The higher education world is on the cusp of massive upheaval spurred by competition from digital learning systems, according to a report by Pew Internet/Elon University. Some of the most prestigious schools in the United States are fighting encroachment from online class providers by joining the digital revolution.
In Pew's survey of 1,021 Internet experts, researchers, observers and users, 60 percent said that by 2020 "there will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources." Classes that meld online learning methods with occasional class meetings will be common, the survey predicted.
"It’s still hard to get a well-paying job without a college degree, and that probably won’t change by 2020," the Pew study said. "But there may be many more paths to that degree than there are today."
Increasing legitimization of online learning will reduce higher education's cost, but could force colleges and universities to re-define their missions — and profit models. An MSNBC.com report said that for many students, college will morph from a residential experience to a virtual one.
"Although higher education is widely seen as a positive experience, the immense and growing cost of attending a university has combined with questions about the relevance of a degree, producing skepticism around the current method employed by schools," MSNBC said. "In particular, it is increasingly considered wasteful for students to live on campus, and for professors to deliver the same lectures in person, semester after semester."
The Pew study said the tradition of bringing students to campuses where they meet a variety of people and confront challenges that help them mature is valued by society. But, one respondent to Pew's survey wondered whether online social networking might provide new, web-based ways for students to shed their high school personas, try out more mature personas and develop more challenging and rewarding networks.
Technology is expected to transform higher education, but those changes will happen more slowly than they have in numerous other industries transformed by the digital revolution. In an article about innovations likely to disrupt the higher education marketplace, the Washington Monthly speaks of the challenges to change in "a publicly subsidized, heavily regulated, culturally entrenched sector that has stubbornly resisted digital rationalization," but adds that "the defenders of the ivy-covered walls have never been more nervous about the Internet threat."
Some schools have begun experiments in doing what their competition does: providing online courses.
"Universities have started streaming lectures en masse, schools like Harvard and MIT are teaming up to create content tailored for the web, startups like UniversityNow are creating reasonably priced online universities, and startups like Udacity offer online-only classes from renowned professors." said the Fastcoexist.com blog, which also predicts that requirements for college graduation will be customizable to individual career needs in the future.
There is little argument that salable job skills can be acquired via the Internet, often at little or no cost to the learner. But, important questions remain to be answered: whether the prestige accorded an Ivy League education will ever be conferred on degrees acquired via the Internet, and whether brick-and-mortar universities can develop a profit model to sustain them through inevitable change.