life-changing aspects of such experiences.

The half-life of course content can be short, as we all know; but great teachers change the way their students see the world (and themselves) long after the students have forgotten formulas, theorems, and even engaging illustrations of this or that proposition. Moreover, a great advantage of residential institutions is that genuine learning occurs more or less continually, and as often, or more often, out of the classroom as in it.

That cliché, repeated by countless presidents and deans, conveys real truth. Late-night peer-to-peer exchanges offer students rare access to the perspectives of other people. As one of my greatest teachers, Jacob Viner, never tired of warning his students, "There is no limit to the amount of nonsense you can think, if you think too long alone."

My plea is for the adoption of a portfolio approach to curricular development that provides a calibrated mix of instructional styles. This mix will vary by institutional type; relatively wealthy liberal-arts colleges and selective universities can be expected to offer more in-person teaching than many others can. However, even the wealthiest, most elite colleges and universities, which seemingly can afford to stay pretty much as they are, at least in the short run, should ask if failing to participate in the evolution of online-learning models is to their advantage, or even realistic, in the long run.

Their students, along with others of their generation, will expect to use digital resources—and to be trained in their use. And as technologies grow increasingly sophisticated, and we learn more about how students learn and what pedagogical methods work best in various fields, even top-tier institutions will stand to gain from the use of such technologies to improve student learning.

Second, we must retain, whatever the provocations, the unswerving commitment of great colleges and universities to freedom of thought—as exemplified so clearly by my great friend of so many years Richard Lyman, Stanford's seventh president, who died last May. He stood resolutely for civility and protection of the rights of all. When he was compelled to summon the police to curb an over-the-edge demonstration, in 1969, his action was applauded by some, but he thought the applause was misplaced. President Lyman said: "Anytime it becomes necessary for a university to summon the police, a defeat has taken place. The victory we seek at Stanford is not like a military victory; it is a victory of reason and the examined life over unreason and the tyranny of coercion."

Third, our colleges and universities should focus unashamedly on values as well as on knowledge—and we should spend more time than we usually do considering how best to do this. This is most definitely not a plea for pontificating. When President Robert Maynard Hutchins was urged to teach his students at the University of Chicago to do this, that, or the other thing, he demurred, explaining: "All attempts to teach character directly will fail. They degenerate into vague exhortations to be good, which leave the bored listener with a desire to commit outrages which would otherwise have never occurred to him."

I return, finally (which one of my friends called the most beautiful word in the English language), to the question of whether online learning is a remedy for what ails higher education. My answer: no, not by itself. But it can be part of an answer. It is certainly no panacea for this country's deep-­seated educational problems, which are rooted in social issues, fiscal dilemmas, and national priorities, as well as historical practices.

In the case of a topic as active as online learning, we should expect inflated claims of spectacular successes—and of blatant failures. What the humorist Kin Hubbard famously said about those who claim certain knowledge of monetary matters can be applied to online learning: "Only one fellow in 10,000 understands the currency question, and we meet him every day."

There is a real danger that the media frenzy associated with MOOCs will lead some colleges (and, especially, business-oriented members of their boards) to embrace too tightly the MOOC approach before it is adequately tested and found to be both sustainable and capable of delivering good learning outcomes for all kinds of students.

Uncertainties notwithstanding, it is clear to me that online systems have great potential. Vigorous efforts should be made to explore further uses of both the relatively simple systems that are proliferating all around us, often to good effect, and sophisticated systems that are still in their infancy—systems sure to improve over time.

In these explorations, I would urge us not to hesitate to experiment, but always to insist on assessments of outcomes. I would also urge us to think in terms of systemwide approaches—and to exercise that rarest of virtues, patience.

William G. Bowen is president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton University and founding chairman of ITHAKA. This essay was adapted from Higher Education in the Digital Age, published this month by Princeton University Press. © 2013 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.