Every university has e-learning in its future

Interview / Gerald Heeger

"Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won't survive.... It's as large a change as when we first got the printed book."

- Peter Drucker, 1997

When management guru Peter Drucker forecast the end of higher education as we know it, it rattled a few college presidents but left most unmoved.

Now comes an explosion of online education, driven by for-profit companies hoping to attract masses of adult learners who'd rather learn from the comfort of home.

As these virtual universities pair with well-known names like Columbia or the London School of Economics, traditional institutions are glancing over their shoulders and rushing to offer a few courses online.

But Gerald Heeger, president of the University of Maryland University College, isn't perturbed by Drucker's forecast. Big sprawling campuses may indeed become an endangered species, he says, but most colleges and universities will adapt and benefit from the Internet, rather than being destroyed by it.

That's what his public university has done, earning a reputation as one of the top "virtual universities." Since arriving at the school in College Park last year, Dr. Heeger has created a new for-profit online subsidiary. UMUC offers 15 undergraduate and 10 graduate degrees online. Last year, it enrolled 40,000 students in online courses, double the number of the previous year.

Here's what Heeger has to say about higher education's quick march toward e-learning:

Is Mr. Drucker right that the university as we know it will draw to a close within a few decades?

He probably overstated the case. My view of the university is a bit different. We have historically gone through overlays of different kinds of institutions springing up. The last great overlay happening now is the emergence of institutions focused on adult, part-time learning, to reach people where they are, carrying on their busy lives.

More than 50 percent of our graduate program [at UMUC] is now online. Students tell us they like the choice of going to class on-site or online. Either way, they expect to have the same level of quality.

Enrollments at universities are soaring, so can't higher education ignore the online phenomenon?

No. Online education, or e-learning, is going to be mainstreamed in every university in terms of that university's specific mission. Some may find its greatest use among traditional students, who may take a course or two online from their dorm room and regular courses in the rest of their schedules. Online elements will be introduced in coursework everywhere. How it is adopted will depend on the individual mission of the institution.

Can brick-and-mortar schools hope to compete effectively with future online universities?

I think so. There's no question higher education will have to adapt, though. We're in an era of lifelong learning where people will have four to five careers, so the notion of continuing professional education is fundamental, and an online environment will play a big role. That kind of audience is so large it has attracted for-profit entities. So, now, for the first time, educators are being perceived as an industry.

There's no question many universities feel the need to go online so they aren't left behind. But I think ... these concerns will settle somewhat as various institutions figure out how new technology and pedagogy fit together.

What's happening is the next step in American higher education: The options available to students continue to grow. And as more students these days are adults, the need to have options not geographically based or chronologically fixed is more important. Forty-four percent of all undergraduate students are over the age of 25. So not every institution has to respond to those students. But if you have those that want to respond to the adult population, they have to solve this problem of time and place.

What are some of the signs of this response?

One sign is the new collaborations between institutions and commercial enterprises, like publishers.

Another sign will be that students in the future will be simultaneously enrolled in two institutions of higher learning. It is absolutely conceivable to me that someone attending a liberal-arts college in California will want a second major in a more technical field that their liberal-arts college can't give them.

Is there a fundamental problem with calling a for-profit business a provider of higher education?

American higher education has never been entirely separate from the workforce, but has evolved always as part of the growth of American society. The emergence of new occupations and new needs and functionality in society [has] always engendered talk about learning for learning's sake, but there's always been a for-profit side.

The emergence of for-profit entities as online partners is not a surprise. As always, the issue of what's appropriate or not is going to be wrestled with.... Are these relationships controversial? Absolutely. But each one reflects each university's approach. Everyone is essentially struggling with the same problem: how to acquire the capital necessary to develop the quality courses.

What about the hype? Is it just marketing hyperbole?

I think, ultimately, online education will produce as rich an outcome as people think it will. It's leading us in directions we haven't thought of. Right now, hype is very much present. What we're witnessing in the dotcom area is the emergence of many business models. Over time, some companies will be judged a success.

We're witnessing the gradual understanding of what online education can provide. But that understanding will be reached on an institution by institution basis, with some becoming far more committed to it than others.

What is the promise of the online university?

I think the grand promise of an online university is its ability, ultimately, to offer a very rich learning environment worldwide to people who might not otherwise have access to that sophisticated education. The charge that online education is nothing more than warmed-over correspondence courses demonstrates nothing more than a fundamental misunderstanding of this new environment.

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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