Online Education May Transform Higher Ed

The industry has experienced growing pains but may be on the path to maturity.

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Can online education be the rock that disturbs the placid waters of American higher education? Several industry experts believe it will have a significant ripple effect on colleges and universities of all sizes in coming years—but only if it's subject to regulation, governed by a common set of accreditation standards, and widely accepted by institutions who have long clung to the traditional face-to-face model of instruction. 

Citing the vast online enrollment gains made by for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, Louis Soares, director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, recently dubbed online education a potential "disruptive innovator" in the higher ed landscape. Much in the way cell phones disrupted the traditional landline-based model or discount retailers like Wal-Mart revolutionized the nation's retail market, the for-profit sector—though a subject of intense scrutiny in recent years—has driven changes that could greatly affect the world of higher education, Soares argues. 

"A disruptive innovation always starts out at a lower quality," he says. "[But], if you take that for-profit energy out of higher education, online [education] wouldn't have grown the way it has in the last 10 years." 

[Read about the partisan battle over for-profit education.] 

In the coming decade, experts say, college students should expect an increased presence of online classes at traditional nonprofit schools. Already, about 30 percent of American college students take at least one course online, says Elaine Allen, statistical director of the Sloan Survey on Online Education, which monitors student involvement in online higher education. 

Though wholly online programs generally target nontraditional students, established institutions that are populated by traditional, high-achieving students are starting to embrace the technology. The University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill and the University of Southern California are among the highly regarded schools that have recently adopted online-centric programs. 

Efforts made by such schools are not the culmination of a movement online, but rather a hint of inroads into a new market, experts say. "We're at the beginning of elite schools starting to take online seriously," says Richard Garrett, managing director at research firm Eduventures. "They're trying to marry the online experience with the brand of the institution." 

As technological capabilities expand and more traditional schools embrace online education in the coming years, schools may opt to replace many of their massive, entry-level courses that are traditionally taught in vast lecture halls and are characterized by little to no individual interaction between students and professors, experts say. "Is there a secret sauce to a professor sitting in front of 400 students and lecturing that couldn't be [replicated] online?" asks Soares, of the Center for American Progress. 

[Learn about the effectiveness of blended learning.] 

Standardized methods for training professors to teach online is another potential change on the horizon, and one that is essential to online education's future viability, experts claim. Currently, there is no standard for training professors to teach online courses. That need could be met by an association of online schools introducing a pedagogy or could be regulated by an accrediting body, says the Sloan Survey's Allen. 

It's a void that will need to be filled for the quality of online education to increase and for online instruction to be widely accepted at mainstream universities, she says. "Training is all over the map," Allen adds. "We need to do something about that to address quality." 

Ultimately, much of the change will hinge on for-profit institutions' transparency regarding their students' outcomes after graduation. The Department of Education's long delayed and hotly debated "gainful employment" regulations, meant to force for-profit schools to share how their students have fared post-graduation, is a "tipping point" in the evolution of online education, Garrett says.