Technology Democratizes Higher Education

Over the course of the last decade, parents, students, and educators have turned a critical eye to the state of the higher education system. Americans have expressed concerns with the astronomical rise in college tuition, low completion rates, unemployed graduates who are  ill prepared for the workforce, and the trillions of dollars in debt students have accumulated.

Observers have rightfully concluded that higher education in America has long been on an unsustainable path. Although highly selective American institutions consistently rank highly among world universities, these schools are highly inaccessible to the majority of the population, as a mere .4 percent of undergraduates attend Ivy League schools. The rest of the student population is relegated to the middle of the academic spectrum: state schools and private colleges. Degrees which have, over the course of a decade, significantly diminished in value.

Facing what would amount to exceptional budget cuts, many mid level universities inflated tuition costs during the 2007-2009 economic recession. This, unfortunately placed the onus on students and middle class families, who will be paying the price for years to come. These degrees also offer little competitive advantage in an over-saturated job market. And that’s just if they are one of the few students who manage to complete their degree in the first place.

Unstable economic climates paired with lack of funding naturally lead to diminishing quality of instruction. Many have argued that now is the time to overhaul the entire educational system as we know it.

But what would the future of higher education look like? 

Some scholars are arguing that the future of higher education lies in the hands of a small group of innovators spearheading revolution through technology and access. Richard DeMillo, a Distinguished Professor of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, chronicles these innovators in his most recent work, Revolution in Higher Education.

Innovation started in a Stanford University classroom, when computer science professors Daphne Koller and Jennifer Widdom used internet technology to open the Stanford classrooms to a larger audience. When their courses were finally offered on Stanford’s open learning website, an unprecedented 150,000 students signed up.

Their massive success was later repeated by Sebastian Thrun, another Stanford professor, who offered a free version of Stanford’s artificial intelligence course via web platform. Again, 150,000 students enrolled in the course, many of which were Thrun’s students on-campus.

Across the country at MIT, Professor Anant Agarwal used open courseware to teach an online version of his required engineering course to over 160,000 students, promising he would provide an MIT-branded certificate to any student able to complete the course.

These Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) caused a rift in educational discourse. Educators began to flock to the idea of using technology to enhance pedagogy. The work of these select few professors redefined the possibilities for higher education. Leaders and administrators were made aware of the possibilities for the future of higher education, but had a difficult time coming to an agreement about how much change was needed and how quickly it should come. There were outspoken administrators however, who made sweeping changes to their universities shortly after the recession.

Arizona State University president Michael Crow had been a progressive thinker in higher education since his appointment in 2002. He believed that research universities had become too exclusive in their quest for prestige and high rankings, which made them inaccessible to students who didn’t fit into certain criteria.

Crow full believed that unequal access was a threat to higher education, and that through technology, accidental differences in students’ circumstances could be eliminated. In efforts to make higher education more accessible to minority students, single mothers, and others disenfranchised by traditional forms of education, he created the New American University.

He did this, largely, by unveiling Arizona State University’s online degree program, one of the first of its kind to allow students to earn their degree from anywhere in the world entirely through an online platform. In the years following, ASU has continued to innovate and progress its online programs to better need the needs of students. Recently, an Environmental Studies course introduced game-based online learning, allowing students to immerse themselves in games where content and curricula are experienced contextually. This year, the program unveiled its Global Freshman Academy allowing students to explore, learn, and complete courses before applying or paying for credit.

The university’s efforts have paid off. According to DeMillo, Arizona State University graduates the highest percentage of at-risk students in the country.

Many other schools have followed suit shortly after. Georgia Tech offered it’s prestigious computer science course at 20 percent of the on-campus cost, and the University of Virginia’s tackled the question of affordable access through what administrators called the “Commonwealth University.”

These innovations in education led to the announcement that 2012 was  the “Magic Year” for higher education. These few innovators who led the charge for sweeping change in the US higher education system unexpectedly sparked the beginning of a global revolution.  These innovations redefined the nature and value of universities, and in addition presented a more cost friendly alternative to education for the millions of students around the world who were thirsty for knowledge.

As it stands currently, college education is rapidly becoming inaccessible. Rising tuition costs have placed the onus on middle class families to bear the financial burden, causing many people to question the value of an education in the first place. Reformers have argued that through technology, colleges may be able to not only close the affordability gap that exists, but institutions will be able to refocus their priorities on those they are intended to serve.

Danika McClure is a writer and musician from the northwest who enjoys exploring the intersection of social justice in conjunction with established institutionsMy College Planning Team invites guest bloggers to write on current issues in higher education, college planning, and college affordability.



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