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Change comes hard
higher education's view of online learning follows the familiar "pc pattern"

By Sandra C. Ceraulo / February 2002

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"In the choice between changing ones mind and proving there's no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof."—John Kenneth Galbraith

Online learning represents the biggest potential change in teaching methods since the inception of formal college education. Like it or not, online learning is here to stay.

And it is no secret that many professors do not like it.

Some of the nation's most distinguished faculty members lead the opposition to online education. The resistance of prestigious colleges and their faculty members to e-learning follows a familiar pattern in the history of new and user-friendly technology. I call this sequence of events the "PC Pattern."

The PC Pattern runs like this:

  1. A new user-friendly technology is introduced. Though the new technology is easy to use, those providing it find it difficult to develop and market.
  2. Early adopters, many of them young, fall in love with the new technology and promote it.
  3. The mainstream experts on the exisiting technology denounce the new, user-friendly technology. They believe that the new technology cannot be as good as the one it is replacing. And they are threatened by any significant changes to the old order.
  4. Despite expert disapproval, there is high consumer demand for this user-friendly technology.
  5. Market forces prevail over expert opinions and the new technology eventually dominates the industry.

Recognize this scenario? This is what happened when PCs were introduced. And this generic story applies to the introduction of online learning, too. The lesson will be the same: Change comes hard, but it comes.

Reviewing PC history makes clear the many similarities between the introduction of PC and the introduction of online learning. In the '70s, the employees of IBM—the top computer experts of that time—had socio-economic needs similar to those of today's tradition-bound professors. IBM employees wanted the security of lifetime employment, and prestige and power were at least as important to them as salary. Like professors at prestigious colleges, IBM employees believed there's a lot in a name.

In the '70s, IBM staffers wanted to stay with mainframe computing forever, too. That was the only method of computing they could envision.

Amateurs and hobbyists such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak introduced the new technologies of personal computers to the computing industry. More eccentric and individualistic than their colleagues at IBM, Jobs and Wozniak had a vision of a casual and user-friendly computing world. Desktop computing became a reality because it made computing easy, convenient, and accessible for the public. Throughout the '80s and '90s, high market-demand drove desktop computing's development.

Online education is now following the PC Pattern. Service-oriented colleges and universities like University of Phoenix (UOP) and Jones University and programs like UCLA Extension are promoting this convenient, i.e. user-friendly, method of education. With 75,000 students, UOP is now the largest private university in the nation. This makes the demand for online education indisputable.

When IBM finally saw the light in 1980, it had to get personal computers to market ASAP. A PC team was committed to a "real-time" deadline of one year. It was too short a time for IBM to make the parts for its own personal computers. So IBM snapped together a personal computers from parts purchased from other companies, and stuck IBM labels on them. IBM put together a PC any competitor could clone. And many soon did.

Colleges opposing online education could learn from this chapter in the history of technology. Online education is between stages 3 and 4 in the PC Pattern now. Many experts—i.e. professors in prestigious universities and colleges—assume that convenient online education cannot be as good as its face-to-face equivalent. However, the high student demand for online education has driven its growth.

If colleges refusing to put their courses online hold out much longer, they will have to put courses online ASAP to survive. Rather than adapting their own courses for the web, time constraints may force these colleges to put together courses from modules produced by outside vendors. Clonable college courses could result, and prestigious colleges could lose their market dominance.

IBM did save itself back in the '70s. Why? Because, IBM was a business. As such, profits were and are the obvious measure of its success. Little guys like Wozniak and Jobs made it obvious that IBM was losing a large share of the computer market. Market forces cried "change or die."

So will the colleges and universities refusing to go online be able to save themselves? Yes, as long as these colleges realize the trend toward online learning has too much momentum to be stopped, and they work quickly to put original courses, worthy of their coveted brand names, on the web.

To put distinctive courses on the web, colleges must also increase their instructional design staffs and include computer expertise as a criterion in the hiring of new faculty members. Offering grants, release time, or other incentives to faculty members who teach online would also be a wise investment. And giving faculty members exclusive rights to the intellectual property contained in their courses would, in the long run, help colleges most of all.

Colleges don't need to look into a crystal ball to see what the future will bring. Future undergraduates will start college even more accustomed to the ultra-convenience of e-commerce, and they'll have no memory of life before the web. The demand for 24/7 college courses can only grow.

For as long as I can remember, I have heard teachers at all levels complain about students who have poor attitudes toward learning. The roles are now reversed. It's time for teachers and professors to stop complaining about having to learn a new way to teach.

We know we're not going back to mainframes and life before the PC. And the harsh reality is that we're not going back to life before e-learning, either.


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