Friday, March 03, 2006

Online Universities Get A Huge Boost From US Congress

The US Congress has just approved some legislation that will likely fuel the growth of online institutions of higher learning. The US government enacted legislation in 1992 that required university/colleges to have half of their courses taught on a physical campus in order to qualify for federal student aid. Thanks to effective lobbying and the support of some key Republicans, Congress has now removed this restriction on federal aid for post-secondary institutions.

Here's one of the more interesting passages from the article linked above:

"This is a growth industry and you get rich not by being skeptical, but by being enthusiastic," said Henry Levin, director of Columbia University's National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.
People at the academic conferences will say they did a survey about Internet-based education, but there are a lot of phantom statistics," he said, "and it's all very promotional. We have not found a single rigorous study comparing online with conventional forms of instruction."
How fast the college landscape will change is uncertain. Sean Gallagher, a senior analyst at Eduventures, a Boston research firm, predicted that the proportion of students taking all their classes online could rise over the next 10 years or so to 25 percent from the current 7 percent.

So essentially the method is in its infancy, and there is no substantial data about the relative efficacy of this form of learning as of yet. That said, one doesn't have to look .too far to see the potential of the internet as means of acquiring and building networks of knowledge- which are ultimately the most important functions of any university or college. Even collaborative aspects of learning can be replicated with good design and savvy usage of technology by the students. The bottom line is that the passage of this bill will probably mean a rapid increase in the development of online post-secondary education, not only in the US but also in Canada. While great care and effort has to be put into monitoring the quality and legitimacy of the educational experience that these online institutions will offer, there's little reason why the majority of courses taught at universities can't be offered by online institutions. Especially when you consider there is such a large pool of .underemployed or underpaid PhD holders out there that could create the content and manage the service. Not to mention the hordes of disaffected undergraduates who would gladly jump at the opportunity to study online in order to avoid incurring an enormous student loan debt.

In my experience (I'm currently a postdoctoral researcher working in an academic setting), most universities, like most academics, are quite conservative and slow to adapt when it comes to making structural changes to the educational experience (and in many way when it comes to altering the content of the education itself). This is somewhat ironic considering our post-secondary institutions are also the center of most research and development, which is ultimately the source of a tremendous amount of the innovation and growth that we see in all sectors of society. But given the cloistered nature of academia, largely protected from the free market and dominated by academics entrenched for life in little departmental fiefdoms, it's not surprising that many aspects of the academic experience are far from being dynamic. I have little doubt that commercial interests will lead the way in bringing education online, and the potential in terms of improving the quality of the experience and reducing expenses is enormous. I look forward to what this change will bring and welcome anything that will encourage innovative and high-quality post-secondary learning/teaching.

Stephen Harper's Conservatives would be wise to take note of this development. The changes that are occurring in the US might be a cue for them to put forward some progressive free-market oriented proposals encouraging the growth of online centers of higher learning. It would it fit in with their market ideology, and would facilitate the growth of online learning in Canada (it would be unfortunate if this 'industry' was completely dominated by US companies and institutions). But frankly bold and innovative doesn't exactly come to mind when I think Harper's Conservatives, the Con crew seems much more likely to mindlessly decrease post-secondary education funding without taking steps to encourage the innovation that might make the delivery of post-secondary education more efficient in Canada. On top of that, I don't think they have the moxy and will to provide the necessary regulatory framework, and possibly government sponsorship of entrepreneurs, in order for such a development to succeed. So I'm not holding my breath.


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