The Future of the Digital University

 Dr. Wallace E. BostonI recently participated on a panel at the University of Pennsylvania’s Future of Higher Education conference. The text below is excerpted from my prepared remarks.

It’s no surprise that we have both digital-only universities and universities that offer digital classes. However, you may be surprised that in the U.S., we have 140 digital-only universities and 3,338 universities and colleges offering online courses. The latest Babson Survey Research Group online learning survey found that approximately 6.4 million students attending U.S. universities (representing 31.6% of all students) took at least one online course in the last year. Almost half of these students attended one of 235 institutions representing 5% of U.S. higher education institutions.

The ten largest institutions with online enrollments account for over 10% of all distance education enrollments. Nearly half of the students studying online and approximately 15% of all those enrolled in higher education are studying exclusively online. As a result of this growth in online learning, one million fewer students came to campus in 2016 than in 2012, undoubtedly contributing to the compressed enrollment margin for many schools.

With the acknowledgement that the Internet has provided a big impetus for the growth of digital teaching over the past 20 years, what are the positive outcomes from that technology innovation?

  • Online has expanded access to higher education – virtually anywhere, anytime – with the advent of smartphones and other “always-on” devices providing even more flexibility.
  • Asynchronous learning (where the instructor and students are not in the classroom concurrently) is the most popular format.
  • As more institutions went online, distance learning became more localized – 56% of students taking exclusively online courses lived in the same state as the institution in 2016.
  • This trend is more accepted in the U.S. by American students, with only 1.5% of foreign students exclusively taking online courses in 2016.

A 2004 publication, Thwarted Innovation: What happened to e-learning and Why?, co-authored by my academic mentor and Penn professor Bob Zemsky and Bill Massy, concludes “that e-learning took off before people really knew how to use it.” At the time, they were right. But as the number of institutions with online courses and programs has increased, the knowledge and experience of the participants has increased along with advances in technology.

Among the most noteworthy areas of accomplishment, we can include, firstly, large-scale assessment. Because every interaction between students and faculty can be captured in an online course, we are able to extract far more data about learning than just letter grades. Through initiatives such as the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile, faculty can construct a framework for evaluating the courses required for mastery of a degree program and map to specific assessments required for progression in a course and program.

Moreover, adaptive learning technologies can be incorporated in digital courses that analyze students’ incorrect responses and provide them with additional learning content designed to improve their knowledge in the related deficient area. Adaptive learning software can also be successfully deployed in competency-based education courses, an initiative spawned years ago through the prior learning assessment movement but made more scalable and auditable through advances in digital technology.

Success in learning requires more than an ability to comprehend the supporting content; engagement between both the learner and instructor and with peers is also critical. Large-scale implementations of software in digital classrooms by companies like Civitas Learning have enabled institutions to track and monitor student engagement and analyze the effectiveness of styles of instruction as well as specific assignments for engaging students in order to maximize their enthusiasm for learning. Mentoring and coaching, something done more informally at traditional institutions, is increasingly incorporated into online classrooms and student advising through digital innovations.

Another major initiative is the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, the foundation for which was firmly established when MIT founded its OpenCourseWare initiative in 2001. Since then, OER has allowed faculty members and institutions to share their instructional materials, thereby reducing textbook costs and, arguably, redundant content creation for courses utilizing settled knowledge. I found at least 14 sites offering OER, which in turn have spawned “z degrees,” degrees for which students do not have to purchase textbooks.

While OER has expanded access to educational materials and lowered textbook costs as z degrees spread (our degree-seeking undergraduate students have been offered textbook grants since 2001), the cost of an online education has not necessarily lowered the costs of a degree. We know about the widespread availability of MOOCs and their “no-to-low” cost, but when it comes to aggregating MOOC courses into a degree granted by an accredited institution, the cost of tuition increases dramatically because few institutions want to cannibalize their existing student population or their brand reputation.

There are also wonderful things happening with the advent of artificial intelligence and incorporation of machine learning into digital classrooms, as my fellow panelist and subject matter expert Candace Thille will tell you. From my perspective, collecting and analyzing “big” data is critically important when utilizing these advances since teaching to the “average” won’t work for all.

We are now at the stage where execution is the tricky part of advancing digital learning – many of the 3,300+ institutions offering online courses and programs have not truly taken advantage of digital technology in order to provide scalable and more affordable learning experiences. The expense of executing effectively on a large scale will continue to enable but a few major players to scale up and keep everyone else operating on the margins, if at all. Smaller institutions may effectively operate at a smaller scale by adopting some best practices in course and degree design and building stackable micro-credentials that lead to degrees and, ultimately, to jobs, with guaranteed outcomes for their students. Those same attributes can be accomplished by non-accredited entities, but that’s a larger discussion for another time.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence