Numerous survey participants inveighed against online instructional practices. These respondents particularly derided the term “distance education”—a delivery method they often described as impersonal online videos, automated testing, asynchronous participation in online discussion boards, and/or submission of assignments to a faceless teacher.
An anonymous respondent wrote, “Online interaction has shown too many drawbacks compared to face-to-face interaction: Non-verbal communication cannot be conveyed using online media, and the efficacy/efficiency of offline groups is still too much higher than online groups. The learning experience is also a social experience where students need to grasp not only academic resources, but also share experiences, learn from others, and experience a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. These goals wouldn't be easily reachable in an online setting.”
There were many people who expressed sincere alarm at the prospect of mass classes with little to no personal attention for the students. They disparaged “distance education” and said a traditional, on-campus education has value that cannot be matched by any other experiences. Amber Case, CEO of Geoloqi, cyborg anthropologist, and professional speaker, said, “I greatly benefited from in-person lectures, and they are still a very important component of life and education.”
Survey respondents referenced universities’ role as a socializing force. Steve Sawyer, a professor and associate dean of research at Syracuse University and expert of more than 20 years of research on the Internet, computing, and work, observed, “College will continue to be a place of advanced adolescence for many, and this requires face-to-face activities.”
An anonymous respondent wrote, “You won't get an undergraduate degree from Berkeley or Stanford or Harvard or Yale from your parents' basement. Doing so would belie the real purpose. Universities—where 17-year-olds turn into 21-year-olds and learn to make do for themselves for the first time, buy their first vacuum cleaner and their first cookbook, hold their first dinner party, and negotiate their first lease—these are about making the transition to adulthood and independence and have to be done in the real world.”
Some respondents speculated that social networks may close the gap between face-to-face and online interactivity; after all, they are the “place” where college-age adults congregate when class is not in session.
Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft, weighed that prospect. “Whether online social networking will provide mechanisms for youths to shed their high school personas and networks and try out new more mature personas and develop new more challenging and rewarding networks, I don't know,” he said. “Universities inevitably brought almost all students into forced contact with sets of people they might or might not have chosen to mix with, but they and society generally benefited from it happening, most people might agree (and I certainly believe so). Many traditional cultures have designed ‘rites of passage’ into adulthood, a ceremony or accomplishment by which a youth who has assimilated what it means to be an adult in the culture is given license to shed his child persona and adopt an adult persona. These have largely disappeared. We may let people drive at 16, vote at 18, and drink at 21, but on the whole they don't mean that much. Universities were a place some of us could start over, and without it I do not see how to guarantee a perpetuation of adolescence, unless economic adversities between now and 2020 force many people to pull themselves together to survive. I'd like to be more optimistic that some social media development will come along, but it will only happen if we want it to, and the evidence seems to be that prolonged adolescence is something our species can be comfortable with. And maybe it isn't a bad thing, but I tend to think it isn't ideal. So there is a shade of grey for you.”
Futurist John Smart—professor of emerging technologies at the University of Advancing Technology and president and founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation—took the notion further and said that by 2020 online social networking will already possess enough value to adequately substitute for the majority of traditional social networking on college campuses: “The other value of college, the social one, meeting others who you network with to do things like start businesses, is the one that is rapidly moving online as social networks, meet-ups, and Internet television advance,” he said. “The typical BS holder has just shown they can do something difficult, nothing more. This will remain 90% of the value of a college education (the social value will no longer be exclusive to brick-and-mortars by 2020) and will remain the primary requirement for entry-level work in 2020. With luck, perhaps 20% of online and brick-and-mortar BS students will be engaged in online (more than half) or in-person (less than half) internships at some point during or immediately after BS graduation. Again, MS, technical, certificate, and remediation education will be online both earlier and more extensively.”
Even the smell and feel of being face-to-face might be something possible to achieve by distance, contended Tan Tin Wee, who is based at the National University of Singapore and a participant and leader in many Internet engineering efforts. He said, “In-person events will become all the more important. Not all subjects can be de-physicalised. Somebody has to be in physical contact as much as we want to believe in telesurgery and tele-remote research in the wet lab. Internet haptics and aromatics will take another few decades.”
Even today’s inexpensive tools like Skype and the affordances offered by Google Docs allow for greater out-of-class interactivity. Cyndy Woods-Wilson, an adjunct faculty member at Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Arizona, and content manager for the LinkedIn group Higher Education Teaching & Learning, wrote, “There is a need for speed, and fortunately we've got it. Universities are quickly adapting content delivery modes from all face-to-face to using free online modalities like Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags and Google Plus circles. Not only does it allow higher education to change from costly on-site installations of software (and subsequent upgrades), it allows students to use familiar tools to explore the unfamiliar. Individualized learner outcomes exist naturally within the cloud-computing atmosphere, as students choose their level of commitment and involvement in the group. Should they need to re-visit comments, webinars, etc., they are able to do so at their own time. Students will quickly self-select times they learn best, rather than artificial ‘class-times’ set by a rigid scheduling need. And really, isn't that what education is all about?”
More-advanced functions—such as Live HD video streaming—are likely to become more affordable, efficient, and easy to use by 2020, joining the older delivery methods of remote learning, according to some respondents. For instance, the world’s top genetics researcher could deliver a lecture to billions at once and by answering questions in real time the faculty member might make each participant feel as if he or she is standing in the same room.
David D. Burstein, author of FastFuture: How the Millennial Generation is Remaking Our World and a senior at New York University, said, “The biggest change will be the enhancements to connect relevant peers from around the world to the discussions that are taking place in person. Technology will also push universities to become more open-source, have more public livestreaming (with comments) of many classes, offer the ability to enhance collaboration and enhance written work by crowdsourcing will become much more accepted.”
Some experts who had directly interfaced with remote education delivery extolled its unique abilities to engage various types of learners.
Ed Lyell, a professor at Adams State College and consultant for using telecommunications to improve school effectiveness through the creation of 21st-century learning communities, commented, “I have taught Internet courses for over a decade now. My interaction with students is often much more involved and significant with the online students than with the classroom students who avoid interaction. Lurkers can get passed in either model unless the professor makes it a point to force students to get involved and expose their ideas to others.”
An anonymous survey participant seemed hopeful for the prospects of remote learning by the decade’s end, writing, “The 2020 model of higher education will focus on making the student a person who can effectively translate problems into solutions, translate intercultural conflicts into opportunities for innovation, and translate data and information into knowledge products. The move to distance learning is precisely a shift in that direction as universities move to online, fee-based professional programs as revenue-generators while remaining true to their mission to provide a solid liberal arts and sciences education.”
A selection of related remarks by anonymous respondents:
“A good chunk of Scenario B, projected for 2020, has already happened in 2011. A significant percentage of Penn State's ‘distance learners’ are actually campus residents who take some of their classes online to help manage their schedules. When even residential students start preferring online classes to face-to-face, the shift has happened. This will continue to be masked by national regard for residential liberal arts colleges, but any survey of 1,000 students taking any for-credit course would include only small numbers of that population in the total.”
“Just as it is no longer necessary to build or rent a chain of brick-and-mortar storefronts across the country, as with Amazon books, it will no longer be necessary to herd students and teachers together in one physical location. Education, at bottom, is a business just like any other and stands to gain just as much from digital technologies’ enablement of the ‘long tail’ business model.”
“Higher education in the developed world will adopt many new technologies and will remain largely in the classroom with face-to-face interactions. In the developing world, information will be distributed largely through electronic networks. Strong communities will emerge, fueled by talent and ideas, and there will be a dynamic information-sharing relationship between traditional models and new models of education.”