Higher Education Goes WiFi

High Expectations for the Future of Higher Education
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In case you weren’t aware, the future of higher education is online. That was the primary takeaway from yesterday’s panel discussion entitled “High Expectations for Higher Education” put on by the Texas Public Policy Foundation as part of their ninth annual Policy Orientation Agenda conference.

Featuring Republican state Rep. Dan Branch of Highland Park, and three industry professionals, the discussion transitioned between ways to cut costs and improve online education. Two of the panelists, John Katzman and Philip Regier, are heavily involved in online learning and see it playing a prominent role in the future of higher education. Matt Gamble is the Vice President of Baseline & Associates and mostly focused on survey responses from Texas voters regarding higher education.

Rep. Branch began with some facts: Texas has 38 four-year higher education public institutions and more than 1.5 million students in the higher education system; higher education takes up approximately 12.5 percent of the Texas budget with public education taking up almost 40 percent. These numbers were invoked to illustrate the inevitability of cuts to higher education this legislative session due to the current budget shortfall and large portion of budgetary expenditure that goes towards education.

Rep. Branch skimmed over a few ideas of where these cuts could take place, which mostly focused on “trying to drive funding and outputs together” through revisions to grant programs and increasing efficiency across the board.

John Katzman, founder of the Princeton Review and, more recently, 2tor, Inc., – a company that helps create online degree programs – provided most of the color for the otherwise pedagogic discussion. “Online learning is an opportunity to rethink the classroom. In 2010 we shouldn’t be lecturing in real time. A lecture should be more like a 60 Minutes segment than a talking head.”

What has been missing from online learning, other than sufficient technology, according to Mr. Katzman, is a social network. Not too surprisingly, his company 2tor provides this social network, replete with detailed profiles, chatrooms and webcams for every student.  With two online master’s programs already underway at USC and two more at other universities on the way, Mr. Katzman is confident in his assessment. “Everything the Internet has disrupted has consolidated – bookstores, travel agents – there will be fewer universities in the future. I see an existential threat to university’s that don’t engage these [online] tools.”

Although Mr. Katzman surely supports a thriving higher education system, it was hard to overlook the opportunistic position he held speaking to an audience that will help shape the future of higher education in this state. His presentation focused intensely on what his company 2tor does and how it is designed to benefit public higher education institutions such as the University of Texas.

Philip Regier, Dean of Arizona State University Online and comrade in arms in Mr. Katzman’s crusade for online education, pointed to his own experience for justification. He cited a professor who was able to teach 3,000 students a year via online classes, which averaged out to about $10 a student. And not only can online education be cost effective, but according to Mr. Regier students at ASU actually prefer taking online courses. This could be, as Mr. Regier argued, because the quality is higher, or it could be, as Rep. Branch noted, “that sometimes college seems more like a holiday interrupted by exams.” Which he said regarding his children, one or more of whom are still on winter break from the University of Texas.

In fact, the only opposition to the notion the online learning is the answer to many of higher education’s current dilemmas came during the Q&A session when several young audience members voiced concern about the seemingly inherent isolation of online classes and how this might stunt important social skills often learned during college. These were viewed as legitimate concerns by the panelists, but just as many businesses now conduct work and training online it is unrealistic to assume that education won’t follow in the same direction.

So why have universities been slow to transition online? According to Mr. Katzman it’s because embracing the Internet requires a leap of faith – a leap of faith with high up-front costs and subsequent low marginal costs. These high up-front costs of development and implementation are compounded by the fact that during the transition universities have to continue to fund traditional education systems until the online courses grow in prominence.

The alternative: that the cost of tuition continues to rise due to no foreseeable productivity gains. Which translates to more loans and higher costs for everyone. And, oh yeah, more cuts due to budget shortfalls.