Those of you following this blog may or may not have heard of the Carnival of Journalism. It was a group of journalism bloggers—both practitioners and academics—who would propose a topic at somewhat regular intervals and all agree to write on it. Their responses would be collected and curated by one of the participants in round-robin fashion. The Carnival produced some really tremendous writing by some really interesting folks, but eventually sputtered as many online communities are wont to do.
But now the illustrious Dave Cohn has rebooted it, and since I’m both a fan of the old Carnival and someone who thinks about this stuff anyway, I’ve agreed to take part. This is my first entry, and the prompt requests that we write something in response to the Knight Foundation‘s recommendation that universities become “hubs of journalistic activity,” or more generally increase their role as information providers for their local communities, as well as the recommendation that schools “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.”
There’ll be many different takes on this from Carnival bloggers, so I’ll refrain from trying to paint some global perspective on this, and look at an interesting trend that touches on both recommendations: the rapid growth in online education.
To begin with, here’s a simple observation: physically co-present, “at-your-shoulder” education is expensive for both universities and students. Over and above tuition, being a full time student on campus costs thousands of dollars a semester in room and board, while generally preventing you from working full time. And if schools want to grow their local student populations, that means building infrastructure: dorms, dining commons, recreation facilities, and so forth. Even if your new students are graduate students who live off campus, you still have to accomodate all their on-campus activities by adding library books, eateries, support staff, classroom space, and so forth. There’s no way to grow a local student population without investing lots of resources.
And especially with a down economy, neither students nor universities have a lot of money to spend in this regard. But imagine, from a school’s perspective, if you could increase your tuition-paying student body without growing all that expensive physical infrastructure? Imagine, from a student’s perpective, being able to continue your education with a degree from Cornell or Columbia without quitting your job in a recession or paying to move cross-country?
This is exactly the economic promise of online degree programs, and they’re growing like wildfire—especially (as you might expect) at private, for-profit universities. Here, for instance, are a few statistics collected from U.S. universities by the BABSON Survey Research Group and the Sloan Consortium [PDF] in 2010:
Sixty-three percent of all reporting institutions said that online learning was a critical part of their institution’s long term strategy, a small increase from fifty-nine percent in 2009.
The year-to-year change was greatest among the for-profit institutions, which increased from fifty-one percent agreeing in 2009 to sixty-one percent in 2010.
Over 5.6 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2009 term; an increase of nearly one million students over the number reported the previous year.
The twenty-one percent growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the less than two percent growth of the overall higher education student population.
Nearly thirty percent of higher education students now take at least one course online
Three-quarters of institutions report that the economic downturn has increased demand for online courses and programs.
According to the same report, most of that growth comes from existing programs so far, rather than new ones. But the writing is on the wall—online degree programs are only going to get more popular in the near future (and though I won’t deal as much with this part of the prompt, it seems digital literacy will prove an important part of this equation). There are active—and at times heated—debates about whether such programs faithfully replicate the experience of in-person teaching—or whether they should.
But, to return to the topic at hand, what does this mean for universities as information providers in the community? There are people who study and know far more about the notions of place and space than I do—I’ll let them educate us all, should they choose to grace the comment thread here with their wisdom. But as online education increases in its influence and relevance, it’s worth asking whether we might see an attendant delocalization of higher education. When the students the university instructs—and in some cases, the instructors it hires to teach them—are scattered across the country and the globe, does the university remain (let alone increase its role as) an institution rooted in the local community.
I’ve greatly overstated all of this, of course. The physical student bodies and the brick-and-mortar campuses of universities are not about to dissolve overnight—or perhaps ever for that matter. And as recent dust-ups over online education, such as the one at the University of Toledo demonstrate, online education isn’t likely to be the 800-pound gorilla at very many campuses in the near future. But when I think about my research on national (i.e., not local) news organizations or look around at the research many of my colleagues in central New York are doing and teaching about—on Internet governance forums in Brussels, public health campaigns in Florida, mobile phone usage in Jakarta, or risk communication in Washington State—it’s clear that there’s no convenient or simple dichotomy to be drawn between placeless online degree programs and locally oriented, in-person education. I have no prescriptions or insightful prognostications, but it seems to me that as the world becomes ever more interconnected, universities are just as—if not more—likely to become less focused on the brick-and-mortar communities around them.
Thanks for reading and bearing with what might have seemed like a tangent. I know many of the other bloggers will probably focus on the more straightforward topic of universities-as-news-reporters. But I’ve been thinking quite a bit about online education of late, as it will be one piece of my new job, and this seemed like a good place to think aloud.