Earlier this month, the 18th Annual Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning was held in Orlando, Florida. The theme of the conference was entitled ‘At A Crossroads: Online Education in a Complex World’ and throughout the event, that intersection between online instruction and the complexities of the age in which we live were repeatedly brought to the fore. From revelations of Chief Academic Officers in the Sloan-C Online Learning Report which has been monitoring the pulse of CAO’s across the country for 10 years to sessions entitled ‘Designing a Faculty Online Teaching Prep Program for Multiple Audiences’, the conference continually focused attention on the difficult, yet exciting road ahead for education.
For those not familiar with the Sloan Consortium, it is an organization dedicated to promoting and integrating the emergent aspects of online education into the established realm of higher education. Their stated goal to “help institutions and individual educators improve the quality, scale, and breadth of online education” is a mission for which they are passionate. Membership is primarily made up of public and private universities and colleges, community colleges, and other accredited institutions as well as organizations and suppliers that support the principles and practice of online education. A product of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, it is now sustained by its members as a non-profit organization and with 18 years of conferences, it has grown steadily right alongside the World Wide Web.Which brings us to the current crossroads that those of us in higher education face. A crossroad, an intersection, however we define it, the online higher-education landscape is changing rapidly and we have many important questions to consider. How do we incorporate new social models of online learning into an industrial age system of instruction? What will be the ramifications for every facet of traditional higher ed institutions if we do? Can universities so firmly established be expected to make such sweeping changes? If they try, will they be able to do so quickly enough or will new ventures similar to the Khan Academy swoop in to become the premier method of instruction for an evolving educational market? Higher education is not just looking at a shift in the market we serve, but a completely new paradigm for delivery. This paradigm shift is currently in full swing and while many will argue that nothing could possibly threaten, in any meaningful or permanent way, the time honored halls of the educational elite, we would do well to remember lessons from the past. Should we require a wakeup call for the future of higher education in the face of technological innovation, we need look no further than our wrist. For over 300 years, watchmaking had been dominated by the Swiss, but in the span of little more than one decade, a revolution in that industry upended the established order in a spectacular way and sent Switzerland from undisputed king to dazed and confused pauper. Quartz timepieces primarily from Japan flooded the market and left Switzerland in a state of collective shock. What happened to their market? What was so special about quartz watches? Why would so many people the world over, many of whom had never bought a watch that was not Swiss made, suddenly turn their backs on them en masse? Most importantly to the reputation of the Swiss, did the Japanese make watches better than the Swiss? These are questions that our industry could soon be asking and the answers may prove to be ironically similar. Undoubtedly, we will continue to debate whether online offerings are better than face-to-face and whether bits and bytes can replace touch and feel, but we must bear in mind that such reflections will not curtail a mass exodus should it occur. Nevertheless, not every Swiss clockmaker closed their door and assuredly many of our institutions will weather the storm. Rest assured though, when the dust settles, the landscape will chiefly consist of those that saw it coming.