As another week of online higher education news fades from view, we pause to consider any lingering impressions.
Online education is catching on at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels. This burgeoning popularity must have something to do with the versatility of the instructional delivery method. "Virtual education offers opportunities for primary and secondary students at both ends of the learning spectrum," reports an October 14, 2011 New York Times article. "It allows more advanced students to take courses beyond their grade level or to study subjects their school districts might not offer. For students who are struggling, it can provide crucial supplemental or remedial help outside of the school walls. And for students ... who require different styles of teaching that a traditional classroom cannot provide, its flexibility can be a godsend."
Flexibility is certainly one of distance learning's signal virtues. It means liberation from constraints, whether those are physical, geographical or financial. Yet this virtue may just spell its demise if officials and policy-makers show themselves not terribly robust to the changes such technology makes necessary. The New York Times article reports how virtual eduation "threatens many concepts that are fundamental to the identity of public education: districts defined by geographic boundaries and brick-and-mortar buildings."
Though the New York Times article points out that distance learning represents "a policy maze" through which "state lawmakers, school leaders and educators across the country" must navigate, the industry itself takes no heed of this. Indeed, "the number of students enrolled in virtual courses is growing," which means that distance learning faces the danger of being slow-walked by authorities into desuetude, and this will leave millions of students without an equally attractive edcuational option before them.
Interests in the private sector have thus mobilized to offset this trepidation and lethargy displayed in the private sector. Instrumental to the former's success is somehow driving down the cost associated with pursuing a degree online.
Distance learning already enjoys a cost advantage over residential learning, but many institutions in the former sector would like to see that advantage increase and are forming strategic partnerships with other interests to accomplish this. "Western Governors University recently announced ... that it has formed a partnership with TechAmerica to make bachelor's and master's degrees in business and information technology more affordable," reports an October 13, 2011 U.S. News and World Report article. "Under this partnership, TechAmerica members will not need to pay the school's $65 application fee and will receive 5% off the tuition price. Additionally, these students will have the chance to to apply for one of 20 scholarships, which are valued at $2,500."
Trimming associated fees and charges is one way to open a greater cost advantage over residential education. How attractive or popular this measure will prove of course remains to be seen.
Advantages in pricing may ultimately amount to precious little, however, if certain vested interests flex their political muscle in order to prevent distance learning's further penetration of the market. Conditions in the Golden State are shaping up to test this very scenario. "The specter and promise of online education is perhaps nowhere more deeply felt than in California, where campus administrators and instructors are faced with a bloodletting," reports an October 11, 2011 Inside Higher Ed article. "University of California officials have suggested that the system will have to innovate out of the current financial crisis by expanding online programs. (State house analysts agree.) Instructors, meanwhile, are terrified that this is code for cutting their pay, or increasing their workloads, or outsourcing their jobs to interlopers, or replacing them with online teaching software."
Luddite-like reaction to technological development tends to win to a cause more enemies than converts, and there's no compelling reason to believe this will fail to hold true in the case of distance learning. Whatever the future holds for higher education, it's safe to say that it will not resemble that which those alive now are accustomed to.