Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Is totally online at the top of the learning technology food chain?

Both Burks Oakley and Curtis Bonk really promoted totally online in their presentations. In his afternoon talk, one of the schemas that Curtis presented had "virtual university" as the end form in an 11-step transformation process. In this post I want to make two arguments for totally online, based on social need. In the post tomorrow, I'll critique the point of view I articulate here. In both cases I'm sure I wouldn't get the complete endorsement of either Curtis or Burks in what I argue. That is ok. They come at this from a different angle than I do.

Let's begin with the notion of lifelong learning and focus on education that is post the bachelors degree. There are two types of formal education to consider: (1) Education that is the production of general human capital, i.e., the degree (or certificate) has value in the labor market. The education is viewed as an investment that is at least implicitly paid for by the higher wages received by the person getting that education. (2) Education that is direct consumption. It makes life better. It contributes to human well being. There need not be a degree or certificate associated with this type of education.

In the first category, the most obvious instance is continuing education within a profession that is mandated by the professional associations and/or licensing bodies. This sort of thing exists, for example, in veterinary medicine. One could envision that it would come to pass in other professions, such as Law, where the Bar Association might require lawyers to take refresher courses to become acquainted with new law, or, like the Department of Motor Vehicles, to assure that previously certified lawyers "can drive" proficiently. It's not hard to imagine that serious ethics training of some sort be delivered in this manner.

If we focus on continuing professional education of this sort, then totally online has a lot to commend for itself, especially if there is some external test that would validate the education. Totally online is clearly the least disruptive educational format - the learners can continue in their line of work while they attend classes. And if reputable institutions offered the education, there would be some quality assurance mechanism in the teaching. I fully expect this area to grow. The pace will be dictated by the professional associations themselves.

A second instance would again be professional development in some vertical, but this time not associated with certification by some profession. The executive MBA comes to mind here and one can envision a variety of business certificate programs that might provide a similar function for those who aspire to be business executives. The growth of this sort of thing long term depends critically on how the labor market (which might be internal to a firm, or public sector) perceives this formal education. Some of that will be tied to general economic conditions, but because the education is readily verifiable, it can serve as a prerequisite for climbing to higher rungs in the job ladder. Again, totally online has a lot to commend for itself in that the individuals can be working at the same time they are taking courses. I would argue further that in these circumstances less than 100% retention might be a good thing as completing an online program might also serve as a signal that the employee is serious and diligent.

A third instance would be switching fields of work. Our economy depends critically on the idea of labor mobility. This concept doesn't refer so much to geographic movement as it does to the changing from one field of endeavor to another as labor demand patterns change. My own view is that as the population becomes more gray, senior citizens will increasing find that they work, partly for the income and partly for the sense of fulfillment. The time of retirement might mark a time of career change. If formal education is needed to be successful in the next occupation, there might be substantial demand from seniors who plan to reenter the labor force. Now the argument for totally online is somewhat different. It is a convenience thing. The seniors likely wouldn't be residential students and to the extent that certain schools concentrated in certain specialty areas, the seniors would rather take the classes online from the good programs than attend the local college which may have a less good face-to-face offering.

The other category I want to mention here is that especially seniors, but also possibly others who are time abundant and not income needy may want formal education to pursue further self-study or small-group study that I would characterize as learning for learning's sake. For example, when I retire I might want to read Plato and Aristotle and be educated in that by philosophers who can direct my thinking in a way that my reading on my own can't achieve. Further, there very well might be emeriti faculty who would find teaching in such an environment matching their own lifestyle. This is another possible growth area.

These are the four areas where I can see my own campus possibly engaging in distance learning in the future, especially if the demographics play out as I've articulated them. I'm much less sanguine about the campus entering the market for an online bachelors degree or associates degree, when that is the first postsecondary degree for the individual. Unless the market of 18-22 year olds who want to attend a residential college completely dries up, I see that still being an important market for us in the years to come. But as demographics change, these other areas will likely become increasingly important. That to me is the main reason to emphasize totally online.


Burks Oakley said...

Lanny - Hi! Actually, I'm in complete agreement with you on this. You have itemized four instances where online learning increases access to higher education. I would add to this some additional populations that benefit from totally online courses and degrees. The first consists of place-bound adults who don't live near a college that offers a discipline they want to pursue – such as the spouse of a farmer in rural Adams County, Illinois, who wants to study library science. The second consists of people whose time is constrained – such as a police officer who works rotating shifts, or a pilot who travels every week on an irregular schedule. The key aspect of online learning is ACCESS to higher education for populations that have been excluded in the past. I'm sure that there are additional populations that we need to consider when we plan new online initiatives.

As for online learning being at the "top of the learning technology food chain" - I don't see online as being "better" or "superior" to other modes, such as blended learning, or web-enhanced courses. Online is simply one more option that we have, which we can use to provide new ACCESS.

-- Burks

Lanny Arvan said...

Burks - rather than respond further here, see my post for today, which critiques the response from yesterday.