Rethinking Higher Ed Open Online Learning

More universities should develop high-quality, interactive, for-credit, online degree programs.

U.S. News has made changes to the surveys for Top Online Education Programs.
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Karen Symms Gallagher is dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.

With the rush of pronouncements, you'd think Higher Ed 2.0 is here, all online, all the time. Brick-and-mortar and ivy are passé.

Not so fast. Much of what's touted as innovation in traditional higher education falls short for students seeking high-quality online degrees that will serve them in a tough job market.

It's worth decoding what's out there and what isn't.

Professors at MIT, Stanford, and Harvard and many fine academic minds have put thousands of top-notch college courses online. Millions of people around the world watch classes ranging from astronomy to cryptology and game theory. "Massive open online courses" bring some of the most brilliant lectures in the world to people who may never set foot on an elite university campus.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is a College Degree Still Worth It?]

Logging on to these lectures is often like watching through a one-way mirror—albeit for free and, say, with 15,000 classmates. Coursera, EdX, Udacity, and others are providing courses, but they are not providing the kind of lively, participatory learning that today's technology makes possible.

I can't help thinking that the massive open online course explosion so far is a bigger, better delivery system of The Great Courses, which my husband and I have enjoyed for years. Great Courses has sold tapes of the best classes from Stanford, Oxford, Princeton, and others for 20 years.

Some open online courses award students a certificate of participation, an academic currency without much heft in today's job market. Only a small handful of courses give students credit toward a degree.

[See the U.S. News Top Online Education Programs.]

But that's not what worries me about open online courses. What troubles me is the fig leaf that they provide higher ed leaders who appear to be embracing the full promise of online learning while actually doing little more than installing cameras and brighter lighting in the most popular classes. So much more is possible.

Many higher ed leaders have yet to fully embrace the challenge and the promise of the digital revolution, because it's hard. It takes a willingness to rethink how we've been teaching since Socrates. It requires a willingness to restructure and re-examine decades, sometimes centuries, of conventional wisdom about how students learn. It requires updating longstanding curriculum to match today's digital native students.

Most of all, embracing the promise of online learning requires leadership. It calls for the hard work of cultivating and winning over skeptical faculty, who are some of the most talented and change-averse people on campuses today. And while I salute the free availability of greater knowledge on the web, we in higher ed must be forthright in saying that providing high-quality, fully interactive degree programs online is costly and, at this point, cannot be free.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Foreign STEM Graduates Get Green Cards?]

At the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, we have found our answer: online education is delivered live in real-time with students and the instructor appearing on screen simultaneously (think "The Brady Bunch"), connected, conversing, and learning. There are chat rooms, small group discussions, multi-media presentations, videos. We also provide self-paced course material, but that's not the core of the educational experience. And, most critical, it is combined with in-real-classrooms fieldwork for each student from the beginning of the program.

Delivered through the educational technology company 2U, our virtual classroom allows us to offer the same rigorous graduate degrees with the same faculty and same curriculum as we do on campus, and it demands that students do just as much as they would if they attended courses on campus. We even have students who live in Los Angeles and choose the online program (but that may say something about the LA traffic).