Elon/Pew looks at the Internet and higher education

Elon's Imagining the Internet Center partners with Pew Internet to explore the potential impact of online learning at universities.


Media coverage of this report: Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Poynter.org, GigaOM, Mashable, Stephen’s LighthouseConverge: Technology in Education, Bostinno, Financial Channel

Bricks and clicks: The Internet and higher education in 2020

Experts expect more-efficient collaborative environments, new grading schemes; they express concerns about massive online courses and the shift away from campus life

A majority of technology stakeholders polled in a Web-based survey anticipate that higher education in 2020 will be quite different from the way it is today. They said university-level education will adopt new methods of teaching and certification driven by opportunity, economic concerns, and student and parent demands.

In the Pew Internet/Elon University survey, 1,021 Internet experts, researchers, observers and users, 60% agreed with a statement that by 2020 “there will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources…a transition to ‘hybrid’ classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings;” 39% agreed with an opposing statement that said, “in 2020 higher education will not be much different from the way it is today.”

Among the majority expecting much more dependence upon online components in higher education in the future, many bemoaned it. “They are worried over the adoption of technology-mediated approaches that they fear will lack the personal, face-to-face touch they feel is necessary for effective education,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project . “Most noted that economic forces will compel the changes. Yet, a share of this group was excited about the possibility for universities to leverage new online capabilities and peer-to-peer collaborations that they believe would enhance knowledge creation and sharing.”

For instance, survey participant Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at The Institute for the Future, predicted, “Under current and foreseeable economic conditions, traditional classroom instruction will become decreasingly viable financially.” Rebecca Bernstein, digital strategist for The State University of New York-Buffalo, observed, “The change driver will not be demand or technology. It will be economics and the diminishing pool of applicants.” And John McNutt, professor of public policy at the University of Delaware, said, “From an economic standpoint, we cannot continue business as usual. Without online education, only the wealthy will receive an education. The traditional model is too expensive.”

Charlie Firestone, executive director of the Communications and Society program at the Aspen Institute, wrote in his survey response, “Technology will allow for more individualized, passion-based learning by the student, greater access to master teaching and more opportunities for students to connect to others—mentors, peers, sources—for enhanced learning experiences.”

Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, wrote, “The disruption that has overtaken media will next take on education. It simply does not make sense for thousands of educators around the world to write and deliver the same lectures on, say, capillary action—most of them bad. The best can be shared and found. Then, I believe, in-person education becomes more a matter of tutoring… Will there still be universities? Likely, but not certain.”

Bryan Alexander, senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, a non-profit organization based in Ripton, Vt., predicted, “By 2020 we will see: 1) A split between teaching and research faculty. Teaching faculty will largely be part-time, ill-paid, and expected to do no research. Research professors will teach little (perhaps the occasional grad student) and focus on grant-funded research. 2) Distance learning will be normative. A majority of students have taken at least one online class by age 16. The default for learning is online at this point. 3) Number of college campuses will dwindle. Those that survive will emphasize: face-to-face experiences; campus grounds (beauty, history, charm); charismatic teachers; a sense of tradition.”

The rising costs of higher education were seen by many experts surveyed as a driver of change to more reliance upon MOOCs—massive open online courses such as those offered by Coursera, MITx, and Udacity—by 2020.

“Some said in many institutions of higher education ‘bricks’ will be replaced by ‘clicks’ as online courses supplant more-expensive campus-based education,” said Janna Anderson, director of Elon’s Imagining the Internet Center and a co-author of the study. “They said some universities’ influence could be altered as less-expensive options take hold. Those who do not think an online education has as much value worry that it is possible that by 2020 only the rich will be able to afford face-to-face learning and they express concern that low- and middle-income students will have to opt for mass-enrollment courses with automated lessons and tests.”

Many of the survey respondents preferred to remain anonymous in their survey comments and were. One of them wrote, “It will be a cost-containment approach that results in a degraded higher-learning experience for all but the most privileged students.” Another anonymous participant commented, “Those from higher socio-economic status groups will continue to have the benefits of ‘in-person’ education, furthering the gap between the upper and lower classes. Society will be many decades undoing this experiment.”

Another anonymous respondent predicted: “The age of brick-and-mortar dinosaur schools is about to burst—another bubble ready to pop. The price is too high; it’s grossly inflated and the return on investment isn’t there. Online learning will be in the ascendant. There will be more international interactions; I believe we will see somewhat of a return to a Socratic model of single sage to self-selecting student group, but instead of the Acropolis, the site will be the Internet, and the students will be from everywhere.”

“You come away from these answers with a palpable sense that these respondents believe that universities are facing the same powerful disruption to their business model that the news media and the recording industry faced before them,” noted Pew Internet researcher Jan Lauren Boyles. “For some, that foreshadows a passage to an uncertain and challenging future. For others, especially technology enthusiasts, the change can’t come soon enough.”

For example, one anonymous survey participant wrote, “Universities are awfully slow to adapt. And why should they? At present they have a lucrative monopoly. In what other industry do you see such runaway price increases? They’ll ride that for as long as they can and only change when on the cusp of irrelevance.”

And Alex Halavais, an academic and vice president of the Association of Internet Researchers, wrote: “The universities that survive will do so mainly by becoming highly adaptive…The most interesting shifts in post-secondary education may happen outside of universities, or at least on the periphery of traditional universities. There may be universities that remain focused on the traditional lecture and test, but there will be less demand for them.”

This is the eighth report generated out of the results of a Web-based survey fielded in fall 2011. It gathered opinions on eight Internet issues from a select group of experts and the highly engaged Internet public. (Details can be found here: http://bit.ly/x9I2p0)

Following is a wide-ranging sample of respondents’ remarks:

“Will there still be universities? Likely, but not certain…[there is] the idea that our current educational system, start to end, is built for an industrial era, churning out students like widgets who are taught to churn out widgets themselves. That is a world where there is one right answer: We spew it from a lectern; we expect it to be spewed back in a test. That kind of education does not produce the innovators who would invent Google.” – Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism

“The very concept of what a university is, what academia is, what adult learning is, all of these are changing profoundly.” – P.F. Anderson, emerging technologies librarian at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

“The era of super-specialized education is upon us. All learning will soon be online. Guided learning by talented professionals will be part of this revolution. Universities will have to repackage themselves when all knowledge is available free or by subscription. Skill practicing or gaining mastery by repetition will be the new ‘school,’ whether tying thousands of operating room sutures, flicking in a hockey goal, or the 10,000 repetitions required for mastery in some disciplines.” – Alan Bachers, director of the Neurofeedback Foundation

“Lesson plans will have an IT component and an in-person component, and this will raise education outcomes significantly. Both of these components will be customized to individual students. Sons and daughters of privilege will continue to attend in-person classes at the nation’s top schools and will realize the attendant social rewards in doing so. The value of in-person schooling will decrease for everyone else, and most institutions will diversify their offerings and their business models.” – Patrick Tucker, deputy editor of The Futurist magazine and director of communications for the World Future Society

“Traditional face-to-face higher education will become a privilege of a few, and there will be demand for global standardization of some fields of education which also will lower the level in many cases.” – Tapio Varis, professor emeritus at the University of Tampere and principal research associate with the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization

“The requirement for people to meet face-to-face for effective teaching and learning will diminish. Some institutions will focus on facilitating virtual environments and may lose any physical aspect. Other institutions will focus on the most high-value face-to-face interactions, such as group discussions and labs, and will shed commodity teaching activities like large lectures.” – Peter Pinch, production manager at MIT OpenCourseWare and former director of technology for WGBH, a public media company

“While education is being, and has been already, profoundly influenced by technologies, nevertheless it is a deeply social and political institution in our cultures. Universities are not just portals where students access learning, they are places in which people develop as social beings, in some quite specifically institutional ways. Therefore technology will change the way learning occurs and the way it is assessed, and it definitely means there is more blending of learning activities on- and offline, but it will not—for the majority—change the fundamental locatedness of university education.” – Matthew Allen, professor of Internet Studies, Curtin University, Perth, Australia, and past president of the Association of Internet Researchers

“Higher education will not change very fast, although it should. But what’s at stake has nothing to do with the amount of technology being used. What’s at stake has to do with the fact that universities are not structured to provide the skills that are needed for a rapidly changing labor, creative force.” – danah boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research

“Teachers and textbook companies will resist—and even now are resisting—modern technology that could be helping students. When I see iPads and Kindles in every student’s backpack instead of fifty pounds worth of textbooks, I’ll know there has been a change. When I see every campus completely and speedily wired—or providing wireless—for the Internet, I’ll know things have changed…I just don’t think it will happen by 2020. Maybe 2050.” – Mark J. Franklin, director of computing services and software engineering for the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College

“Inertia is powerful, and taking the long view is hard. By 2020 not much will have changed.” – Steve Jones, distinguished professor of communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a founding leader of the Association of Internet Researchers

“The educational system is largely broken. It’s too focused on the result of getting a degree rather than teaching people how to learn: how to digest huge amounts of information, craft a cogent argument in favor of or against a topic, and how to think for oneself. Individuals learn differently, and we are starting to finally have the technology to embrace that instead of catering to the lowest common denominator.” – Wesley George, principal engineer for the Advanced Technology Group at Time Warner Cable

“Just-in-Time learning is a very important phenomenon that will have a big role to play in the future…Universities should, and I hope will, focus more on ‘how to learn’ rather than simply ‘learning.’” – Hal Varian, chief economist at Google

“We’ve got to move to much more individual, hyperlinked learning experiences. At the same time, modeling good behavior and good thinking style remains something useful that teachers do for students…I’m hopeful that we’ll find a way of educating that inculcates the values a true liberal arts education was supposed to support—lifelong learning, lifelong foolishness (hymn to Stuart Brand), and lifelong awe.” – Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government who previously served as President Obama’s Special Assistant for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy

Respondents were allowed to keep their remarks anonymous if they chose to do so. Following are predictive statements selected from the hundreds of anonymous comments from survey participants:

“The ‘university’ has not changed substantially since its founding in about 800 AD or so. Other than adding books, electricity and women, it is still primarily an older person ‘lecturing’ to a set of younger ones…There will be both a large number of largely traditional universities and an ever-expanding range of alternatives in both technology and organizational form.”

“Universities are awfully slow to adapt. And why should they? At present they have a lucrative monopoly. In what other industry do you see such runaway price increases? They’ll ride that for as long as they can and only change when on the cusp of irrelevance.”

“Several forces will impact this: the general overall increase in the levels of education globally, the developing world using Web and cell technology to jump over intermediate technologies, the high cost of face-to-face instruction, the improvement of AI as a factor in individualizing education, the passing of the Baby Boomers as educators in the system, the demand for Millennials and beyond for relevant learning models, China will develop a leading learning format, first to educate its population and then expand it to teach the world.”

“From the 1960s book The Peter Principle, the system exists to perpetuate itself. Regrettably large universities lack the nimbleness to be able to adapt to rapidly changing realities. The system of higher education (as someone who has spent the last 20 years at major universities) is already broken, but instead of changing to make a university education more relevant, we herd students into larger and larger lectures and ask them to regurgitate esoteric facts.”

“I suspect that ‘classes’ will play smaller and smaller roles, with greater automation and guidance, supported by peer, or near-peer interactions at a more personal level.”

“The most effective faculty (or the faculty who are most willing and able to effectively market themselves) will become ‘superstars,’ in demand for various sorts of lectures and workshops, both live and recorded, at their own institutions and at other institutions. This superstar status will be rewarded with ever-greater compensation. On the other end of the spectrum, the least effective faculty (or those least effective at marketing themselves) will find significantly less demand for their teaching services.”

“Because the individual will be able to choose his or her educational path more fluidly, ‘credentialing’ will become a major industry in education. It won’t necessarily be what you know and have experienced, but does your present knowledge have value, and have you proven capable of learning ‘on the fly’?”

The findings reflect the reactions in an online, opt-in survey of a diverse set of 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics who were asked to choose one of two provided scenarios and explain their choice. While 60 percent agreed with the statement that higher education will evolve rapidly between now and 2020, as networked computing offers new options, a significant number of the survey participants who selected that scenario said the true outcome will be a little bit of both scenarios, and many said while they chose the first scenario as a “vote” for what they hope will happen they actually expect the outcome will be closer to the second scenario.

60% agreed with the statement:

“By 2020, higher education will be quite different from the way it is today. There will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources. Significant numbers of learning activities will move to individualized, just-in-time learning approaches. There will be a transition to “hybrid” classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings. Most universities’ assessment of learning will take into account more individually-oriented outcomes and capacities that are relevant to subject mastery. Requirements for graduation will be significantly shifted to customized outcomes.”

39% agreed with the alternate statement, which posited:

“In 2020, higher education will not be much different from the way it is today. While people will be accessing more resources in classrooms through the use of large screens, teleconferencing, and personal wireless smart devices, most universities will mostly require in-person, on-campus attendance of students most of the time at courses featuring a lot of traditional lectures. Most universities’ assessment of learning and their requirements for graduation will be about the same as they are now.”

Note: The survey results are based on a non-random online sample of 1,021 Internet experts and other Internet users, recruited via email invitation, conference invitation, or link shared on Twitter, Google Plus or Facebook. Since the data are based on a non-random sample, a margin of error cannot be computed, and the results are not projectable to any population other than the people participating in this sample. The “predictive” scenarios used in this tension pair were created to elicit thoughtful responses to commonly found speculative futures thinking on this topic in 2011; this is not a formal forecast. Many respondents remarked that both scenarios will happen to a certain degree. 40% of the survey participants identified themselves as a research scientist or as employed by a college or university; 12% said they were employed by a company whose focus is on information technology; 11% said they work at a non-profit organization; 8% said they work at a consulting business, 10% said they work at a company that uses information technology extensively; 5 percent noted they work for a government agency; 2% said they work for a publication or media company.

The Imagining the Internet Center (http://www.imaginingtheInternet.org) is an initiative of Elon University’s School of Communications. The center’s research holds a mirror to humanity’s use of communications technologies, informs policy development, exposes potential futures and provides a historic record. Imagining the Internet is directed by Janna Quitney Anderson, an associate professor of communications.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (http://wwwpewInternet.org), directed by Lee Rainie, is a nonprofit, non-partisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It produces reports exploring the impact of the Internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health car