I have been reading lots of articles recently on online education – how colleges must adapt and how Massively Open Online Classes (known as MOOCs) are the future. As someone who has been involved with the Internet and Web since the early ’90s, I know the power of offering online education, and I have benefited greatly from the knowledge that has been shared online. I would not be able to do what I do – teach at a university in an area that is progressive and constantly changing – without the benefit of online learning. It has been one of the most important aspects of my lifelong learning strategy.
I am also someone who understands the benefits and sacrifices associated with education. I have spent more than $100k on my education, most of which was borrowed, in order to have the career I now have and love. That doesn’t include the opportunity cost of such academic endeavors, lost income I could have had working a job while I was whiling away in the classroom. So, my education – like that of millions of others – has come at great personal expense and commitment. But my educational experiences are something I wouldn’t trade for the world.
I am reading articles in which others are talking about the challenges ahead for universities in the same way they talk about the challenges for the music, publishing or other entertainment industries. They say we must adapt or face the same fate. Adaptation is an exciting reality of our time. We must constantly re-consider, re-evaluate and innovate, no matter what your field, in order to stay relevant. In this, I wholeheartedly agree. Innovation and disruption have been the cornerstone of my academic approach.
But I want to offer some words of caution as I think about the differences between what we do at a university and the problems of the entertainment industries. As someone who follows closely the challenges facing musicians, I know that the argument for them is often that the old model of mass publishing of music won’t work. You can’t go into a studio, work for a few weeks or months, deliver a product, and live off of it like an annuity as each “unit” sells while you hang out at the beach. It’s the live performance to which they must return. Musicians have to be great live, create experiences that are magical and bring people together in ways that they can’t recreate in an online situation. They must create an engaged fan base. For musicians, this involves touring, and touring is hard work. It used to be that you toured hard early in your career, with the hope that once you “made it,” you could slow down, reap the financial benefits of all those “annuities” and crank up the tour bus once every few years to keep the fans wanting more. Now, touring and all its associations (merchandise, promotion) are the main revenue streams throughout a musician’s career. It’s highly competitive, with the changing tastes, preferences and ages of fickle fans dictating who is in and who is out.
But the bright side is, you can share your music with more people over a broader spectrum. Hopefully they will come to your show when you come to town, and maybe they will share their fanatic love with their friends (probably via social media) to virally spread the word for you.
So, let’s look at how education works. Educators perform live in the classroom every day. They have to prepare, adjust, adapt. They have to try new ways to connect with students. They create magical experiences in which people come together and share ideas. They create situations that are difficult to recreate online. So, I hesitate to rally around a completely online model and move too quickly in that direction without careful thought, when our current model represents the future for other industries. It’s supposed to be what we already do best.
Here are the differences. College students are often captive audiences for core or required classes. For the electives, you tend to find out which profs are better, more well liked, more popular (sometimes via social media), but with limited course offerings, classes fill up regardless of the quality of the experience. So, students don’t have the same choice that music fans have as to whether to attend a “live performance” other than perhaps in their selection of institution or major. There’s not the same competition for one’s time when there is such little choice. Quality varies from university to university and within universities and programs. And the definition of quality can be debated. Is it the toughest experience or the easiest? The one in which you are challenged the most, the most progressive or the one that you adapted to most easily? Course evaluations attempt to measure this, but are imperfect. There are no easy answers, and this is much like defining what is “good music” or the elements of a great “live experience.” It varies depending on the user.
College is an experience in and of itself. Legions of young people have viewed it as a rite of passage: the first time they are on their own, leaving the comforts of family and hometown, meeting new and different people, learning about new and different topics and ideas. There are many aspects of this scenario, like confidence-building, finding one’s passion, self examination, but there is also partying and fun. There is no online experience that will replace this. And, college graduates still make more money over the course of their careers in aggregate than those who do not earn degrees.
So, here’s what we have in common with the music industry. The Internet will transform education. It already has. We communicate differently. We approach our subjects differently. Some courses, or portions of courses, are and will increasingly be delivered online. This will change the model of education and will create competition amongst and within universities. The best professors will still be able to do what they do best, delivering lectures, working in labs, meeting with students, developing experiential projects, moderating peer-led activities – creating these magical, in person experiences for students that can’t be recreated in an online environment. And those who don’t do those things will be replaced, in many cases by an online course, that is led by someone who has the skill set to make those experiences as meaningful as possible. Don’t forget, there still has to be someone grading work, communicating with students and creating the content. You can’t just post a course online once and then let it run indefinitely. It has to be effectively moderated and updated over time. I know that some subjects lend toward regular updating more than others, but I would argue that even well established fields like history and liberal arts need innovators in course development. There are always new ways to conceive and deliver.
Throughout my career, my courses have been completely open. I have public websites in which all my course materials are presented. For example, someone could visit cindyroyal.com/webdesign, download all my handouts, do all the projects and learn how to make a website. To my knowledge, no one outside of my registered students has done that. Kudos to you if you have! But the value comes in my ability to work with and assist students in the lab, helping them achieve their creative vision, getting them over particularly difficult humps, inspiring them to solve their own problems and helping them envision a future in which these skills and experiences will be valuable.
In some classes, I have experimented with various online interaction tools like chats and Hangouts. After each experience, I ask students for feedback. Most say that they appreciated the chance to avoid the commute, have class in their pajamas – but most also adamantly proclaim that they wouldn’t want to do an entire class, let alone an entire degree, in this manner.
Research is definitely a problem at most universities. The acquisition of knowledge and contribution to the body of knowledge should be a primary mission of a university. But in many places, research is a grinding process of publication in obscure journals with limited access and few readers. Unlike musicians, we don’t typically get paid for this “annuity,” but we do get the chance to keep our jobs via the tenure process. Unless we publish a textbook or, in some cases, write another type of book, we generally don’t generate additional financial benefit from our researching activities. Grants are another option, but they are typically used to directly fund the research so we can write more articles. And, if not monitored, research can become the driving force of an institution, outweighing the emphasis on teaching. This demeans what is being done in thousands of classrooms where teachers are creating valuable experiences and linking them to relevant knowledge.
There are many people who have opted out of a college education and have gone on to be extremely successful, so college is not the only route. It’s also not a system in which you enter and leave with a single goal in mind. It’s a transformative and soul-searching process that has served many people well. But it is also very expensive and time-consuming. We need to provide the strongest value to what we offer. Some of that will be online, and we can reap any economies of scale that this offers. But some of it will still need to be delivered in person – where students and faculty sit across a table and work out a problem, share ideas or just learn more about one another.
Another aspect of the “in-person experience” is the contacts one makes. I definitely encourage students to make strong connections with professionals via social media, but I also ask that they augment their networks by attending events and making “in real life” contacts. Students can gain access to the networks of their faculty as well as fellow students and others in the university community that can make a difference in their employability throughout their lives.
As I said above, I use online learning for a variety of reasons. I pick and chose what I need – a just-in-time model. This distance education model works well for someone who has a foundation, is firmly ensconced in a career and needs to update skills when necessary. This will become more critical as our workforce needs to respond more quickly to changes. But I also often sign up for in-person workshops and conferences when it makes sense, so I can gain from the benefits of the live experience. I can’t learn everything I need to know this way, but I do appreciate it when I can.
Yes, college is expensive and can come at great personal sacrifice. We should focus efforts on how to make education more accessible to more people over a lifetime. But we need to be careful to keep what we do best and improve with online methods where it’s appropriate. In an ever increasing online world, we tend to cherish the meaningful in-person experiences the most.