I do think the new interactive online learning platforms offer at least the potential for great learning outcomes at potentially lower costs per student. —Kevin Guthrie, president of Ithaka

New learning platforms driven by technology promise to make college learning less expensive and more accessible, but some say those radical changes could topple higher education’s traditional model.

That was the subject of a recent web-based video debate about the future of higher education titled “It’s the End of College as We Know It.” The discussion was part of New America Foundation’s “That’s Debatable” series about the next generation of college classrooms. The two education experts in the debate agreed that dramatic change is inevitable but diverged about what path it will take.

Kevin Carey, who writes a monthly column on college reform for the Chronicle of Higher Education, argued that the higher education model is outmoded and irreparably broken. He foresees a major disruption in the way colleges and universities operate, followed by development of technology-driven models better suited to 21st-century life.

The future of higher education doesn’t center on sweatpant-clad students learning from computers in their basements, he said, but many trappings of the traditional research university will give way to “authentic learning communities where people will learn from one another.”

MOOC metamorphosis

Carey writes often on the subject of MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses taught on college campuses, but followed online in video format by people all over the world. Those who take the courses online do assignments and take tests along with the on-campus students and receive feedback via computer. Online students who finish the course requirements receive a certificate of completion. Typically, they don’t receive college credit.

When blue-chip schools like Harvard, Princeton and MIT began offering courses taught by their top professors in the MOOC format in 2012, the higher-education playing field changed dramatically, Carey said.

Until 2012, the only way to take a freshman class from acclaimed genetics professor Eric Lander at MIT was to be one of the very smartest 17-year-olds in the nation, get through the college-entrance “sweepstakes,” pay $50,000 in tuition, and show up in a building on campus, Carey said. Only 350 people could do it, because that’s how many could fit in the room.

“This year, there are tens of thousands of people taking the class,” he said. “The exact same lectures, problem sets and tests.”

Carey said he took the class too. He didn’t have to move to Massachusetts, and it took him less than a minute to sign up. And, like the other online students, he paid nothing.

MOOCs are not only changing higher education opportunities, Carey said. They are changing the economics of higher learning.

Adaptive learning

Arizona State University President Michael Crow holds that colleges can adapt to change and employ the newest technologies without having to re-invent themselves completely. He is integrating many technologies at ASU and considers MOOCs just one tool in his kit. It's an attractive one, he said, because professors can meld MOOCs into courses at no cost, perhaps saving on students’ textbook bills.

“I can integrate that into anything,” Crow said of MOOC classes. “If someone wants to give that to me for free, I’m going to take it.”

Crow said new software for adaptive learning has greater potential to improve learning than MOOCs, and ASU is using it with promising results.

“This interactive tool is allowing us to measure individualized learning experiences for every student in ways in which we can customize that experience.”

At ASU, students work online with adaptive learning software as part of their course experience instead of listening to live lectures that could easily be videotaped, he said. This allows faculty members to put intensive energy into activities that develop critical thinking and analytical problems-solving skills.

Crow has an impressive track record for creating change within the traditional university system. He came to ASU in 2002 determined to build a New American University, according to Time magazine, which named him one of the 10 best university presidents in the United States in 2009.

While boosting its ranking on lists of best American colleges, ASU also increased enrollment of low-income Arizona freshmen by nine-fold during Crow’s tenure, and raised its population of minority students to 62 percent.

During the debate, Crow agreed with Carey that higher education’s model is broken, but for him, the great concern is that the current system is a “grantor and perpetuator of social class.”

Carey said that trying to graft new technologies into an education model developed in the 19th century is unwieldy, and that the model is ripe for disruption. Students learn as well in classes that incorporate technology as in traditional courses, and those results hold true across income categories, according to a 2012 study from Ithaka S+R, a company centered on transformative uses of new technologies in higher education.

Those results flip the question of whether technology-enabled instruction can compete with traditional college classes. It’s now up to the traditional model to prove its ongoing worth, he said.

Unknown future

The technology revolution on college campuses is still in its early phases, Ithaka President Kevin Guthrie told the Deseret News.

“I do think the new interactive online learning platforms offer at least the potential for great learning outcomes at potentially lower costs per student,” Guthrie said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean faculties will be reduced, but it may be possible to teach more students very well, he said.

Though faced with challenges, the American higher education system is an incredibly successful enterprise that has created enormous value for the U.S. and the world, Guthrie said. Colleges and universities are being forced to adapt, though, he added.

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“The basic unit of knowledge in today’s environment is conveyed in the digital environment,” he said, “and higher education is in the same competitive space as massive commercial companies. It has to operate in a way that is effective in that environment. … These forces are real, and they are not going away.”

Crow and many others say that the traditional campus experience has irreplaceable value for students, and to that Guthrie says, “That’s a great argument. It’s going to be tested. If in fact colleges are delivering the value they are talking about, they will continue to do the things they do.”

But, if on-campus classes are taught in a way that is no better than what can be delivered through videos and adaptive software, there is good reason to worry about the future of traditional higher education, he said.

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com