Distractions, Disruptions, and Distance Learning

A commonly recognized megatrend across the academic landscape camouflages a perhaps even more important, though often overlooked micro-trend. It is well-know that a significant share of America's college students are enrolling in something called "online." Most are doing so as an occasional course within an otherwise on-campus program. Others are sampling something called MOOCs (massive open online courses) on a non-credit basis. This is a big tent of possibilities and activities.

The combination of all that constitutes online is so broad and misleading that it appears to be a mammoth seismic shift in higher education, which overstates its impact and overpromises major improvements in lowering costs and raising student access. This aggregation masks a range in quality, purpose, audience, and investment that defies easy generalizations or prognosticating. Digital technology is truly reshaping how learning takes place, though subtly, sporadically, and gradually. However, the fundamental nature of universities and how mainstream students pursue their education has yet to change significantly.

The over-hype with all things online masks a smaller, more focused, and perhaps more significant shift in how learning is occurring. This micro-trend is true distance learning: those students taking complete degrees online, anywhere and anytime. These students do not necessarily live near their campus (and might have little interest in visiting before graduation ceremonies).

These students, though, expect a full complement of instructional quality and student services that match the traditional classroom and college setting. They expect routine and immediate access to faculty, fellow students, bureaucrats, libraries, and bookstores. They expect an ever increasing level of professionalism and polish that justifies their time and tuition. And they expect a quality education and credential at least as good as what they otherwise might have received from that institution.

These students -- generally older, with careers and families -- want control over their education - not to be bound to a location and schedule that dictates their lives. They want to integrate their studies with work and home, on their own terms. They are comfortable communicating through technology, developing working relationships with faculty and students without face-to-face encounters, and managing their learning without the externally imposed discipline of having to show up at a particular place and time.

This educational model is not for everyone or even most students -- and might never replace the conventional campus or solve many of the concerns about the costs of higher education in the United States. But then why is this micro-trend even important?

Distance learning reflects an overall comfort level with conducting much of one's life online. It is simply another version of telecommuting, e-commerce, and social networking - by allowing students to work from wherever they might be, with others, and with access to faculty and course materials entirely through the internet. Most of the components of the educational experience -- with the exception of rock climbing walls and dormitories -- have been digitized for easy access. As the brick-and-mortar retail store diminishes in importance, so too does the physical campus for an important minority of America's students.

This, in turn, changes the potential composition and diversity of the post-traditional student population, in exciting ways. Without the burden of colocation, students can come from anywhere in the United States, and throughout the world, and bring their perspectives and experiences to the virtual educational workplace. This creates an opportunity for interaction and collaboration across geographic boundaries novel for part-time adult learning.

America's universities have an especially poor record of graduating students. Many begin, endure high tuition rates and incur massive debt, only to then drop out when life otherwise intervenes. Distance education becomes an important means for settled adults to now complete their degrees.

Others well served by distance learning are those who want to further their education beyond the bachelor's level and advance their careers without jeopardizing their work and income. Many travel frequently, work long and irregular hours, and balance this with complicated and demanding home lives. They can carve out the twenty hours or so weekly to learn online, so long as they can do so when and where they want. They can tap tuition support from their employers, so their out-of-pocket expenses will be negligible.

Distance learning is also likely to impact the health of some of America's academic institutions. Most higher education is local, and likely to remain so. Many schools have enjoyed geographic exclusivity. But the age of regional monopolies is rapidly closing. We are all in each other's territory now. As the public becomes more savvy consumers of ecommerce, the expectations for distance education will rise. Not every school will have the ability to vie for fully online degree students or to defend their local turf from those carpetbagger schools able to deliver high quality distance learning. Colleges that cannot compete could face death by a thousand cuts.

When I arrived at San Diego's airport last month I was greeted by an ad for Penn State Online. This is a snapshot of the growing nationalization of distance learning for working professionals. For the adult learner this micro-trend signals exciting possibilities and greater choice. For many institutions across the academic landscape this is an important wake-up call.

Jay A. Halfond is a faculty member at Boston University, the Wiley Deltak Senior Faculty Fellow, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Online Leadership and Strategy.