Online courses should be more than an expansion of educational opportunity where there once was none, online college officials, educators, and technologists said Oct. 8 at a distance learning forum in Washington, D.C.

online-coursesWilliam D. Hansen, the president and CEO of USA Funds — a nonprofit that provides financial services to students — was quick to point out that when administrators and policy makers refer to “access,” it has to mean more than making a college education more available.

“Access without success can be a very low achievement,” Hansen said. “What’s more important is completion with a purpose.”

The morning began with Ron Eidshaug, the vice president of congressional and public affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, describing in length the recent history of congressional budget crises, stalemates, and “parlor games of chicken.” Afterwards, he looked out at the crowd of educators and asked, “So, where does that leave you?”

Eidshaug didn’t provide an answer, and the question hung over the campus administrators like the flags above them.

The crowd gathered in the Hall of Flags at the Chamber of Commerce to ask these kinds of questions, even if some still lack a response. It was the 10th Annual Meeting of the Presidents’ Forum, and this year’s theme was “Scanning the Horizon for Distance Learning: Extending Access to Knowledge, Employment, and Prosperity.”

As the conversation of the day ultimately turned to education technology, that sentiment was echoed by other speakers at the event.

Blended learning, MOOCs, and other forms of online education may have opened up post-secondary learning to tens of thousands of people who were otherwise shut out, but how much does that matter if the students aren’t successfully completing those courses and programs?

Take MOOCs, in many ways the most heated portion of an ongoing debate between technology-driven education and traditional face-to-face learning.

Thousands of students are signing up for the online courses, because most of them are completely free, but the retention rates for them are often below 10 percent.

“I’ve always preferred we have that debate in terms of quality, not cost,” said M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

McPherson, who prefers hybrid offerings to fully online courses, said focusing on education technology in this way will also help change the minds of skeptical faculty, who may be weary about retention rates and their own job security.

Not only will there need to be faculty to deal with the influx of students that will come about with these changes, he said, but students will still need a knowledgeable, experienced instructor to help guide them through the content, and, eventually, into the job market.

Appropriate employment following college has to be the end goal, the speakers agreed, even if that is potentially at odds with some of the loftier, philosophical ideas of what a college experience is supposed to be about.

“But  the faculty role will not be eliminated,” McPherson said. “It will be changed.”

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