Will Online Learning Replace Inclass Learning?

What future for education?

The fact that this is being written on a website suggests that some form of online learning already exists. A web search of this topic provides an ocean of postings with conclusions all over the map. Online learning works; it doesn’t work; it works in some cases, and so on. Because we are in the early decades of the internet age, when developments in communications and information technology are changing how many things are done, it is not surprising that the future is unclear. People are trying to navigate through mists to determine how education, medicine, travel, privacy, crime, government, broadcasting, publishing and many other social, political and industrial activities are being and will be affected.

My interest is to understand how these developments will affect my grandchilren and their parents, by drawing on what little I have learned over the past 80 years, 40 of which were spent in university teaching and research, plus a number of years before that as a student in schools and universities.

One starting point for considering the future of higher education is to decompose the university as an organisation into three parts, staff, students and facilities.

Staff — consists of the academic staff undertaking teaching and research, the support staff and administration.

Students — include full and partime students, on and off-campus students, online, out of town and by correspondence, and former students.

Facilities — include land, buildings (classrooms, offices, residences), equipment (vehicles, laboratories, computers), athletic, medical and other.

This is a bare bones description of a university as an organisation and in some ways similar to a conglomerate firm, because of the range of activities undertaken. Consider these and the associated facilities. They may include student residences, athletic facilities, restaurants and cafeterias, book, computer and other stores, a post office, medical and nursing facilities, banks and cash machines, parking and security services.

Like firms, universities compete with each other and look for a wide variety of revenue streams to meet their costs. Like firms, universities have to negotiate with unions and faculty associations. Another way of looking at a university is to see it as a community neighbourhood, village or suburb.

The complexity of the administration is something I did not appreciate when I was a faculty member, and even when I held a minor administrative position. As a student it never crossed my mind. 

Similar to a conglomerate, a university has certain activities which are essential such as teaching and research, while others are useful or convenient to have but less essential. The business models include full service universities and others offering less services. When I attended the London School of Economics in the centre of London, it consisted of classrooms, library, computer facilities, squash courts, cafeteria, pub, bar, admimistrative offices and washrooms. Other facilities such as residences, restaurants, pubs, cinemas, theatres, book and other stores, parking, and tennis courts were available nearby but not owned by the university. Costs for a university will vary with the services offered, while revenue streams come from fees, rent, research and government grants, donations from alumni, and from various services, such as parking.

Common to many universities is the under utlisation of the facilities, both daily and year round. This has changed as some courses are offered in the evening and year round, such as summer courses, both on campus and online off campus. This is where online teaching can further change the economics of universities.

On and off campus courses

Discussion of online learning often focuses on Multiple Open Online Courses or MOOCS, offered by commercial enterprises in conjunction with university and other academics. A more useful distinction for present purposes is to contrast on campus with off campus delivery of courses.

Earlier versions of off campus delivery were correspondence courses where students were mailed material, listened by radio or view by television, and then wrote proctored examinations near where they lived. E-learning, a general term which includes off campus courses began in 1960 at the University of Illinois and Stanford University. In 1969, the Open University opened in the UK and continues to the present, while in Canada the University of Guelph was an early entrant in the field. MIT was another pioneer.

“ MIT OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW) is an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to put all of the educational materials from its undergraduate– and graduate-level courses online, partly free and openly available to anyone, anywhere. MIT OpenCourseWare is a large-scale, web-based publication of MIT course materials. The project was announced in October 2002 and uses Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.” (Source: Wikipedia).

Today, university offerings range from one hundred percent on campus to one hundred percent off campus delivery of courses as well as blends of the two using various combinations of hardware and software. This is the likely future direction which delivery will take.

Consider some alternatives using the internet. Video lectures are delivered online. Forums are set up for students from around the world to discuss with each other and with the instructor the material presented in the lectures. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are used to create a community of those participating in the online lecture. Assignments are set and marked by fellow students online with some direction from the instructor.

Contrast this with the past where lectures were “the sage from the stage” variety on campus. Students were given a reading list, encouraged to read ahead of the lecture and perhaps could ask questions, if time permitted in large undergraduate classes. Discussion groups might be held on campus lead by teaching assistants with often few students attending. One possible blended course format would be for students to watch an online lecture from a first rate professor, and then attend on campus classes where discussion of the lecture would take place. Such blended possibilities are numerous and are already occurring on a formal and informal basis.


The question posed in the title of this posting remains unanswered, because it depends on two other sets of factors, how credentials for off campus learning are established and recognised, and the likely economic implications for students, faculty and universities. These will be discussed in subsequent postings.


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