Opinion

Is online learning the future of higher education?

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This morning’s tv news story about a “dire forecast” for brick-and-mortar New England colleges has me thinking again about learning alternatives to colleges. WMTW-TV’s reporter said two New England colleges shut down recently, and four more New England colleges are closing their doors this month. The tv reporter said an “alarming number of schools are going out of business, affecting thousands of students.”

Reinforcing the reporter’s point, Senior College Consultant and VP Kimberly Morrison of College Solutions in South Portland, told WMTW in New England’s next decade “the population of college-going students is literally going to fall off a cliff.”

Although she surely meant “figuratively,” not “literally,” going to fall off a cliff, Ms. Morrison did explain the current college closings. WMTW’s reporter cited “cost” and “shrinking population” as key reasons. Morrison said liberal arts schools react to rising costs and fewer eligible students by “dipping,” which she defined as liberal arts schools “admitting students they normally would not, or offering [these students] more financial aid.”

Morrison said that reaction repeats itself until some schools find there is nowhere to dip, and they start running out of students and income.

Several years ago I heard the University of Maine System’s Chancellor — UMS’s Chief Executive Officer — compare the baseline cost of keeping open all UMS’s buildings and staff with the most popular online university. I believe it was the University of Phoenix, so I will use it in my example.

If memory serves, the Chancellor said UMS needs $1.8 million per year just to maintain all its campus buildings. University of Phoenix, said the Chancellor, has a $100,000 building to maintain.

Is it possible we are going through a national transition where online learning eventually replaces a majority of brick-and-mortar schools? And if so, would an online higher learning environment be such a bad thing?

Certain occupations will always require hands-on learning and, therefore, buildings set up to facilitate hands-on learning. Medical professions and many of the trades are examples. But for years now, the internet offers many places where anyone can learn and/or pursue a college degree.

In 2014 I took an online course in computer languages HTML, XHTML, PHP, and CSS. My daily life schedule was jam packed. There was little chance I would have jam packed more into my life if learning computer languages meant physically being in a school classroom.

University of Maine Augusta offered an online course — which was terrific. I needed one textbook, a computer with internet access; one free text editing app and one free app for uploading/downloading my lessons. A UMA teacher used pre-recorded video lessons which I could watch anytime, as many times as I wanted. Basic Q&A for lessons were handled by a teaching assistant, but I could easily communicate with the UMA teacher too.

There are plenty of private sector sites offering courses. LinkedIn Learning recently acquired the successful Lynda.com, offering business, technical, creative online classes taught by “experts.”

Udemy is a similar online place for learning, now advertising their “over 100,000 courses and 24 million students.”

Online places of higher learning also tap into an extraordinarily beneficial market largely dismissed by brick-and-mortar colleges and universities: experts without degrees or teaching certificates. This includes experts in America and throughout the free world.

I loved Yale professor of computer science David Gelertner’s vision of individuals or community groups offering online learning to neighborhood or district students on subjects local schools ignore. Civics, for example.

Societal transitions are sometimes uncomfortable, especially for people who can’t or won’t adapt. But I am encouraged by the transition to online learning. It offers more choices, more scheduling flexibility, saves money, and there are almost no government strings attached.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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