Online learning could help address higher education's affordability problem. But it's not the only solution. And it's going to take teamwork and out-of-the-box thinking to cut education's cost without sacrificing quality.
These are just three of the major points that came out of a California higher education summit on Tuesday, Jan. 8. Set up by the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, the RE:BOOT gathering brought together online course providers, university leaders, faculty, policy leaders and students at UCLA.
While massively open online courses (MOOCs) have generated plenty of press in the last year, they don't provide a panacea for higher education's problems. Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun emphasized that these courses — which his organization supports — don't solve every problem. While they offer technological benefits, educators and mentors are just as important in these classes when it comes to helping more than 8 to 15 percent of students finish them successfully.
"The answer of the MOOC as the solution for everything is just wrong," Thrun said. "It's a component of technology, but the role of the educator is very important."
Just as MOOCs are not the answer for everything, neither is any one type of learning. Face-to-face, blended and fully online options should all be considered and deployed in contexts that make sense, said Candace Thille, director of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University.
"The real question is not which one's best, but how do we blend those," she said.
Along with blending online education options, working relationships are important between faculty and administrators, as well as higher education and industry. At the summit, two California faculty union representatives took exception to many of the things that online course providers said, while three other faculty members did not.
"We're being invaded by these outside forces," said Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers.
But if everyone doesn't tackle the challenge of cost and affordability together, the future could be frightening, said Ray Cross, chancellor of University of Wisconsin Colleges. The traditional divide between many faculty and administrators should be bridged.
"We need to lock arms and go over this cliff together as faculty and administrators," Cross said. "If we don't, what will the future of public higher education look like? That scares me."
Children -- including California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's daughter -- can't survive in a world that promotes a one-way broadcast model for education. The conversation about changing higher education has to go beyond the stale rhetoric of reform and start focusing on how to redesign everything.
"We've got to get serious ... about how we can design a system that can meet the challenges and needs of the next half century," said Newsom, a University of California regent and California State University trustee.
Fears about change is just one thing that's stopping higher education from transforming, said Michael Feldstein, an educational technology consultant and analyst. Instead of trying to do everything, leaders can put their heads together and figure out what can be done in a low cost, massive way, and where higher education should focus its energy.
"Higher education is not very good at figuring out what things need to be unique and what things don't, and I think part of that has to do with fear," Feldstein said.
Along with fear, two other factors limit higher education's appetite for change and leadership in online learning, said Phillip Regier, executive vice provost and dean of ASU Online and Extended Campus at Arizona State University.
"It's only because we lack creativity and imagination that we can't figure out how online learning and hybrid education is going to be the way of the future in 10 to 15 years."