December 19, 2018

Dare to Play a Different Game in Online Education

Here we are at the semester’s end and the close of 2018, a time that naturally spawns reflection on our accomplishments. Just a few days ago, the new Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education once again placed Mason in the top tier (or R1) of research universities in the U.S. Congratulations to all on this remarkable achievement! This is an important reaffirmation of Mason’s commitment to excellence. As we justly celebrate this community achievement, I hope it inspires us to continue to strive, in confident and imaginative ways, to positively impact the lives of our students, the larger community, and the world.

In that spirit, I’d like to share some thoughts about events to come in the context of our intention to broaden opportunities for online student learning.

Universities often claim to help students cultivate a lifelong love for learning. For us, and for me personally, that’s not rhetoric. As an example, although I studied quantum mechanics years ago as an undergraduate, I wanted to learn more. So I availed myself of an online course taught by Leonard Susskind. It was an eye-opening experience in which I received high-quality instruction from an iconic scholar on a topic that really interested me, and I learned at my own pace.

Since I took my course a few years ago, online learning has evolved tremendously in terms of sophistication and learner friendliness. Providers are now capable of offering attentive student support that in many cases is superior to face-to-face instruction, certainly ones in a large class. This is good news for a large, underserved student population, domestically and abroad.

In a disturbing trend, and despite their aspirations, many students find that work, expenses, family and other obligations inhibit their ambition to complete a degree. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2017, over 35 million Americans ages 25 and over had earned some college credit but no degree.

This is an issue of significant social consequence. In our knowledge economy, a college degree delimits career opportunities or ability to participate in the professional workforce. A lack of access to higher education has, over time, produced an underprivileged population and subsequently a devastating societal divide. As a university for the world, we simply cannot turn a blind eye to this enormous and growing social injustice. We need to think together about expanding access to higher education for this underserved population. That’s one reason why our Office of Academic Innovation and New Ventures has begun to explore developing online programs at scale.

As you may know, Mason currently partners with Wiley Education Services, putting courses online so that students who can’t attend classes on campus can participate in graduate programs. Mason focuses on course content while Wiley brings quality production and real-time student support. We are now at a point where we’re ready to consider taking this approach to this large and underserved population of adult learners at both graduate and undergraduate levels. To do this at-scale, we will need to be even more innovative, potentially breaking the mold of traditional universities. In our choice to play our own infinite game, I want us to challenge ourselves to think creatively about how we begin to tackle this issue.

The persistent vacuum in online education for adult learners has motivated numerous for-profit universities to enter into that market. Over the past decade, however, some online offerings have not only failed students but damaged the repute of online education overall. This brings additional complexity to the prospect of serving well in this role. Quite frankly, not many universities have the capacity to tackle this issue properly. But I believe Mason is one that potentially does. So while this initiative is still in a formative stage, it must be substantiated in the expertise of Mason faculty and staff, as well as our commitment to leadership in the world far beyond the campus.

Delivering online programming at scale entails more than opening up a critically important student pathway. It is a chance to respond to a pressing social problem, and to evaluate new tools and methods to realize our vision of providing access to academic excellence in an affordable way. It also is an approach that merits full involvement by the Mason community.

In the coming semester, Michelle Marks and I will host multiple conversations about how we can approach these questions. I look forward to engaging deeply with you. For now, with 2018 on the wane, please allow me to express my appreciation for your role in making our university exceptionally vibrant and vital to the larger community we serve. While continued recognition as a Tier 1 research university is an extraordinary distinction for Mason, it is my unmitigated honor to work with you every day of the year.

3 thoughts on “Dare to Play a Different Game in Online Education

  • I would love to see this university educate/lobby the Department of Education; making it possible for our GMUK students to take advantage of our full array of online course offerings during Spring semesters and Summer terms. I find it ironic that the DOE is putting up barriers that prevent access to education for some of our students.

  • Higher education is indeed changing, and Mason is right to be among the experimenters and innovators in online education. The transition to such courses from traditional on-campus offerings is not easy, given the current constraints of the standard academic schedule. Many courses will need to be completely reimagined and redesigned. As one of the first in my area to work with Wiley on transforming a highly technical, 16-week graduate course into an 8-week online version, I can attest to the challenges and to the value of this effort. The length and the timing of online courses needs to be flexible for both the students and for the course instructors; the concepts and implementations of semesters and academic years, and perhaps even the very idea of degrees, therefore need to evolve.

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