Student using a laptopPeek into a classroom, and you’re just as likely to see a digital device as you are a student. Ninety-eight percent of college students now own a digital device, nearly 40,000 education apps are designed especially for the iPad, and an astonishing 38 percent of students can’t stay away from technology for more than 10 minutes at a time, a 2011 CourseSmart study found.

As students embrace everything from note-taking apps to online backup in the classroom, it is no surprise the era of the standard classroom lecture is all but gone. Now is the time of online learning. Nowhere is this change more prominent than in the college classroom, where students everywhere are asking for more integrated lessons that consist of a mix of lectures, group learning and other methods that shift towards tech and away from the traditional lecture model.

What’s changing in the classroom?

Photo of “Massive Open Online Courses logo” by Elliot Lepers via Wikimedia Commons

Nearly 50 percent of college students surveyed by CDW•G for its 2012 “Learn Now, Lecture Later” report indicated they wanted their instructors to incorporate more digital content into their lessons. Many of the country’s leading universities — including Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and Princeton — are offering free classes over the Web, and more than a million people around the world have signed up to take them. These “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, have many upsides, and people everywhere seem to be singing their praises.

Where is higher education headed?

Online teaching can be far more flexible and accessible than traditional brick and mortar classrooms. MOOCs allow universities to bring excellent college teaching to large numbers of students who otherwise wouldn’t have access, including those in remote places and those with careers who want to learn new skills without having to attend physical courses. Some even consider this style of learning an opportunity to boost the productivity and quality of teaching, as both traditional on-campus students and non-traditional students can access more high-level courses than ever before.

MOOCs are giving instructors insight into their own methodologies. Connor Diemand-Yauman, a course operations specialist for Coursera, said when you have a class of 100,000 students, you are able to really differentiate some of your methodology that might go unnoticed in a class of 100. When instructors make MOOCs, they are able to see if thousands of students are missing a particular question on an assessment and allows professors to refine their teaching practices.

MOOCs also offer an affordable alternative to traditional learning platforms. This comes at a time when the cost of a four-year college education can easily top $100,000, often wreaking financial havoc on students and their parents. Many also worry the quality of a Bachelor’s degree doesn’t justify the high price tag, so they are actively searching for educational substitutes that are wallet-friendly.

Michael Nanfito, Executive Director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), recently told Forbes that financially challenged families are looking to online options more than ever. And while MOOCs don’t always count as credits toward a degree, their advocates say the cost-free benefits are worthwhile. The classes can be used as free professional development tools, or for help with remedial courses before college. They can also help students explore personal interests or transition into a new career.

The Wave of the Future?

While online learning bridges distances and creates access in ways that have not previously been possible, MOOCs might not be the revolutionary disruptive force that many have imagined. Skeptics simply don’t believe MOOCs themselves will do to higher education what Facebook did to Myspace as the jury is still out on their efficacy. MOOCs are still in their formative years, so data on evidence of success is still nascent.

There is also growing concern about the lack of personal interaction within online courses. Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and executive director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, says their is a noteworthy link between a student’s social interactions and her success in an online course. The study “Research & Practice in Assessment”, a joint venture between MIT and Harvard, seems to suggest peer interaction increases the chance of a student’s success, yet it doesn’t end there. The MIT and Harvard study further indicates a combination of online and face-to-face learning is more effective than either alone.

Likewise, according to a 2012 study by Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group, two-thirds of faculty members say online learning is inferior compared to learning from traditional courses.

I was reading Dan Frommer’s blog today and read this thought he had on the (failed) turn-around at JC Penney, led by a veteran of Apple’s retail program.

JCP-New-logo-BHe said something about big box retail and big business that we in higher ed would be smart to heed. From the post:

Instead of trying to rescue a dying American heritage brand — one that probably deserves what’s coming to it — he could have spent the last year building his own. Instead of trying to fix Honeywell, he could have built Nest. Instead of trying to make a gauche mall store cool again, he could have rented out a few empty Blockbusters and done something interesting.

This easily applies to higher ed as well.

Are we spending too much energy to fix the legacy issues and challenges associated with higher education and missing out on the new opportunities?

Sure, some of our higher ed institutions are involved with MOOCs and Coursera, but thousands and thousands of smaller institutions are not.

What are they going to do? Are they going to try to fix the dying brand or build Nest?