HETL Global Communities

What Is Higher Education’s Role When Anyone Can Learn on the Internet?

October 30, 2013 in Volume 3

HETL Note: This month’s issue presents a feature article with the intriguing title “What Is Higher Education’s Role When Anyone Can Learn on the Internet?” Throughout the article the author argues with passion and deep conviction for the importance of university education and its role in shaping the future: while the new technology enables a more inclusive and learner empowered educational model there is still a need to guide students and help them develop the skills and values needed to create a better world. You may submit your own article on the topic or you may submit a “letter to the editor” of less than 500 words (see the Submissions page on this portal for submission requirements).

SusanLawrencePhoto2Author Bio: Susan E. Lawrence is Dean for Educational Initiatives and the Core Curriculum in the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS); a fellow in the Center for Organizational Development and Leadership; and Associate Professor of Political Science, at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey (New Brunswick). SAS provides liberal arts and sciences majors to over 20,000 undergraduates in the context of a leading comprehensive research university. An award-winning teacher and faculty leader, Lawrence’s current research involves the future of the liberal arts at the research university; connecting the liberal arts curriculum and 21st-century careers; and mission definition, communication, and assessment in complex institutions of higher education. You can find more about Professor Lawrence’s work and research at her LinkedIn profile. Contact email address: [email protected]


What Is Higher Education’s Role When Anyone Can Learn on the Internet?

Susan E. Lawrence

Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, U.S.A.


The much heralded technology driven disruption in higher education is challenging the worth of the bricks and mortar campus. In response, we must reclaim and demonstrate the transformative educational value of a full-time, physically located, humanities grounded, and technologically current undergraduate experience. Rather than debate modes of delivery, our focus should be on defining, designing, and deploying a higher educational vision that draws on the traditional American liberal arts model and builds on our collective knowledge of how humans have dealt with the innumerable challenges of transformative technological change in the past and how they have grappled with the enduring questions endemic to the human condition. Higher education, online and face-to-face, has a critical mission in cultivating the capacity for judgment, the development of values, and the practice of moral decision making, all of which have been defining purposes of the liberal arts and sciences tradition.

Keywords: Change, innovation, modernization, liberal arts


A recent post on one of the higher education LinkedIn group pages raised the following question: “What is education’s role when anyone can learn on the Internet?” As aggravating as it was to read, it is also on point.

There is no doubt that the Internet’s expansion of information and instruction to the far corners of the globe is invaluable to all of us who believe in the intrinsic (and instrumental) value of learning. But, it was clear from the context that the writer was asking the question that creates a pit in many faculty members’ stomachs these days. What happens to the institutions of higher education? What happens to universities and colleges? What happens to faculty, to their roles and their jobs? There has been a renewed flurry of technology-driven innovations in higher education over the past two years, with MOOCs (massive open online courses) being the latest savior or Satan (there are arguments on both sides) sweeping higher education (Carr, 2012a; Dennis, 2012; Friedman, 2013; Rivard, 2013; Smith, 2011). The possibilities made available by digital technologies and the Internet have all the characteristics of what renowned Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen calls a “disruptive innovation” that is likely to irrevocably alter our institutions of higher education and our methods of teaching (Christensen & Eyring, 2011; Currell, 2013; Mazoue, 2012).

Hard Questions

It is time to ask hard questions about the role of higher education when so much information and so many tutorials are instantly and globally available online. What do institutions of higher education provide to students beyond freely available information they can get elsewhere? What is our educational mission? While administrators and outside observers hail online course delivery as a solution to rising costs, decaying physical plants, increasing demand, and variability in quality of instruction and student achievement (Friedman, 2013; Smith, 2011), we must take care not to be so distracted by the technology itself that we forget our central educational goals.

Modern information technology is, of course, changing education just as every transformative technology before it has: the agrarian revolution, the printing press, the industrial revolution, and the 20th-century transportation and communication revolutions (Carr, 2012b; Matt & Fernandez, 2013). Still, on one level, “what is education’s role when anyone can learn on the Internet?” is a silly question. It is akin to asking, what was education’s role once anyone could read a book. The printing press did not make professors redundant. Rather, the mass production of books and widespread literacy increased the importance of and demand for institutions of higher learning.

Like the printing press, digital technology supplements and enables our teaching. The pedestrian photocopy machine has gone the way of the mimeograph machine, as faculty use course management systems to post syllabi, circulate readings, and give and receive assignments. The pedagogic possibilities created by real-time global interaction, gamified learning, simulations, and immersive virtual realities are intriguing and go far beyond video capture of static lectures and discussion boards (Barko & Sadler, 2013; Beckem & Watkins, 2012; Carleton, 2012; Demirbilek & Demirel, 2010; Inan et al., 2011; Krzic et al., 2013; O’Connor, 2013; Whitton, 2012). The clear distinctions some still try to draw between online and face-to-face learning will continue to blur as faculty in bricks and mortar classrooms find it increasingly useful to employ new technologies within the physical classroom and draw on resources available on the web, including material from an international pool of faculty peers (Armellini & Nie, 2013; Bliss et al., 2013; Kolowich, 2013; Rubenstein, 2012).

But the enormous potential of the digital revolution does not mean that we no longer need face-to-face pedagogies and the physical campus. Nor does it mean that effective higher education can be mass produced. Indeed, it is precisely the same technology that provides the easy access to an unimaginable abundance of information that increases the need and market for genuine education that equips students with the capabilities and knowledge to fruitfully use information and online learning opportunities. The more information we have, the greater the danger of drowning in it.

We do ourselves a fundamental disservice if we come to believe that the university’s educational value is threatened, rather than enriched, by an Internet that allows “anyone to learn anything any time.”

Still, we cannot ignore that parents and policy makers are increasingly and incessantly asking us to answer the economic version of this question: why does higher education cost so much? Wouldn’t it be cheaper and easier for everyone to learn online? Our institutional survival depends on our ability to answer both the substantive and economic versions of these questions in a way that is accessible and persuasive to the many stakeholders in higher education. It also depends, I believe, on our own will and ability to lower our costs and refocus our attention on the preparation and education, in the fullest sense, of the next generation.

Do Undergraduates Want to Learn Online?

There is a popular notion that today’s students are demanding online courses. And, sometimes they are. Online courses give students greater flexibility in scheduling. In fact, this is generally invoked as the great advantage of online education. One typical example plucked from an online higher information guide, AskforEducation (n.d.), reads:

Owing to the gruesome hectic routines and work schedules, learners are developing affinity for online education. The online education assists learners to maintain poise between learning responsibilities and other obligations. Online education allows the students to earn knowledge in a flexible and amicable manner. So, the online education ameliorates the onus that one bears while pursuing a campus-based education (para. 1).

Of course, this is a tremendous advantage for specific populations of students, especially adult students, who account for much of the enrollment growth in online programs as the global economic downturn has spurred workers to retool or upgrade their skill sets.

Still, undergraduate enrolments on bricks and mortar campuses will likely continue alongside online degree and certificate programs for quite some time (Power & Gould-Morven, 2011). While the Sloan Consortium (Allen & Seaman, 2013) and others report steady growth in online enrolments, they also report parallel growth in undergraduate enrolments overall. In the United States, the 18 to 24 year old full-time student is still the modal undergraduate profile, accounting for 49% of the enrolment in undergraduate degree-granting institutions (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011).

College as a physical locale will remain attractive if for no other reason than, typically, 18 year olds want somewhere to go. And, parents not only want their offspring to get a degree that will lead to a job and economic self-sufficiency, but many also want their children to transition to adulthood and independence in an environment that provides supports and a safety net (Spearman, 2010). In a recent United States survey of adults with children in 5th through 12th grades, about a quarter of the parents identified “to become a well-rounded person” as the most important reason for their child to attend college, with about 9% saying, “to learn to think critically” and another 9% checking “all of the above” (Inside Higher Ed and Gallup, 2013). Another survey found that only 29% of American adults agree that an online course represents the same good value as a face-to-face course (Parker et al., 2011). College, and the critical understanding of the natural world, human behavior, and questions of value that the four-year liberal arts and science tradition provides, is, at least in the United States, a central rite of passage shared by those who become the nation’s economic, political, cultural, and intellectual elite and upper-middle classes (Delbanco, 2012; Leslie, 2011; Thelin, 2011).

Anecdotally, the pattern we observe as we advise 18 to 24 year old full-time undergraduate students and review their transcripts is that, although they like the flexibility of taking online courses, they often select them as a “filler” under mistaken impressions that online courses are the 21st-century version of what their parents referred to as “guts”. Typically, our full-time undergraduates do not select online courses in their major or in their particular areas of interest; rather, they select them to meet a general education requirement that they are unenthusiastic about or as an elective needed to reach a full credit load. The Columbia University Community College Research Center’s study of students at two United States community colleges finds the same pattern (Jaggars, 2013). Another study reported that freshmen and sophomores were more likely than juniors, seniors, and on-campus graduate students to choose online courses (Mann & Henneberry, 2012), which is also consistent with our observations. Young undergraduates still value face-to-face classroom meetings, and they know they need to build professional face-to-face communication skills (Morton, 2013). For them, an online offering sometimes feels too much like “reading a book” instead of “taking a course.”

Of course, this is not the attitude all students bring to online education. In particular, online MA programs and BA degree completion programs for adults serve the more mature and purposeful student quite well. And it is certainly true that the best online courses are always better than the worst classroom courses, and vice versa. The best online courses may even be better than the average classroom course. The literature reports a wide range of variables that seem to impact online learning success and it provides no clear answer to the broad question of whether online or face-to-face instruction leads to more learning. The common conclusion recommends a blended or hybrid format (Cacciamani et al., 2012; Emerson & MacKay, 2011; Hart, 2012; Kaupp, 2012; Lee & Choi, 2011; Power & Gould-Morven, 2011; Sana et al., 2011; Smith, 2012; Xu & Jaggars, 2013). The variables identified in the literature and our observations about course selection suggest that when the target audience consists of young undergraduates, fully online courses may bear a heavier burden in motivating students. A physical sense of place and face-to-face interaction with faculty and peers emerges as an important determinant of success among 18 to 24 year old full-time undergraduates (Morton, 2013; Varela et al., 2012.)

The À la Carte Problem

It is apparent that the “online course as filler” issue is part of a much larger, more troubling, phenomenon in undergraduate education. The transformative mission of the liberal arts undergraduate educational experience is increasingly threatened by a growing trend of viewing undergraduate degrees as a series of credits, often from multiple schools, strung together to meet requirements that, to the students, may seem arbitrary, unnecessary, redundant or conflicting. In 2010–11, in the United States, 45% of students who completed bachelor’s degrees had, at some point, attended a two-year college. A smaller group transferred among four-year schools. Less than half earned all their credits at the degree awarding institution (Hossler, 2012; National Clearing House, 2012).

As career preparation has taken on a central role in parents’ and students’ expectations of higher education across sectors, it often seems that if a course does not result in a credential, for example, a major, a minor, a certificate, or a “badge”, today’s students see little point in putting much effort into it, whether it is in a classroom or online. One study found that student exam scores are higher when students believe the course is related to their career goals (Kruger-Ross & Waters, 2013).

Proponents of portable credits, fully online undergraduate programs, and badges rather than degrees also seem to believe that a college education is simply a set of isolated individual courses cobbled together to meet specific degree requirements. Advocates tell us “online education ameliorates the onus that one bears while pursuing a campus based education.” But, it is precisely this “onus” that is a central part of the value of an undergraduate liberal arts and sciences education.

The Process Is the Pedagogy

Central to the traditional American undergraduate liberal arts educational mission is a much larger transformative learning experience that the residential full-time college or university provides as students mature into young adulthood (Christie et al., 2005; Degen & Sheldahl, 2007; Koblik & Graubard, 2000; Mayhew, Seifert, & Pascarella, 2012; Morgan, 2011; Shushok et al., 2011; Spellman, 2010). An important, distinctive, part of undergraduate learning occurs precisely through the four year full immersion experience, with time for repose, reflection and separation from the routines of work and family (Gibbon et al., 1999; Jessup-Anger, 2012). The opportunity to encounter the great minds of the ages, grapple with enduring questions, think critically about values and beliefs is not something to be squeezed in between “gruesome hectic routines and work schedules.” This larger transformative experience is enabling and empowering and a crucial component of career and life readiness, but it is hard to replicate through isolated online courses wedged into already full schedules (Mayhew, Seifert, Pascarella, Laird et al., 2012; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Schreiner, 2010; Yang & Chau, 2011). And, the à la carte, solitary wanderer model of degree acquisition does little to nurture the ability to live and work with those unlike oneself or build many of the “soft skills” so sought after by employers today (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2012; Tugend, 2013).

Online undergraduate degrees may work quite well for professional, technical, or vocational postsecondary education and for older and non-traditional students for whom the full immersion experience is impossible. But, the verdict is still out on whether online post-secondary distance education programs can achieve the liberal arts transformational mission with students who have not yet matured into auto didacticism (Jaggars, 2013; Lo et al., 2011; Roth, 2013; Shennan, 2013) and who may unknowingly forgo the best opportunity they will likely ever have to put aside immediate concerns and explore big questions in search not just of what they will become, but of who they will become. There is reason to be skeptical that simply assembling an array of career specific online and face-to-face courses from a range of institutions provides the same opportunity and encouragement to question values, practice moral decision making, and develop judgment.

Liberal Arts

The residential liberal arts model began as an American phenomenon growing out of the character development mission of religiously supported colleges (Delbanco, 2012; Koblik & Graubard, 2000). It is increasingly being called into question in the United States, where expanded access to higher education, the emergence of an information economy and economic downturns have led students, parents, and policymakers to look to the college experience as preparation for specific careers (Baker et al., 2012; Brint et al., 2012; Gordon, 2012; Kinser, 2007). The irony of this is manifold.

First, surveys show that American employers highly value the critical thinking, problem solving, numeracy, and communication skills students develop through a liberal arts curriculum and are asking for more of this rather than additional technical, occupation specific, training (Hart Associates, 2013; Kinser, 2007; Sandeen, 2012). And, beyond this, we have little data on whether employers view online degrees with the same level of esteem as face-to-face degrees (Columbaro & Monaghan, 2009; Linardopoulos, 2012; Sinow & Kyei-Blankson, 2012).

Second, the future needs of the labor market are particularly uncertain during this transformative period. Job specific post-secondary programs run a high risk of equipping students with specific information and skills that will rapidly become out of date as the next wave of innovation dislocates workers. More dramatically, the current rapid pace of technological change has accelerated the emergence of whole new occupations and the withering of others. Our ability to predict what skills will be needed for what occupations in 10 or 20 years has always been shaky and has declined even more lately (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010; Van Horn & Corre, 2010). In this context, the general ability to engage effectively in problem definition, meta-analysis, and lifelong learning that the liberal arts curriculum cultivates is particularly appealing (Conrad & Dunek, 2012).

Third, while online degrees are extolled for their ability to reach a more racially, ethnically, and economically diverse student body, it is precisely these populations that seem to fare better in the face-to-face environment (Graham, 2012; Jaggars, 2011; Karp, 2011; Lee & Choi, 2011; Xu & Jaggars, 2013). Policymakers’ advocacy of expanding access by expanding online degree programs risks reinforcing the advantages of the haves since they can both afford the culturally sanctioned residential college rite of passage and succeed at a higher rate when they do choose online courses. Meanwhile, the have-nots are shuttled into more affordable, flexible online degree programs in which the studies suggest they are less likely to succeed.
Finally, just as United States schools are placing more emphasis on professional track majors such as business, engineering and health professions, many other nations are looking to add more liberal arts to their higher education mix (Pope & Tang, 2013). Of note are projects in Britain (Labi, 2013a, 2013b); Central Asia (Baker & Thompson, 2010); Anglophone Africa (Lilford, 2012); China (Jiang, 2012); and India, Mexico, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey (Peterson, 2012).

A commitment to the four year full immersion liberal arts experience does not exclude online learning. Within the classic residential liberal arts undergraduate model, we have a duty to provide students with topflight online courses and develop their ability to learn online. Self-directed online learning will be an essential medium for lifelong learning, which is going to be more important for, and available to, this generation than for any generation before. Online courses should be part of the mix of what students do as they move toward their degree, and every course should make pedagogically appropriate uses of technology. And, rather than trying to ban laptops and smart phones from the physical classroom in a futile effort to interrupt the multi-tasking that decreases students’ performance (Junco & Cotten, 2012; Wood et al., 2012), we need to focus on using those devices effectively in the classroom. We need to invest in figuring out how to achieve our educational mission with a student body that is, and will continue to be, plugged in 24/7 (Carmichael & Farrell, 2012; McNeill et al., 2010; Miller, 2013; Milrad & Spikol, 2007; Williams & Pence, 2011).

Education for a Transforming World

There is a more fundamental, but likely unintended, challenge implicit in the question: “What is education’s role when anyone can learn on the Internet?” We have become so enraptured or enraged by the new modes of delivery that perhaps we have forgotten to ask what should be delivered in the digital age. What should education be in the 21st century? Beyond the critical thinking skill set gained through a focus on the liberal arts and sciences as a foundation for lifelong learning or particular career oriented information and skills, what should we be teaching? What education do students need in a world transformed by the technology that allows anyone to learn anything, any time, on the Internet?

We are at what is undoubtedly just the beginning of a paradigm-shifting, technology-driven information revolution. It is changing our conceptions of time, space, identity and boundaries, privacy, ownership and authority. Social media and big data analytics are refiguring our economy, science and medicine, and social and political interactions (Lohr, 2012; Manyika et al., 2011).

Perhaps most important, the more technology advances our ability to manipulate the world around and within us, the more imperative it becomes that we make wise and considered choices (Doughty, 2010). Education must be about more than students acquiring information; it must be about what one does with information. The focus must be on using information to create a better world. It must be about asking the “right” questions, finding and evaluating the reliability of information, and interpreting and contextualising information. Education must be about judgment, values and moral decision making. It must arm the next generation to decide what “a better world” would be. Examples abound: We are on our way to having all the genetic information and reproductive technology needed to create “designer babies.” We know how to split atoms both to create bombs and to provide the energy necessary to power our digital technologies. And, as recent headlines have made clear, we have the ability to collect and mine phenomenal amounts of information about individuals in an effort to prevent terrorism. However, our information technology cannot make value choices about which of these things we should do, when, and to what degree. Institutions of higher education must play a central role in preparing the next generation not just to continue the technological revolution, but to bear the moral burdens it creates (Center for 21st Studies, 2013). As faculty we must distinguish ourselves as cultivators of the capacity for judgment and wisdom, not merely as purveyors of information.

Managing the Future

What will today’s students need to manage the future? What will equip them to flourish in this revolutionary age? What will they need for the lifetime of continuous learning and adapting that the 21st century requires? These are indeed big questions, but ones that the university and the liberal arts college communities are well suited to answer if they will turn their attention to them. The web may be the information storehouse, but faculty are the living embodiment of the knowledge and wisdom of the ages, of human civilization, of each generation standing on the shoulders of the one that came before. Collectively, we know how societies, cultures and subcultures, governments, and individuals have dealt with the innumerable challenges of transformative technological change in the past and how they have grappled with the enduring questions endemic to the human condition as they play out in each era. We know how they have responded to the questions of judgment, values, and morals technological change brings and when they got it wrong.

Based on this, we know our students will need, at a minimum, a mooring, an understanding of the broad sweep of history as an anchoring heuristic as they live through a time of unprecedented rapidity of change. They will need the perspective that comes from a sense of how others have managed change and defined value for themselves. They will need an understanding of their own place, identity, and boundaries in the broader communities in which they live (geographic, cultural, and virtual). They will need an understanding of themselves and their values and those of others, both similar and different on any and every possible dimension. They will need the capacity to engage in moral, ethical reasoning in decision making across realms, including those stemming from advances in technology and science. They will need the ability to think critically about information and assess its reliability and usefulness in problem solving. They will need the lifelong learning skills to keep pace with the advances in technologies and growing information bases. And, they will need the context to keep it all in perspective.

So, as we adapt and embrace new technologies that allow us to engage students in new and exciting ways and to reach whole new groups who previously were effectively shut out of learning and degree credentialing, we, collectively and individually, must also make time to think hard about not just how we are teaching, but what we are teaching. We must re-commit to the transformative character-developing purpose that defined the American liberal arts college. Higher education, online and face-to-face, has a critical mission not just in providing assemblages of information and technical skills, but even more importantly in cultivating the capacity for judgment, the development of values, and the practice of moral decision making, all of which have been defining purposes of the liberal arts and sciences tradition. Therein lies the answer to “What is the university’s role when anyone can learn on the Internet?”


The author thanks Gayle Stein for the invitation to give the keynote address at the Rutgers Annual Technology in Education Showcase; Brent D. Ruben for innumerable lessons and opportunities; Karen Verde for editorial assistance; and Greg Swearingen and Marina Lawrence for support and diversion respectively.


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This feature article was accepted for publication in the International HETL Review (IHR) after a double-blind peer review involving four independent members of the IHR Board of reviewers and two revision cycles. Accepting Editor: Steven Guan (Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, China), member of the IHR Board of Editors. Copy Editor: Barbara Howell (Coventry University, UK), member of the IHR Board of Editors.

Suggested citation:

Lawrence, S.E. (2013). What is higher education’s role when anyone can learn on the Internet? International HETL Review, Volume 3, Article 10, URL https://www.hetl.org/feature-articles/what-is-higher-educations-role-when-anyone-can-learn-on-the-internet

Copyright © [2013] Susan E. Lawrence

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