Tech experts, educators see massive online learning shift by 2020

Three in four Americans say college is too expensive.

Higher education’s economics are unsustainable and vulnerable to technologies that could make college campuses the hub of the privileged few, according to a vast collection of opinions from international technologists and educators.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center recently asked more than 1,000 digital learning experts to weigh two drastically different scenarios for how higher education would look in 2020.

About four in 10 survey respondents said there would be “modest” changes in the way college is taught and paid for over the next eight years, and six in 10 expected a fundamental shift in the use of web-based technologies to upturn the current campus order, lowering costs, making education more accessible, and, in some cases, lowering standards.

The transition to classroom technologies – cloud-based learning, eBooks, and video-based lecture halls – will take hold when the cost of a college degree no longer makes sense as a viable investment, experts said. Pew research from 2011 showed that 75 percent of adults say college is too expensive for most Americans, and more than half said a college education isn’t a “good value.”

Peter Pinch, director of technology for WGBH, a public media company, said in the Pew survey that by 2020, colleges and universities will have rid campuses of traditionally large lecture halls, instead focusing on “high-value face-to-face interactions” online and in person.

“As communications technologies improve and we learn how to use them better, the requirement for people to meet face-to-face for effective teaching and learning will diminish,” Pinch said. “Some institutions will focus on facilitating virtual environments and may lose any physical aspect.”

Online learning will become the norm, experts said, when the current system is seen as antiquated. The realization that students are taking on decades of student debt to earn a degree that does not assure them of a job in a lackluster economy will lead to a worldwide shift in how higher education is perceived.

“The age of brick-and-mortar dinosaur schools is about to burst—another bubble ready to pop. The price is too high; it’s grossly inflated and the return on investment isn’t there. Online learning will be in the ascendant,” an anonymous respondent said in the survey. “There will be more international interactions; I believe we will see somewhat of a return to a Socratic model of single sage to self-selecting student group, but instead of the Acropolis, the site will be the Internet, and the students will be from everywhere.”

Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center at the University of California (UC) Irvine, said incorporating more technology into classroom learning wouldn’t, by itself, change the way colleges and universities operate.