The Future of Higher Ed: A Canary in the Coalmine of Higher Education

The Future of Higher Ed? A Canary In The Coalmine of Online Learning
Lori Packer,Web Editor, University of RochesterLori Packer has become an online adventurer.

She’s taken her torch and wandered into the coal mine of online learning. So far, she’s been spared the fate of many a canary.

Packer (who in the interest of full disclosure works on Link)  gave attendees an account of her journey in “The Future of Higher Ed: A Canary in the Coalmine of Higher Education.” She has been taking online courses for a library science degree she is working on through Syracuse University and a massively-open gamification class at UPenn’s Wharton School of Business.  Her experiences have led her to online learning isn’t new and is here to stay.

“Business models and expectations have changed, but the commitment to open learning and teaching is the same,” Packer said, noting that MIT has offered classes on cable since the early 1990s.

Packer’s Syracuse classes follow a more traditional admissions model: students are accepted to the program and each class has about 20-30 student in it. The Wharton class is a Massively Open Online Course, or MOOC and had 80,000 people register for it. Only 10,700 people submitted the second written assignment in the class.

Among the things Packer has learned:

Faculty are hugely important to the online experience maybe even more than in a traditional classroom setting.  Their level of engagement can make or break a course.

“When you’re an army of one, the only thing you have to hang your hat on is the professor and his or her commitment knowledge and skills…whatever they bring to the table,” Packer said.

Students only use the fancy bells and whistle tools of learning management systems like Blackboard if they have to.

“All of the work takes place outside of the LMS,” in places like Facebook  Google docs or  hangouts Packer said.

Lectures, not discussions, drive an online courses success. “The lecture as a format as content is what binds the students together in an online class more so than “discussions,” Packer said.  Online discussions are work, not actual discussion, Packer argued. Some classes require discussion participation, but many LMS discussion features are hard to use and keep track off.

Measurement and credentialing are important. Schools need to monitor the effectiveness of the classes they offer. It’s a challenge to figure out just what students in the class are retaining.


The next steps will be dictated by just how far the audiences and schools themselves are willing to go. The days of whole majors being created out of online content may not be far off.