ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Will E-Learning Kill the University

By Alison Carr-Chellman / July 2015

Print Email
Comments (1) Instapaper

Much has been made of the demise of the university. Almost every issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education has one article or another about the future of higher education with a focus on the increasingly vocational nature of the college experience (see for one recent example) and the expected decline of one of the most amazing systems of higher education civilization has ever known. Thomas Frey has declared that 50 percent of colleges will close by 2030 in a mere 15 years! [1]. These cries of "the end is neigh" come regularly despite the fact that the U.S. remains at the top of the heap in terms of robust university rankings; eight of the top 10 universities in the world are located here in the U.S., not to mention more than 50 of the top 100. They are increasingly seen by futurists as lumbering, giant sloths too slow to change and respond to the various forces from student debt backlash to increased digital tools.

Why is this happening? We have conflicting reports here. U.S. universities are among the best in the world, but they are at the same moment in steep decline. The question we may want to ask within the e-Learning community is to what extent do the advances of online learning contribute to the significant shifts that may create a true revolution of higher education? What is the impact of online learning on the overall health and future of higher education? And what is it that we can do to save the best and eliminate the worst of the American system of higher education?

For many in the field, online learning represents a significant innovation, a disruptive technology that upsets the normal ways of doing things and creates both opportunity and unexpected outcomes in its wake.

There is no doubt that online learning is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, online learning can become a democratizing force, in which there are far more opportunities for learners with families and jobs to work on degrees while not dealing with the inconvenience of moving their lives or quitting their jobs. On the face of it, this can be a very good thing—a true broadening of the mission of universities. An opportunity presents itself to universities to become something significantly different as they serve new and different audiences. However, the notion that a learner-centered model of online learning will, essentially on its own, create a more democratic and student-driven form of learning is fundamentally overly simplistic and not sufficiently researched to hold any real water at this point. In addition, this perspective is an unfortunately technologically-determinist driven orientation toward seeing democracy as a by-product of online learning. But to this point, the actual online learning materials have approached learner-centeredness in only a very superficial fashion [2].

The troubling part of this major shift is that with it comes some very interesting new forces. Because online programs are increasingly seen as a "cash cow" in which a clear profit is made by selling brand name programs delivered conveniently and asynchronously, there has been consequent increased pressure to ensure all such programs are highly vocationally oriented. In addition to the pressures within the university, from administrators who see online learning as an important part of their strategic planning and future revenue streams, there are pressures from outside as well in the form of competition.

Indeed, there is significant competition from for-profit and on-profit institutions alike, but the for-profit sector has led the focus on highly vocational programs with clear career paths and an orientation toward easy, inexpensive options for those who aren't quite so concerned about brand names. Maintaining high-quality coursework and engaging traditional faculty in this enterprise is increasingly difficult as administrators look for ways to deliver programs more economically [3]. An educational credential today can most surely be bought, and sometimes relatively cheaply, but the question is can an education be gotten so inexpensively? Credentialing is big business; real education with its consequent high labor costs is not so easily or cheaply sold. Competition from external forces, and pressures from internal administration creates pressures on programs that are being offered by traditional institutions to become more convenient, less expensive, and more vocationally oriented.

These forces are creating a true war on humanities [4] in which there is increasingly less real financial support for anything other than STEM majors as universities find that they have to shift responsibilities for the expensive educational costs to others who can pay for them. As we move further and further from a public good stance for higher education, as our legislatures increasingly vote for decreases in funding for higher educational institutions, we see humanities as not only an unlikely major for anyone seeking a "real" job in the "real" world, but also an area that is not wholly necessary for the training of undergraduates. This lack of public funding serves only to increase the pressure in the crucible of higher learning. Therefore, we see decreases in the liberal arts requirements of old creating a generation of graduates who have weak thinking and writing skills [4].

What are the real, palpable impacts of all these forms of pressure on the institution and culture that we call higher education? The reality is that piece by piece, brick by brick we have begun to disassemble the traditional institution of higher education. What will emerge threatens to be narrow, economical, convenient, easy, high-tech, low labor, career preparation. Many might argue it was well past time to re-create the university, and they may be right. The incredible pressure of a crucible, one that creates diamonds also creates fossils. Will we look back someday and see the evidence, layers of general knowledge and learning buried beneath barnacled walls of vocational programs? Will we find a kind of learning we no longer even recognize? We will see a systematic deconstruction through less funding, fewer graduate assistantships, less research in the arts and humanities, and fewer requirements for general education that stretch vocationally oriented learners to be broader and more thoughtful?

What role will e-learning play in this continued demise? Can we recover from the pressures of vocationally oriented administrators, low cost external alternatives with few, if any, general education, non-job-related courses or learning experiences? Since it's not likely that high-priced labor and non-vocational coursework will be the hallmark of online learning anytime in the near future, we must forcibly insist that education continues to mean something real. As my friend, David Jonassen aptly observed many years ago, "a degree is not a Sears credit card." It must mean more than simply filling out an application and waiting a few months while the plastic is processed. Education is meant to be challenging, mind-expanding, difficult, labor-intensive. We simply must ensure that we are protecting the institution of higher education to prevent it from becoming simply a degree factory. To the extent that online learning is a contributory factor in this shift away from one of the finest systems of higher education, we should lead the charge to keep e-learning from becoming one more nail in the coffin.


[1] Frey, T. By 2030 over 50% of colleges will collapse. Future Speaker. July 5, 2013.

[2] Werry, C. The work of education in the age of ecollege. Computers and Composition 19, 2 (2002), 127-149.

[3]Hartman, A. How austerity killed the humanities. In These Times. May 19, 2015.

[4] Nisen, M. America is raising a generation of kids who can't think or write clearly. Business Insider. June 26, 2013.

About the Author

Dr. Alison A. Carr Chellman is editor-in-chief of eLearn Magazine. She has been a professor of Instructional Systems at the Pennsylvania State University for 17 years and currently serves as the Head of the Learning and Performance Systems department. She has written more than 100 articles, books, book chapters, and papers on topics related to school change with a particular emphasis on those populations who are underserved by the current system. Her recent TED Talk, Gaming to re-engage boys in learning, has brought international attention to the issues facing boys in the current educational system and ways that digital learning media may be used to highlight the mismatch between boy culture and school culture.

Permission to make digital or hard copies of part or all of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. Copyrights for third-party components of this work must be honored. For all other uses, contact the Owner/Author.

2015 Copyright held by the Owner/Author. 1535-394X/15/07-2800834 $15.00


  • Sun, 12 Jul 2015
    Post by Ryan Tracey

    The emergence of MOOCs in particular has precipitated a dichotomy of old-world educational institutions on one side and new-world online learning on the other. Yet it is a false dichotomy. Professors who cling on to archaic teaching practices can not rail against technological disruption. Why not embrace the technology to improve the learning experience?

    Alison, you state "an opportunity presents itself to universities to become something significantly different as they serve new and different audiences." I whole-heartedly agree. Not only can they drive the evolution of high-quality online learning, but by deploying the technology in a thoughtful manner, the on-campus experience can become one that is value added for students.