Could residential four-year higher education go the way of the dodo? It appears that it just might. Distance learning, primarily in the form of online education, has come on strong in recent years.
An October 10, 2011 U.S. News and World Report article offers a sense of how strenuously online education has exerted itself:
[B]etween 2000 and 2008, the percentage of undergraduate students who took at least one web-based class increased from 8% to 20%. In this time, the number of students who were enrolled in 100% online degree programs rose from 2% to 4%.
This information comes courtesy of a report recently published by the National Center for Education (NCES).
The NCES study further revealed that the typical selling points for online education – it's convenience and flexibility – are more than mere marketing buzzwords; a real perception of precisely those qualities does indeed attend distance learning.
Of course, distance learning doesn't yet enjoy across-the-board esteem. It's most popular among business majors, who account for 24 percent of online enrollment, and general studies degree seeker, who account for another 23 percent.
The NCES study also found that distance learning remains far more popular among students attending two-year institutions than it is among those attending four-year.
The increased prevalence of distance learning in the curriculum of various postsecondary institutions could be interpreted as a sign that the day of "brick-and-mortar" colleges are numbered. But does this interpretation smack more of ideological projection than of sober assessment of developing trends? Couldn't it turn out that, rather than supplanting traditional residential higher education, online education could enter into harmonious synergy with the latter?
This second question reflects the view expressed in an October 9, 2011 article in The Daily Trojan (the student newspaper of The University of Southern California, which characterizes the more radical issue of the replacement of residential with distance learning as "a close-minded view" of things, primarily because "[h]igher learning ... is about a level of personal interaction and commitment that can’t be recreated online."
The Daily Trojan article instead advocates a blended face-to-face and online curriculum for reason of "its innovative potential" that universities would be wise to "recognize and seize." Indeed, the article continues, "[t]he idea of a virtual university should not replace the traditional, but instead should merge with it."
The debate concerning the relative merits between distance and residential learning appears destined to rage for some time yet, especially considering that the various terms of the debate are pulled hither and thither by competing and often contradictory claims. Institutions increasingly have their eye on the bottom line and thus are constantly looking to cut overhead. Cut too much, however, and the proverbial baby departs with the proverbial bath water. People will always pay more for a real experience than for its virtue equivalent, no matter whether that experience happens to be sensual or intellectual.