As Online Classes Gain Acceptance, Colleges Must Adapt

Ann McClure's picture
Friday, February 8, 2013

Suffolk University came into being more than a century ago as an unconventional law school for nontraditional students. So it will be fitting — and helpful to other institutions — if the school can position itself now as a leader in adapting to deep changes in American higher education, especially the dramatic expansion of online learning.

Like many universities, here and elsewhere in the country, Suffolk started with a narrow mission — to be an evening law school for students with day jobs — and expanded its offerings over time to replicate more of the undergraduate and graduate programs at more established institutions. Now, that era of rapid institutional growth at universities seems to be ending, especially for schools that, like Suffolk, rely heavily on tuition rather than research grant revenues or vast endowments for their funding. In response, Suffolk’s newly inaugurated president, James McCarthy, is moving away from an all-things-to-everyone approach. Instead, the university’s new strategic plan focuses on academic areas where the school has been strongest and those that lead most directly to careers. It also vows to use more online instruction, in part to keep tuition costs down.

Some students and faculty might see the plan as limiting Suffolk’s horizons. Despite compelling research suggesting that students can learn well from courses combining online lessons with face-to-face teaching, implementing this approach on a large scale would require changes in how Suffolk deploys personnel — and risks the perception the school is trying to educate students at a discount.

Yet most other universities will have to reassess their priorities in coming years, too. Just as the advent of the Internet has transformed the media landscape, it’s likely that future students will see a substantial amount of online instruction as an acceptable part of a college education. Future employers are bound to follow suit.

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