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Major Provosts Embrace Online Learning

The real, near-term impact of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) trend has begun to emerge. In response to the rapidly growing awareness and acceptance of online learning that MOOCs have generated among policy-makers and the general public, senior leaders of traditional colleges and universities are beginning to publicly acknowledge the centrality of online learning to higher education’s present and future.

This is not to say that such institutions haven’t already been heavily engaged in online learning—in some cases, they’re going on their second decade in the field. But often, presidents, provosts, and deans have viewed online learning as sideline to traditional (and therefore, presumably higher quality) teaching and learning. However, the wave of interest in online learning created by the confluence of MOOCs and the rapidly growing imperative to provide wide-scale, low-cost access to higher education has forced a fundamental rethinking of that position—leading to a “cliff effect” in which online learning appears to be moving at light speed from the periphery of the academic program to its core. Today’s Inside Higher Ed provides a case in point.

The provosts of the Big 10 institutions plus the University of Chicago, which have historically worked together under the banner of “The Committee on Institutional Cooperation,” or CIC, have responded to the MOOC phenomenon by publishing a brief white paper entitled “CIC Online Learning Collaboration: A Vision and Framework.” In it, they describe the principles and initial goals for expanding and taking to scale joint online learning efforts across the CIC institutions, which may include developing CIC’s own platform for wide-scale online learning course development and delivery. The potential scope of their endeavor is reflected in one of the next-step questions they plan to explore:

“Can there be a nationally and globally visible CIC consortium for innovation and excellence in online and blended education—one that collaborates through shared courses that benefit students at member institutions, internally, and which collectively offers, and certifies, a world-class suite of courses and degree options available to students externally?”

A group of major research university provosts considering online learning collaboration on this scale strikes me as a clear turning point in the understanding of online learning’s strategic importance to higher education. Their citing of the benefits that online learning offers in the form of learning analytics and adaptive learning further bolsters my view in this regard. However, what most caught my attention is an acknowledgement that I wasn’t sure I would ever see in a public document produced by a set of academic leaders from major research universities:

“While not everyone has embraced the movement toward increased online learning, there is no conceptual or empirical data to support the contention that online classes lag in quality relative to the traditional classroom experience. It is more accurate to say that online classes have advantages and disadvantages, just as is the case for regular classroom instruction, and that these advantages and disadvantages play out in different ways for different subjects, and for different kinds of students.”

If senior academic leaders from some of the country’s premier research institutions, many of whom will likely serve as presidents of such universities someday, are ready to publicly affirm the quality and efficacy of online learning as compared to traditional classroom instruction, then we truly may be on the cusp of a new era in higher education.


          My entire college experience, about six years, has been through distance learning programs. You call them massive open online courses (MOOC). I have always wondered about the quality of education that I am receiving through these courses. I feel that I am working hard to earn my degree, but keep running into walls when looking for employment. Employers ask questions about my distance learning experiences with skepticism in their approach. You state “there is no conceptual or empirical data to support the contention that online classes lag in quality relative to the traditional classroom experience.” I have to place a comment or ask a question for this week’s course assignment. Your blog interests me. My question; how can we, as educators or institutions, help employers understand the value of distance learning?

I always thought that employers prefer to see the varitey of learning and not just the traditional lecture class, we are in the technology age, why would employers not welcome online degrees?