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Online Learning: Higher Education’s Electrical Vehicle

Online Learning: Higher Education’s Electrical Vehicle


In this week’s Inside Higher Education learning innovation blog, Josh Kim writes about how the future of the automobile industry is electric vehicles. Gasoline-powered pickup trucks, specifically the Ford F-150, are among the largest sellers and most profitable automobiles, and yet, the entry of electric pickups into the market has started to pick up. Why? Carmakers want to be responsive to the market and to regulators regarding the emissions of their products.

Dr. Kim poses the question, “How do electric trucks relate to higher ed?” Next, he posits that large face-to-face lecture courses are the F-150 of higher education.

The economics of having hundreds of students in a lecture hall listening to a single professor is wildly profitable, and the economics are even better when the professor is a part-time instructor or non-tenure track instructor. There is little evidence, however, that large lecture courses are optimal for deep learning.

Online learning, according to Dr. Kim, is the electric car of higher education. Deep and immersive online learning experiences will eventually replace large lecture courses.

Also, these online courses will be designed to support all students by using adaptive learning algorithms or artificial intelligence (AI) techniques. Dr. Kim writes that highly resourced online courses, staffed by a critical mass of coaches and tutors, will be the gold standard for the foundational courses of the future.

Will colleges and universities kill their highest return on investment (ROI) educational offering? Dr. Kim writes that they need to invest and make the online learning transition now or watch other, more forward-looking institutions pass them by.

I agree with Josh Kim’s analogy as well as his conclusion that colleges and universities that don’t invest in developing highly resourced online courses to replace their foundational courses will be at a competitive disadvantage to the more forward-looking institutions that make those investments. Some of this is evident with the enrollment growth in fall 2020 at colleges and universities that already educate a large online student population. I doubt that the elite colleges and universities will rush to make these investments, but tuition-dependent institutions that do not have an elite brand would be wise to make these investments.

From my perspective, there is a window of opportunity for many colleges and universities to make these investments, some collaborating through consortiums to share the costs. I have argued for years that state-of-the-art, resource-rich, online foundational general education courses could be developed centrally (by state systems or private consortiums).

Incorporating adaptive learning technologies would lead to better student outcomes and, most likely, increased student retention. Providing the courses online would reduce the requirement for physical classrooms and free up space for other activities. It would also provide an opportunity to offer the courses year-round, meeting the needs of many working adults in the area.

I concur with Dr. Kim that now is the time for colleges and universities to make those investments or be passed by. The next couple of years will be interesting.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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