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The death of “online” learning in higher ed

As technologies become ubiquitous, familiar labels will vanish
University Business, March 2016
Craig Weidemann is vice president for outreach and vice provost for online learning at Penn State University and Karen Pollack is assistant vice provost for online undergraduate and blended programs.
Craig Weidemann is vice president for outreach and vice provost for online learning at Penn State University and Karen Pollack is assistant vice provost for online undergraduate and blended programs.

Online learning has expanded dramatically over the past two decades, reaching a high of more than 5 million enrollments in 2013. While that expansion has slowed recently, it still far exceeds overall growth in higher education.

The growth of Penn State World Campus has mirrored this trend, consistently outpacing annual projections. What started as a portfolio of just five online programs and 41 students in 1998 has grown to a full-service online campus offering 143 programs and serving 18,000 students. Ten pioneering faculty members have expanded to 1,000 dedicated online course authors and instructors.

Yet by 2025, the phrase “online learning” could disappear from the common vernacular. How could such a good thing die so young? Two words: ubiquity and integration.

In the 15 or so years that online learning has been with us, numerous studies have found that learning outcomes in an online environment are the same, if not better, than classroom-based learning outcomes. The question is no longer how online education compares to face-to-face learning, but rather whether the pedagogy enables the student to achieve the intended learning outcomes. The delivery mode is irrelevant.

The dizzyingly fast spread of computing and communication has ushered in a new era. From desktop computers to laptops, from tablets to smartphones to the “internet of things” and the plethora of social media, our modes of learning and experiencing the world have changed. We have moved from classroom-based learning to electronic learning (eLearning) to mobile learning (mLearning) to ubiquitous learning (uLearning).

Fully immersive learning

What does ubiquitous learning mean to a research-based institution, as we strive to support a vibrant student learning community?

Ten years from now, we will be wearing our devices and experiencing the world around us through a variety of other technologies. We will be talking simply about learning—an immersive experience that is not necessarily live and not necessarily tethered to a physical classroom space. It may not be a wholly online environment, either. The label “online” will fade from existence.

What are the implications of these ubiquitous, integrated learning experiences? The immersive and all-encompassing nature of learning in the future requires us to reexamine some of the basic assumptions that underlie education in general, and higher education in particular.

Will we need classrooms?  Will students come together virtually and face-to-face in locations both on and off-campus? Will we buy more technology? Will we have more students and faculty working from a distance? Will we look at technology as an efficient mechanism for overcoming constraints around classrooms, access and affordability?

Will we continue to draw traditional-age students and attract them to traditional campuses? Or will those students begin to more broadly represent a global community—traditional age and adult; full-time and part-time; national and international?

Diverse and mobile faculty

In the United States, public and private four-year nonprofit institutions showed the largest growth in the number of students taking at least one distance education course, with a 7.2 percent and a 12.7 percent increase, respectively, since 2012-13.

Penn State World Campus is attracting growing numbers of traditional-age students, reflecting a national trend. Although 18- to 24-year-olds are not our target audience, their numbers have increased by 60 percent since 2012-13.

That’s a small percentage of our student body, but one that is clearly growing. Online education is becoming a routine part of the undergraduate college experience.

We might anticipate that by the year 2025 our faculty will look different, too. A tech tool that may be foreign today will be second nature to the faculty of tomorrow. Our faculty, just like our student body, will be increasingly mobile and diverse.

Craig Weidemann is vice president for outreach and vice provost for online learning at Penn State University and Karen Pollack is assistant vice provost for online undergraduate and blended programs.

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