One of the best things about this modern age is its general spirit of technological optimism. Many folks believe that building a better mousetrap (either real or metaphorical) means a better life for all.
More than just utopian dreaming, this optimism has some economic basis to it. Technological improvement tends to reduce costs. This has its "up" side (personal computers, for instance, are priced at a fraction of what they were when they first came to market). But it also has its "down" side (these same computers now do work formerly performed by humans, thus causing what John Maynard Keynes termed "technological obsolescence" and the difficult unemployment problems that come with it).
Champions of online education definitely prefer to focus on the "up" side. They believe that distance learning is the future of higher education. Indeed, they predict that the day will come when "higher education" will necessarily mean "online education.
Motivating the drive toward online education is, of course, cost reduction. Yet this doesn't simply mean cost reduction for university administrators, but for students, as well. With tuition and fees on their way to the moon, something needs to be done to bring them back down to earth – and technology holds the most promise in this respect.
The nature of this promise recently received rather elegant expression in a September 26 article at TheAtlantic.com. "The leading universities and colleges have seen the potential in [a] mix of online and face-to-face learning, and they are investing in it via internal development rather than external acquisition," it reports.
As the technology matures and the proper balance and integration with the classroom experience emerges, Harvard and its peers will be leaders in online education, just as they are in traditional instruction and scholarship. For them, online learning will be a sustaining innovation, rather than a disruptive one.
Critical to the success, then, is the entrance of market makers into the distance-learning game. Institutions with tremendous social capital and brand recognition will drive online education toward the legitimacy its advocates so ardently wish for it, which, perhaps as a consequence of its being conventionally associated with private sector colleges and universities, has thus far eluded it.
But once Harvard, Princeton, and Yale – the holy trinity of higher education – make online education their bailiwick, it will only be a matter of time before the entire postsecondary curricular landscape is transformed.
This transformation is something anyone professing an interest in higher education ought to welcome. Whether individuals aspire to a career in public health or project management, they deserve to get the best education they can at the best price. If it means logging onto a website instead of piling into a lecture hall, so be it. (Plenary sessions are overrated, anyway.)