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.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence