NAS Board Member on Online Education

Ashley Thorne

A recent report by NAS board member Thomas K. Lindsay charts the rise of online education, its reception in the academic world, and how best to take advantage of its benefits. The report, "The Future Face of Higher Education: Online Learning in the New Economy," written for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, observes the flexibility online education introduces. Dr. Lindsay writes, "In one sense, online education may be said to democratize higher education" because it enables people who may not otherwise have access to higher education (such as single moms, people in rural areas, etc.) to get a degree. Lindsay cites several studies, including one by the Department of Education, which state that online learning is just as effective as face-to-face instruction, and sometimes it is superior.

He also quotes from a Goldwater Institute study which says that online education will shift "the focus from 'seat-time' to a competency or mastery-based approach." Traditional education isn't really about "seat-time" - or at least, it shouldn't be. If a student doesn't do the work or understand the material, he shouldn't pass the class. But the idea of "seat-time" does ring true when contrasting the semester model at bricks-and-mortar colleges with the increasingly self-paced online options that are now available.

Dr. Lindsay profiles two prominent online ed innovators: Western Governors University, at which 74% of the students are ethnic minorities; and MITx, which appears to "combine the best of Academic Earth and the Khan Academy." 

Dr. Lindsay acknowledges the downsides of online learning, including loneliness and loss of academic quality. He argues that writing courses and liberal arts courses should be conducted in face-to-face classrooms to enable the intimacy of discussion necessary to learning in these areas, but that most other subjects can easily be taught online without becoming weaker.

Other countries, such as Singapore, Turkey, India, and China, are ramping up their online education platforms and may soon leave the United States behind, writes Lindsay. He recommends that Texas lead the way by offering online Early College High School courses, considering providing online access to courses that meet Core Curriculum requirements, and conducting cost studies of degree plans that can be made available online.

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