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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 July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 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. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is 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, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. 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. Dr. Boston lives in Owings Mills, MD with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.


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