When online education was taking off at the beginning of the new millennium, a research study commissioned by a teachers' union in the United Kingdom concluded it could soon make attending a brick-and-mortar school obsolete.
“The classroom as we know it may not exist in 15 to 20 years,” wrote Alan Pritchard, an associate professor at the University of Warwick in Coventry, who conducted the study. Instead, he said, it could be replaced by an online “learning space,” where students would gather electronically.
It wasn't the first time the imminent demise of the traditional classroom was predicted. “If you went back to around the turn of the millenium, … a whole series of books and academic papers said campus universities — the bricks-and-mortar institutions — [were] so 20th century. The future university is going to be virtual,” says Paul Temple, co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Studies at the University of London.
But halfway to 2020, most students around the world still gather in a room with a teacher. And few experts today are predicting that online learning is likely to completely replace the college campus anytime soon. “People still want the experience of being physically in a university,” says Temple. “They want the face-to-face experience with the faculty and other students that universities have always provided.”
Nonetheless, online learning is transforming higher education for millions of people around the world. As massification — or the expansion of higher education — accelerates over the next few decades, the importance of online or distance learning is only expected to grow. “Even if [the nations of the world] were able to build a university a week, it would not be enough to keep up with demand,” says Asha Kanwar, vice president of the Commonwealth of Learning, an intergovernmental distance-learning organization based in Vancouver, Canada. “Distance education can expand access in a more cost effective way.”
Distance learning not only saves the cost of physical facilities, Kanwar says, it makes educational opportunities much easier to expand. “Once the materials have been written, [a class] easily can be scaled up. Whether it's 30 or 300,000 students, you can still provide access.”
Global online-learning statistics are hard to come by. But in 2009 about 24 “mega” universities were engaged in distance education, several of which boasted a million or more online students, according to a United Nations study. In Thailand two so-called open universities — distance learning institutions, aimed primarily at part-time or adult learners and open to anyone — enroll half of that country's college population, says Jamil Salmi, a World Bank higher-education specialist.
The African Virtual University, an online university operated by a consortium of African nations, works in more than 27 countries. Goolam Mohamedbhai, former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, says online education's economies of scale are crucial for the continent, which has some of the world's poorest countries. “If Africa wants to increase its enrollment from [today's] 5 or 6 percent to 20 to 22 percent [of eligible students], there's no way you can do it by building,” he says. “The cost is just too staggering.”
Online learning also is expanding rapidly in developed countries. In the United States, enrollment is growing at more than 10 times the rate of traditional higher-education enrollment, according to a survey by the Babson Survey Research Group at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. Nearly 30 percent of U.S. higher-education students now take at least one course online.
Some experts still predict that online learning will overturn the traditional higher-ed model. In The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, Harvard business professor Clayton M. Christensen and Brigham Young University administrator Henry J. Eyring argue that for-profit institutions championing online learning are doing it more cheaply and nimbly than traditional schools. “It would be unwise to dismiss the disruptive power of their educational model, especially the use of online technology,” they write.
In developed nations, Kanwar says, brick-and-mortar universities are incorporating online offerings into their curricula, blending in the option while preserving traditional forms of study. “The boundaries are getting more and more blurred as we move on,” she says.
Nevertheless, students enrolled in distance-learning courses still require in-person assistance, Kanwar notes. Indira Gandhi National Open University in India, a distance-learning institution, is the world's largest university, with more than 3 million students. It uses a range of delivery methods, including online classes, printed materials, radio broadcasts and teleconferencing to reach students. But it also maintains more than 1,400 “study centers” across India to provide support to its students.
“It's absolutely a critical aspect — providing tutoring or counseling for students,” says Kanwar, who formerly served as pro-vice-chancellor at the university.
In parts of the developing world, she says, distance-learning institutions and traditional schools work together, with the distance-learning institution using the university facilities on weekends or evenings for teleconferencing or providing tutorial support. Some online colleges even hire faculty from traditional schools to help students.
Although they expect online education to continue growing, Kanwar and Mohamedbhai believe the traditional university also will thrive.
“There's nothing like having a classroom of students with someone who can lead them in their journey,” says Mohamedbhai. “All of us who have been to university remember the days when we changed our thinking about something through rubbing shoulders with others. That is part of higher education.”
— Reed Karaim