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(un)Conventional Wisdom: Bridging the Digital Divide

September 26, 2017

Over the past couple of weeks, I have taken a critical look at two common assumptions about higher education – that selective equals better and that colleges and universities can’t become bigger and better at the same time. This week I’m wading into the digital dimension to tackle another oft-heard assertion:

#3: Online learning is “less than.

Debates about the use and efficacy of online learning are not new, and will likely continue well into the future. Faculty are more or less equally divided about whether students fare better or worse in online courses than in face-to-face courses. (Interestingly, a majority of faculty who have taught online think it delivers results that are as good or better than face-to-face modes of instruction). Indeed, according to the data, faculty acceptance of online learning has grown steadily in the past decade, as have student enrollments in online courses. For their part, administrators have been more open to online and hybrid instruction, a reflection of cost and capacity pressures but also a result of promising experiments in adaptive learning and research on the limits of lecture-based instruction.

Taken together, the evidence suggests that higher education is asking more sophisticated questions about the role online learning plays in higher education. Instead of asking if online learning works, we are asking, “Where does it work, for whom, and why?” There have clearly been false starts and high-profile failures in this area. But there are also a growing number of institutional efforts that deserve our attention for their successes.

One particularly interesting example is the University of Central Florida (UCF). As one of the fastest-growing institutions in one of the fastest-growing areas of the country, UCF had to face challenging questions of how to expand access and success in an environment of shrinking state resources. Part of their solution has been a significant expansion of their online learning portfolio. Today, 80 percent of UCF’s students take at least one online or hybrid course, and nearly one-third of all credit hours are from online and hybrid courses. Amid this expansion, graduation rates have risen substantially, as have enrollment rates for low-income students and students of color.

There is also the issue of cost. UCF estimates that to accommodate its recent growth strictly through a brick and mortar approach would have required an investment of about $200 million—a daunting ask during a period of recession and recovery. By contrast, their investment in infrastructure for online learning is a fraction of that amount. And UCF has discovered that the cost entailed in delivering online instruction is significantly lower than that entailed in face-to-face modalities that result in poorer student outcomes.

At the same time, UCF leaders and faculty will be the first to tell you that online and hybrid instruction is not a fix-all and is not appropriate for all kinds of students or programs. But their experience and that of other leading institutions (two-year and four-year) in online learning, captured in a forthcoming study by Arizona State University, yield three key factors associated with positive impacts on student outcomes and costs:

Having clarity about goals. Online and hybrid learning can be deployed to reach new student groups to expand access, target existing on-campus students to accelerate time-to-degree, or improve performance in remedial or gatekeeper courses to improve persistence. Successful implementation of an online learning strategy requires different approaches for each of these goals (e.g., staffing, financing, design), so front-end clarity about what a win looks like is a must.

Assessing results and making adjustments. Leading colleges and universities will tell you that implementation is not a “one and done” thing when it comes to online learning. It requires assessment and adjustment. At some institutions, hybrid courses perform better than face-to-face but fully online courses fare worse. At UCF, hybrid and online courses consistently post better results than face-to-face courses, in part because of a commitment to consistent measurement and review of course outcomes at the section level.

Providing strong support. Many online learning endeavors are rightly criticized for simply dumping the technology on faculty and staff, and expecting them to: (a) accept it; (b) master it; and (c) use it. Institutions showing strong (or at least promising) outcomes with respect to online and hybrid learning have taken the opposite approach. At UCF, faculty are deeply involved in the design of courses and programs, and receive intensive support in online pedagogy. There are also strong feedback loops that allow for timely adjustments to meet changing student needs.

As I noted last week, we as a nation face an urgent need to increase access and success when it comes to education after high school, and we have neither the time nor the resources to repeat the brick and mortar expansion of the 1960s and 1970s. So we must look to options such as online and hybrid learning, not as a silver bullet, but as a critical tool to expand and enrich higher education’s reach. That will require checking old assumptions about what “good” instruction looks like, and leaning in to improve and refine new models of teaching and learning.

Dan Greenstein is postsecondary director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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