"Imagine waking up two mornings a week and, instead of walking to Cohen Auditorium for your Biology 13 class, opening your laptop and watching the lecture from the comfort of your room," begins an article in the December 7, 2010 edition of The Tufts Daily, the independent student newspaper for Tufts University. "This might sound like an unlikely scenario on the Hill, but streamed lectures are becoming more and more of a reality at private and public colleges alike." Whether "on the Hill" or off, Generation YouTube has spoken, it seems, and they have done so by voting with their laptops.
Increasingly, residential brick and mortar institutions have been taking on many of their online counterparts' trappings. And why not? Brick and mortar schools have the resources and infrastructure -- bandwidth, servers, wi-fi --so if they spare sleepy coeds a schlep to their 8:00 AM Asian history lecture, so much the better.
The Tufts Daily likewise observes that as brick and mortar institutions continue to exploit the virtues of distance learning the line between online and traditional instructional delivery methods have begun to blur.
While [sic] online education is often associated with "non-traditional" college careers such as the education of older individuals and those looking for job-specific training — it has recently been implemented in a number of more-traditional institutions.
According to a 2009 study by the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit organization devoted to enhancing online education in higher education, 4.6 million students took at least one college course online during the fall 2008 term. Web-based courses played a larger role for public institutions, with 74 percent of such schools believing that online learning is critical for their long-term strategy. In comparison, 51 percent of private for-profit institutions and 50 percent of private nonprofit institutions agreed with that statement.
Necessity shows itself the mother of invention once again. Driving this push to blend online with traditional instruction is money -- or, more accurately, the lack of it. Public universities have emerged as the vanguard of this instructional initiative as they seek ways to contend with dwindling trickles of revenue from state governments. "One reason behind the recent increase in online classes is the decrease in state funds made available to public institutions," the Tufts Daily story continues. "State schools have more students registered for classes than they have resources with which to provide classrooms and teachers."
State schools find themselves confronted with the age-old economic problem of reconciling supply and demand, and the readiest, easiest way they've found to so do is to transform the means by which this supply is delivered to those demanding it. In the case of instruction, this means de-emphasizing the importance of physical presence across the board. Professors need not be in the same room or lecture hall as students, or vice versa -- even if students physically reside on campus -- because distance learning can happen over a whole variety of distances, from twenty feet to 20,000 miles. And if the only alternative remains to pile even more bodies into already jam-packed lecture halls, the relative space and comfort of a dorm room becomes only all the more appealing. After all, who would want to enroll in a course scheduled to convene at the school's football stadium?
If universities are to avoid the arena-rock model of instructional delivery, then their only recourse is to the Internet. This solution, however, breeds certain problems of its own. Should actual physical presence continue to be de-emphasized in favor of virtual class attendance -- logging on to videorecorded lecture feeds, participating in course forums -- the incentive for students' actual residence on campus, a vital source of money for most brick and mortal schools, will pretty much disappear, leaving these schools scrambling to make up in some way the financial shortfall. Online institutions, on the other hand, do not face the same problem; their resources, mostly already de-materialized, thus grants them an enormous competitive advantage. Attending class in your pajamas may soon no longer be merely a caprice of youth, but one of an institution's most attractive selling points.