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Rethinking Higher Education in an Online and Recession-Wary World

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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I do not think we understand . . . how the Web is going to reshape what we do. All you have to do is look at the press. Five years ago no one anticipated the situation the press finds itself in now economically. And, while universities are different, you have to ask, are we the last institution to feel and experience the full very, very significant effects of this new technology and all that can be done with it? 



The posting below looks at the changing role of technology and its impact in higher education. It is Eric D. Miller, Kent State University, East Liverpool, Ohio and is #55 in a series of selected excerpts from The National Teaching and Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Vol. 20, Number 3, March 2011.© Copyright 1996-2011. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Advising Undecided and Indecisive Students


Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Rethinking Higher Education in an Online and Recession-Wary World



Educational professionals and laypersons alike often try to make sense of two seminal changes that continue to impact our world: The ever-growing use and availability of sophisticated technologies and the consequences of a crippling economic downturn that have sent unemployment levels to their highest since the era of the Great Depression and World War II. Higher education is not immune to these two dramatic developments. In fact, in order to ensure its relevance, higher education must accept and adjust to these new realities.

The Rise of the Online Education

For centuries, American universities have followed conventional teaching methods: All knowing professors were to lecture students about a certain subject generally in a fixed location and at a specific time. Until recently, it would have been academic heresy to suggest any other mode of instruction. Dramatic advances in Internet technology now seriously call into question the rationale of these conventional teaching methods. Instructors can easily teach students online from any location and at any time using a wealth of resources, such as ebooks, Web links, and YouTube video clips. Indeed, the proliferation of online education has grown tremendously over the past decade (e.g., Li & Irby 2008). Online education has even been embraced in terms of its use for nontraditional students (e.g., Karber 2003) and applied fields such as health sciences (e.g., Nelson 2008).

Certainly, online education has potential benefits and drawbacks. Some benefits include constant availability of instructional material, conservation of university and student resources, and educational flexibility. Some potential drawbacks, however, include skepticism by some faculty regarding the quality of online classes, the capability of some faculty to teach such classes, and whether students can learn in a more selfsufficient manner (e.g., Li & Irby 2008).

Even so, many in higher education appear to have (at best) an ambivalent attitude towards online learning. Chronicle of Higher Education  (CHE) columnist Thomas H. Benton (2009) cites two seemingly contradictory studies. A Department of Education investigation suggests that online learning is at least as effective as traditional classes. Yet, a study by the Association of

Public and Land-Grant Universities found that 70 percent of 10,000 faculty members surveyed viewed online courses as either "inferior" or "somewhat inferior" to traditional ones; even 48 percent of professors who have taught online did not view them as favorably as face-to-face teaching. Benton suggests that there is no logical reason as to why many faculty should be wary of online teaching.

The Reality and Consequences of the Economic Crisis

The long-term consequences, especially in regards to higher education, of the economic recession that officially began in December 2007 are still difficult to access. Political columnist and commentator Michael Barone (2010) suggests that those in higher education should be very concerned about a coming "bubble" that may burst in academia. In particular, he warns that many individuals will question the worth and expense of a college degree if it is virtually impossible to find a good paying job. Further, if students do not receive sufficient funding to attend college, then colleges and universities will have additional hardships to bear. A recent Newsweek cover story by Senator Lamar Alexander (2009), former U.S. Education Secretary and University of Tennessee President, argues that higher education needs to work to revitalize itself in order to remain relevant in our ever-changing society, or else it may face the same perils as the U.S. automobile industry.

Interestingly, the economic crisis and the rise of Web technologies may share many interconnected consequences. In the same issue of Newsweek, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger (2009) opines:

"I do not think we understand . . . how the Web is going to reshape what we do. All you have to do is look at the press. Five years ago no one anticipated the situation the press finds itself in now economically. And, while universities are different, you have to ask, are we the last institution to feel and experience the full very, very significant effects of this new technology and all that can be done with it?" (p. 33).

Carey (2009) adds that higher education needs to heed the warning signs currently being experienced by traditional newspapers increasingly threatened by online resources. That is, traditional subscriptions and revenues continue to decline whereas Internet growth continues to grow. If higher education fails to appreciate the importance of online education to its future, it too may increasingly struggle to find its relevance.

Looking Back and Thinking Ahead for Higher Education

Imagine and revisit the general state and nature of higher education just twenty years ago. Twenty years ago, most of us could not have envisioned the use of email, ebooks, Web links/clips, and social networking sites for educational and personal use. Arguably, it is even more challenging to try to imagine higher education twenty years from now.

But, the reality is that a simple- but profound-shift has taken root in academia. It used to be that students had to physically travel to a specific place to be taught "face to face" by a given instructor at a specific time. Moreover, in order to have regular access to scholarly information, one usually needed to be part of a given physical community, such as a particular college or university. Those days are over. Students increasingly can take online courses that do not require travel or face-to-face interaction with professors. Additionally, the Web affords most individuals much greater availability of information and knowledge than arguably at any point in history.

Those who fail to appreciate this new paradigm, or even outright reject it, should consider whether traditional educational practices generally make good pedagogical or economical sense. Indeed, many suggest that they do not. In their provocative book, Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids-and What We Can Do About It, Hacker and Dreifus (2010) suggest that higher education often has its priorities misplaced. Instead of focusing on providing students with a solid education, colleges and universities generally prioritize faculty research over teaching and spend exorbitant amounts of money on sporting and social events.

In order to accentuate the urgency of appreciating the relevance of new technologies for higher education, consider the following point: Children enrolled in elementary school today have never experienced a world where the use and prevalence of technology in their education and daily lives was not present. Most of these children utilize advanced technologies on a regular basis. Presumably, most of these children will be enrolling in colleges within a decade or so and may expect to continue to utilize these technologies as part of their education. How is higher education preparing for these students? The answer to this question, which is still unclear, may help to explain how higher education has adapted to both the realities of online education and related technologies and the fallout from the economic crisis.  


•  Alexander, L. October 26, 2009. "The Three-year Solution: How the Reinvention of Higher Education Benefits Parents, Students, and Schools." Newsweek, 154, 26-29.

•  Barone, M. September 6, 2010. "The Higher Education Bubble." National Review Online. Http:// articles/245715/higher-education-bubblemichael-barone.

•  Benton, T. H. September 18, 2009. "Online Learning: Reaching Out to the Skeptics." The Chronicle of Higher Education. Http:// Online-Learning-Reaching-O/48375.

•  Carey, K. April 3, 2009. "What Colleges Should Learn from Newspapers' Decline." The Chronicle of Higher Education. Http://

•  Hacker, A., and Dreifus, C. 2010. Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids-and What We Can Do about It. New York: Holt.

•  Karber, D. J. 2003. "Comparisons and Contrasts in Traditional Versus On-line Teaching in Management." Higher Education in Europe, 26: 533-536.

•  Li., C. and Irby, B. 2008. "An Overview of Online Education: Attractiveness, Benefits, Challenges, Concerns and Recommendations. College Student Journal, 42: 449-458.

•  Nelson, J. A. 2008. "Advantages of Online Education." Home Health Care Management & Practice, 20: 501-502.

•  Rosenberg, D. October 26, 2009. "What's College for Anyway?: A Debate over the Role of Higher Education." Newsweek, 154: 30-33.


Eric D. Miller, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Psychology

Kent State University

400 E. 4th Street

E. Liverpool, OH 43920


Telephone: (330) 382-7436