Technology and the Future of Higher Education

As part of UMW’s Domain of One’s Own initiative, I have been participating in weekly talks and readings about internet tools, what digital learning means for scholarship, and how it can and will impact teaching.  In talks, most of those I have heard greatly appreciate the ability for technology to facilitate communication – for learning, for teaching, for collaboration – but are skeptical that technology will ever significantly compete with the traditional higher education model of a teacher and students together in a classroom.  It doesn’t matter if the classroom is real or virtual, the model will remain the same and these technologies may greatly compliment the current model, but will not enable effect substitutes.

I wonder.  Granted, the skeptics certainly have plenty of ammunition.  For instance MOOCs – massive open online courses – have not (yet) become the substitute for higher education that many of its advocated claimed.  One of the most appealing forecasts about MOOCs was that they will bring “top-notch courses to the world’s poorest citizens and reshaping the way all students learn” (Scientific American, 2013).  True, it has this potential, but the evidence shows that this is currently more theoretical than realistic.  In a recent study of University of Pennesylvannia, Edmunds (2013) found that “83% of surveyed students already had a two- or four-year post-secondary degree” and that the education gap was even greater for students from other parts of the world.  Other studies also show very low completion rates, averaging under 7%.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that neither element changes for these massive open online classes.  Most enrollment will consist of the already highly educated and that completion rates will remain very low.  Would this eliminate MOOCs as a viable option?  No.  I’ll tackle the completion rate first.  Low completion rates do not mean MOOCs are not effective.  Let’s say I teach Principles of Marketing to 100 students a semester, two semesters a year, and 95% complete the class with a passing grade.  In one year, 190 students would have completed my principles class.  Now let’s say I carefully design a MOOC, complete with recorded lectures, interactive homework assignments, and computer simulations that allow the students to put the theoretical lessons of the text into practice.  Judging by the results of others, I expect it would be safe to estimate 4,000 people a year register (registrations 10 or 100 times larger are not unreasonable in this context if the university promotes the MOOC).  So, continuing to use conservative numbers, if only 5% of my MOOC students complete the class, 5% of 4,000 is 200 people who have gained the required skills, higher than the 190 that completed my regular principle classes.

So despite low completion rates, MOOCs may allow me to reach more students who will complete my class than traditional methods.  I suspect the low completion rates have two components.  First, it the low cost (many times free) of registering for a MOOC.  As any first-year student of economics could tell you, if you lower the price, you will have more demand.  So it is reasonable to assume that the current MOOC studies with very low completion rates may be partially explained by the fact anyone can register.  If you did not pay for the class, you also are less likely to feel bad about dropping the class.  Second, I also believe the medium does hinder completion for many people.  While the people writing the MOOCs are very comfortable with PCs, that is not necessarily true of the students.  The fact that it requires ample self-discipline and computer skills to complete a MOOC may explain the finding that most MOOC participants already have a degree.  So if this does not change, what does this imply?  With these limitations, MOOCs still show great promise for upper-division classes and continuing education for the self-disciplined with computer skills.

Keep in mind that MOOCs are just one option technology provides.  McGraw-Hill is a leader among textbook producers when it comes to interactive supplements to their textbooks.  They claim that by integrating the use of their online homework modules they can increase the class average by half a letter grade or more.  This is a substantial claim and I decided to put it to the test this semester in my Principles of Marketing class.  I replaced my normal homework assignments with Connect homework the students must do online.  Since the computer does all the grading, I allow the students to resubmit their homework as many times as they want until they are happy with their grade.  Since I set up Connect to use question pools, the students who try again, get a different set of questions and activities covering the same material – thus preventing people from quickly answering wrong answers, writing down the correct ones, and resubmitting.  The average of my first exam was indeed up half a letter grade compared to last semester.  One set of exams is hardly conclusive evidence, but since it is in line with expectations, I am optimistic and eager to see how the class does throughout the semester.

Since McGraw-Hill owns the textbooks and is creating very interesting ways to learn (the questions are not limited to basic test questions, but require students to drop and drag constructs into models, analyze video cases, and otherwise interact with the material in ways they previously could not), they are well positioned for the future.  I wonder if my grandkids will graduate from McGraw-Hill University.  Whatever the future holds, I am skeptical about the skeptics dismissing challenges to the current model.  While there will always be a place for traditional higher education , I expect it will not be the only model.  Rather, it will compete and complement multiple ways of learning and students will be able to choose the method that best fits their needs and resources.  Time will tell, but I predict my grandchildren will have multiple viable educational avenues to pursue of which some will be fully automated.