April 23, 2019
You may recall that in December I shared my thoughts about why we need to expand Mason’s online education. This spring, we have had extensive campus engagement through town hall meetings, panels, roundtables, and invited speakers. In many of these sessions, we began to shift our focus from why to how Mason should develop online learning at scale, while extending our education to adult learners.
Given the trajectory of our online evolution, it seems that we have (at least) three possible paths forward. We can gradually scale our own online program in-house; we can create an online entity with investment from a partner; or we can acquire an existing online university that already serves a significant number of students.
Whatever we choose to do must reflect Mason’s commitment to the highest ethical and academic standards. As you know well, over the past decade, a segment of online education has been impacted by the predatory practices of some for-profit universities. It is understandable that some in the Mason community are concerned about the stigma attached to online learning, and the risk it may pose to Mason’s reputation.
In fact, it might be helpful for us to lay out essential characteristics for the kind of online entity we can all be proud of. The first principle should be students first enhancing students’ success must be at the core of what we do. Our mission has always been to provide access to excellence. Therefore, the use of new technology is worthwhile solely to the extent that it produces successful learning outcomes. To achieve student success would require us to operate with uncompromising academic integrity in whatever entity we create.
Quality should always be our imperative many still remain skeptical regarding whether high-quality online learning is achievable. True, universities have been struggling with online learning for decades. Nevertheless, with technological and pedagogical innovations, higher education is on the cusp of a major shift. Reputable, affordable, at-scale models offered by top-tier institutions are emerging and starting to change the landscape and perception fundamentally. It is our responsibility to take that trend seriously. Many institutions are legitimately concerned about competition from those that offer academically rigorous online learning options¾the demographic shift from traditional students to adult learners has exacerbated that concern.
Perhaps the most important characteristic is the opportunity for us to push the envelope for innovation. In one of our campus engagement sessions, Mason hosted Richard A. DeMillo, a computer science professor and director of the Center for 21st-Century Universities, to learn from Georgia Tech’s success in providing a high-quality online degree program. Importantly, Georgia Tech is leveraging artificial intelligence to create an individualized approach to serving students.
Professor DeMillo described Benjamin Bloom’s mastery learning strategy in the online context. As much a philosophy as an approach, mastery learning holds that all students can learn if provided the opportunity to set their own pace. Bloom found that tutoring, combined with regular corrective feedback, enabled students to perform two standard deviations (2 sigma) better than students taught in the traditional classroom. Using this strategy, a curriculum is taught in smaller learning units, followed by an assessment of what a student has mastered and where work should focus to achieve the learning outcomes. This way of learning is not possible in a classroom with a large number of students; a teacher is limited in the extent to which she or he can individualize the learning to students’ respective needs. The challenge that Bloom set out, and which has remained unmet, has been how to scale mastery learning in an affordable way.
With recent innovations in online learning platforms, we are starting to see potential to meaningfully respond to that challenge by applying mastery learning. It is now possible to provide high-quality instruction on a number of topics, at a lower cost, and with individualized lessons that allow students to learn at their pace. This may be combined with collaborative learning¾joint intellectual effort by groups of student to offer powerful new paradigms of learning that are not possible in traditional classroom settings.
This sort of innovation reminds me of the personalized and connected experience that is intrinsic to the rise of Netflix, Uber or Amazon. We use these services at our convenience, at the time and place we want, and in the ways that we want while connecting to the rest of the world. And while Mason is motivated by an ethos of public higher education, let us not forget that these services fundamentally reshaped their corresponding industries.
For the purpose of spurring our collective thinking and discussion, here is one example of how high-quality online learning might better serve our students. Many professional fields are increasingly accentuating competencies. The shift in focus from degrees to specialties is akin to breaking things down into a mastery learning format. Ideally, individuals would be able to curate their own online education based on their goals and interests, or improve their credentials without a near-prohibitive investment of time and money. Ultimately, we want individualized online options to inspire students to become lifelong learners who continuously gratify their intellectual curiosity.
Let me close for now by saying our dialogue on online education has surfaced the key question: can online learning open new grounds for Mason to claim a leadership role in potentially the most consequential innovation in higher education? If Mason is to do this properly, we need to focus our conversations on how we can do so in a manner that stays true to our values: to put the student first, to uphold our commitment to academic integrity, to deliver high quality and affordable online learning at-scale, and to drive innovation at a critical moment in higher education.
I hope you will share your thoughts and feedback.