Rethinking Higher Education: The Online Shift

As education evolves to take advantage of new technological capabilities, the promise of providing quality education to the world’s youth looms large. An educated populace is something that everyone agrees is vital, but the best way to provide education is an ongoing topic of discussion. Traditional classroom settings have left some students bored at the pace of progress, while others struggle to keep up, lagging further and further behind.

Higher education, while pushed on all students as a gateway to career satisfaction and financial success, often proves difficult for many students to complete. In a study released last year by the National Center for Education Statistics, it was discovered that only 41% of first-time, full-time college students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years, and 59% in six years. For first-generation students and historically underserved students, the difficulties of obtaining a college degree are even more pronounced.

To improve college success rates and ensure greater learning among students, educators are considering new approaches to teaching. Competency-based learning is one such approach. Competency-based learning focuses on teaching mastery of certain skills or subjects, evaluating students based on their ability to demonstrate their knowledge. Competency-based learning is being implemented at the secondary level in schools in New Hampshire, Michigan, Ohio, and elsewhere. (It was adopted by Maine in 2012, but abandoned in 2018.)

Colleges, too, are incorporating the approach. In 2015, the federal government began funding experimental approaches to competency-based education in universities nationwide, although it was announced in November 2019 that funding would cease. In a letter to universities, the government said that enough data had been gathered to “support conclusions and policy decisions”; no further detail has been yet provided.

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are a well-known alternative to the traditional educational approach. Born from the open educational resources movement and MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, they exploded into public consciousness in 2012 with the founding of many new online-education providers, including Coursera, Udacity, and edX. The New York Times labeled 2012 “the year of the MOOC” and educators (and entrepreneurs) began to look seriously to web-based courses as the future of learning.

The euphoria was short lived, as it quickly became apparent that there was much more to learning than putting videos on the Internet. Student success rates for MOOC courses were abysmal; Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun found that the completion rate for students taking the company’s courses was 10%, and only half of those students were passing. “We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished,” he told Fast Company in 2013. “We have a lousy product.”

But MOOCs have proven popular, with millions of students taking courses each year, and Udacity and other companies have found more successful ways to provide online education. Udacity partnered with AT&T in 2018 to provide education to the company’s employees. Older, working professionals have become one of the main audiences for online education, as well as international students.

Other organizations have found hybrid approaches to higher education that are catching on. edX partners with established universities to deliver online versions of their courses and degree programs; this year, The University of Texas at Austin welcomes its first edX cohort of students pursuing a master’s in computer science. Students taking online courses are provided with access to virtual office hours, and they form online discussion groups with fellow students for further support.

As educators learn how to make online education work, promises and pitfalls remain. MOOCS and other web-based instruction offers the potential for students to work at their own pace, freeing educators to focus on students who need help, when they need it. The technology, combined with a competency-based learning approach, has the potential to reshape education in a way that is more tailored to students’ interests and abilities.

The downside to online education is that students, when not in a physical location with human interaction, have demonstrated significantly decreased motivation. This is something that will need to be addressed as new forms of education are explored.

Modular courses delivered via app are being developed as the next phase of education innovation. To succeed, this approach will need to be mindful of the pitfalls of previous innovations, such as MOOCs. Retaining student motivation will be crucial. Progress visualization will be necessary, but may not be sufficient. It will be important to plan for ways to ensure connections with other students and instructors are properly formed, and that students feel that they have the support network they need to persist. Creating this environment digitally looks to be a significant challenge. Partnering with educational institutions, such as edX has done, to create trust and take advantage of existing support systems is one potential way to begin to address this issue.

Figuring out how to manage these conditions and prepare for them will be key to the success of a competency-based, app-delivered learning approach. With the right formula, such a program could be a powerful tool for helping underserved and nontraditional students succeed.