The advance of technology in delivery is transforming higher education in America. Approximately one-third of current higher education students are enrolled in at least one online course, and the number is growing at a significant rate. Ron Trowbridge of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity thinks this trend will expand into radical reform and what he calls “disruptive innovation” in higher education, much like Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction”. I agree and I applaud this phenomenon because I see the absolute necessity of expanding distance learning for a variety of reasons, not to mention its inevitability, but I am concerned about two aspects of this trend: one, its growing emphasis on the purely vocational attributes of postsecondary education and two, the decline in many of the benefits offered by the traditional higher education experience, particularly in the liberal arts.
In the first instance, we who are heavily involved with elementary and secondary education are in a continuing debate with those who would predestine many of our students to a vocational pathway that is void of the rigor necessary for success in the 21st century workplace, which is synonymous with postsecondary success on either pathway–college or career education leading to industry certification. The motto on this issue for my organization, the Texas Institute for Education Reform, is “one standard, multiple pathways, equal rigor”.
In the second instance, higher education is about much more than vocational preparation. A purely vocational curriculum deprives our students of the necessary grounding in many of the verbal, analytical, and communications skills that are honed by an immersion in the liberal arts, not to mention the study of the founding principles and cultural literacy of America which are necessary for responsible citizenship. These groundings are best absorbed in exchanges with other students and mentors in an interactive setting.
So I am supportive of the initiatives to enhance the accountability of higher education for the progress of its students and the advancements in technology and productivity in its delivery, and I am hopeful that the hybrid online/classroom capabilities and the enhancement of interactive content quality in online delivery proceed at a pace that will mitigate my concerns.