There is nothing impersonal about online learning

The residential experience has its attractions for school-leavers, but most US students value low cost and flexibility above all, says Paul LeBlanc

December 20, 2018
Illustration - THE opinion 201218
Source: Pierre-Paul Pariseau

The results of Times Higher Education’s recent University Leaders Survey are a touching, if out of touch, love song to the most traditional forms of higher education.

Perhaps most startling was the fact that only 24 per cent of nearly 200 leaders of top 1,000 institutions who responded to the survey believe that online degree courses will be more popular than campus-based ones by 2030, against 53 per cent who disagree. And only 19 per cent expect digital technology to have eradicated physical lectures by 2030; 65 per cent disagree.

Really? In an age of increasingly available and often free online content, amid rapid technological development in areas like simulation, immersive game-like learning, personalisation and augmented and virtual reality, two-thirds of university leaders reaffirm “sage on the stage” teaching for the Class of 2030?

In fairness, the more important point they make is that getting people together on physical campuses remains at the heart of effective learning. And while there is not a lot of evidence that learning requires face-to-face contact between student and instructor (especially in a lecture setting), for the traditional student, there is another “job to be done” – to borrow from the work of Clay Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor most associated with disruptive innovation theory.

That other job is the coming of age experience that we most romanticise when talking about university life. It’s drinking too much and falling in love. It’s figuring out what we are about; discovering our calling; taking part in late-night talks about life’s meaning. It’s the opportunity to develop leadership skills, play on a team, explore another country through study abroad, and enjoy the mentorship of an inspiring professor, coach or even work supervisor during an internship.

I am pretty sure that many of those who attend the elite institutions in the global top 1,000 relish their time on campus (although I bet the opportunity to attend lectures ranks not even in the top 20 of the things they love best about it). It is just that their experience is a luxury, which is not afforded to most people, or even most university students – in the US, at least.

Our higher education discussions are far too focused on the traditional university student. We forget that most students do not fit that profile. Half of all US college students today attend a community college. A quarter are parents. Many are military veterans. Half will drop out, often for financial reasons. These students have had all the coming of age they can handle. They are my students at Southern New Hampshire University.

This overlooked majority are no less deserving than traditional students, and our society cannot afford to squander their talent and potential. Some observers might counter that this is precisely why they should be afforded the same full-time residential college experience as the lucky minority receive. But that would be a failure to acknowledge reality. My 135,000 students, 86 per cent of whom are employed, might like the idea of time on a bucolic, ivy-covered campus, but they need higher education to do three things, and none of them have anything to do with the coming of age sought by 17-year-olds.

First, it needs to be affordable; for many of my students, one car repair might mean the difference between enrolling next term or dropping out. Second, it needs to fit their busy lives, with their multiple and often inflexible commitments. And, third, it needs to get them the right credential to unlock the door to a successful career (success meaning some combination of good pay, meaningful work and a stable future, so that they can take better care of themselves and their families).

This requires digital courses untethered to a set meeting schedule. But following such courses doesn’t mean that students are robbed of the human dimensions of learning. All our students have an adviser, who stays with them throughout their time with us. A powerful database gives that adviser optics into the student’s performance, flags signs of struggle, and captures the student’s personal situation.

Our advisers are often life coaches, spending as much time on the psychological and emotional baggage that adult learners carry with them as on any academic issues. They are a constant support system, almost certainly more vigilant and engaged than the advisers at the universities in THE’s survey. In those elite universities, the saying usually holds: “My research first, my department second, the university third.”  For us, students come first, second, and third – and 96 per cent of them say they would recommend us to a family member or co-worker.

In a sense, I agree with the survey respondents. Human interactions do remain critically important in the learning equation. But they can take many forms. And they are often strengthened by the digital technologies that are opening up opportunity for millions more people than can be accommodated in the traditional campus-based model of higher education.

Paul LeBlanc is the president of Southern New Hampshire University.

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Reader's comments (3)

We applaud Paul Le Blanc’s recognition of the ‘overlooked majority’ of students who carry work, family and other responsibilities with them into their academic lives. As lecturers who have been delivering MSc courses online at UCLan for over 12 years, we concur that it is possible to hold meaningful interactions with our online students. Our courses such as MSc Sustainability, Health and Wellbeing use a combination of online materials, synchronous facilitated discussion sessions, asynchronous discussion boards and 1:1 tutorials using Skype to deliver a rounded learning experience. Whilst this may miss the usual perceptions of the social side of life on campus, importantly it does fit in with students’ lives and gives access to learning which might otherwise be unavailable whilst still enabling them to become part of a dynamic learning community. Jean Duckworth and Hazel Partington, University of Central Lancashire
At the Open University, we too do a lot to support students having a community peer learning experience - to their surprise. They seem to expect to just have a computer to interact with. When I phone my students to introduce myself, there is often a pause at the start of our conversation as they absorb the news that there is a human being who will guide them through their studies.
And another thing ... it would be great if we could build better connections with our fellow institutions with campuses. This year I supported two students to successfully complete, then go on from a module with the OU, with 60 credits and equivalent to GCSE therefore meeting entry requirements for other institutions. One is applying to Cambridge, the other overcame anxiety issues to go to a local university. Funding requirements mean they count as 'not retained', instead of 'encouraged to continue to aspire'. We need collaborative working, rather than league tables and funding that pits us against each other.

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