Online education will need to change before it rules higher education

We recently conducted a poll of college students around the world about their experiences with online education this spring that resulted from the pandemic. The short answer is students didn’t fare well and are highly critical of the ability of online education to engage them and to deliver instruction. This isn’t a subtle, nuanced finding. A large majority of college students worldwide thought the online education they received this spring was ineffective and unengaging.

I held out hope that the pandemic would be the event that finally kickstarted online education. Our poll results have me doubting it will, which is a shame as online education holds enormous potential. It is a new technology that is, for some reason, being held back. If you think about it, we have had all the technology needed to take education online for at least 10 years, yet for the most part the traditional university system has remained as it was a generation ago.

I’ve always been interested in new “media” technologies because I’ve noticed a pattern in their emergence. Almost always, they begin as a nifty new delivery system for content that was developed with the “old” media. The earliest radio shows largely consisted of people reading the newspapers aloud and playing music. Early television mostly adapted content from radio – serialized dramas, variety shows, baseball games, etc. The Internet 1.0 largely just electronically expectorated content that existed in other forms.

After a bit of a gestation period, “new” media eventually thrive as they take advantage of their technological uniqueness and content evolves along with the new distribution system. The result is something really special and not just a new way to deliver old things.

There are many examples. Radio moved to become central to family entertainment and ritual in a way the newspaper could not. Television developed the Saturday morning lineup, the situation comedy, talk shows, etc., none of which could have worked as well on radio. And, the Internet evolved and became interactive, with user-created content, product reviews, with a melding of content and commerce that isn’t possible in other media. In all cases, the “new” media gestated awhile by mimicking the old but once they found their way their value grew exponentially. The old media didn’t go away, but got repositioned to a narrower niche.

This hasn’t happened in higher education. Streaming your lecture on Zoom might be necessary during a pandemic but it is not what online education should be about. Students consistently tell us it doesn’t work for them. Parents and students don’t feel it provides the value they expect from college, which is why we are starting to see lawsuits where students are demanding tuition refunds from colleges that moved education online this spring.

We composed a post a little while ago that posited that the reason digital textbooks really haven’t made much of a difference in colleges is because textbook publishers have prevented this synergy from happening. Most digital textbooks today are simply a regurgitation of a printed textbook that you can read on a computer. Our surveys show that the number one way a digital textbook is read remains by viewing a PDF. That is hardly taking advantage of what today’s technology has to offer.

The potential for the digital textbook is much greater. In fact, it wouldn’t be a textbook at all. Instead, there could be a digital nexus of all that is going on in a course, conducted, coached, and curated by the instructor. Imagine a “book” that could take you on an interactive tour. It could link you to lectures by world-renown people. It could show practitioners applying the knowledge they gained in the course. It could contain formative assessments where you could determine how you are progressing and then adapt to focus you where you need individualized help. A tutor would be a link away. Other students could comment and help you.

Your instructor could become a coach rather than a sage. This wouldn’t be a textbook at all, but a melding of course materials and instruction and collaborative tools.

This technology exists today, yet publishers and colleges have too much of a self-interest not to innovate. Education is suffering because of it.

This spring most college instructors had one or two weeks to figure out how to move their instruction online with little help from textbook publishers or technology companies. They had no choice but to adapt their existing course to a new delivery system. So, they pointed a camera on themselves and called it online education.

It is no wonder that online education largely failed our students. Every poll I have seen, including a few Crux has conducted, has shown that students found online education to be vastly inferior to traditional instruction this spring.

But, did you know this isn’t new? College students have long been critical of online education. I’ve asked questions about online education to college students for almost 20 years. While many appreciate the convenience of an online course and that it can cost less, a very large majority of those taking online courses say they aren’t an effective way to learn. Almost all say that they would have learned better in a traditional course. It is a rare student that chooses an online course because it is an effective way to learn. When they choose an online course, it is because it fits better into their life situation and not because it is an effective way to learn.

Why? Because online course providers really haven’t taken advantage of a “new” medium. They are still adapting traditional education and placing it online rather than embracing the uniqueness that online education can provide. They are firmly ensconced in Internet 1.0 a decade or two after all other industries have moved on. Compared to a decade ago we shop completely differently. We watch entertainment completely differently. We communicate with others completely differently. Yet, our children attend college the same way their parents and grandparents did.

Course management systems do exist, but to date they haven’t fundamentally changed the nature of a college course. We ask about course management systems on surveys as well, and college students find them to be moderately helpful, but hardly game changing.

One of Crux’s largest clients is a supplemental education company that provides resources to college students who don’t feel they are getting the support they need from their college or their professors. This company has been one of the best performing companies in the US since COVID-19 hit and so many courses moved online. This client is well-managed and has a great vision and brilliant employees. But, if educators had fully figured out how to effectively educate online, I don’t think they could be as successful as they have been because students wouldn’t have such a pressing need for outside help. Because of higher education’s unwillingness or inability to adapt, I expect this client to thrive for a long time.

It is sad in a way to think that our colleges and universities, who should be on the forefront of technology and innovation, are sadly lacking in adapting course materials and instruction to the Internet. Especially when you consider that these are the same entities that largely invented the Internet.

Living near Rochester NY, it is easy to see a parallel to the Eastman Kodak company. Kodak had one of the strongest brands in the world, was tightly identified with imaging and photography, and had invented almost all of the core technologies needed for digital photography. All at a time when the number of images consumers were about to capture was about to explode literally by a factor of about 10,000, maybe 100,000. But, because of an inability to break out of an old way of thinking and an inertia to hang on too long to an “old” media, one of America’s great companies was essentially reduced to a business school case in how to grab defeat from the jaws of opportunity.

Is this a cautionary tale for colleges and universities? Sure. I suspect that elite college brands will continue to do well as they cater to a wealthy demographic that has done quite well during the pandemic. But, for the rest of us, who send students to non-elite institutions, I expect to see colleges face enormous financial pressures and to see many college brands go the road of Kodak over the next decade. Their ticket to a better path is to more effectively use technology.

Online education has the potential to cure some of what ails the US higher education system. It can adapt quickly to market demand for workers. It can provide much wider access to the best and brightest teachers. It can aggregate a mass of students who might be interested in a highly specialized field, and thus become more targeted. And, it may finally be what finally fixes the high cost of higher education.

Will online education will thrive in the US? Not until it changes to take advantage of what an interconnected world has to offer. The time is right for colleges to truly tap into the power of what online education can be. This is really the only way colleges will be able to charge the tuition levels they have become accustomed to charging and until online education becomes synonymous with quality education, many colleges will struggle.

This is taking far too long but I am hopeful that kickstarting this process will be one silver lining to come out of the upheaval to education that has been caused by the pandemic.

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