Ithaka S+R’s recent report “Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education” was the result of a months-long research process with input from many different colleges and universities. Our project team was led by Ithaka S+R senior advisor Dr. Lawrence Bacow, a respected educator and advocate for access to higher education, who retired from his post as president of Tufts University in 2011. After the publication of the report, I asked Dr. Bacow to reflect on our findings in the context of his experience as a teacher and a university leader.

Five Questions for Lawrence Bacow

How has online learning changed in the past five years and where do you think it will go in the next five years?

I think the biggest change has been the integration of social media technologies with online instruction. This has enabled the kind of peer to peer instruction that routinely happens on most college campuses. In welcoming freshmen I used to tell them that they would learn as much from each other as they would from their teachers. Now this is becoming a reality in the online world as well. In the future I think we will see many institutions experiment with utilizing the tools developed through online education to supplement traditional instruction for students in residential settings. Many large introductory courses may move online.

What do you see as the primary benefits of using high-quality online teaching tools at a traditional institution?

More sophisticated forms of highly interactive online education allow students to proceed through the material at their own pace. The better systems also give students immediate feedback based on their response to specific queries. For students who are reluctant to participate in class discussion or who are capable of quickly progressing through the material, or alternatively, need more time on specific topics, this can be a great advantage. From the perspective of the teacher, online instruction also may provide better feedback on where individual students need additional help. Teachers can see where students are struggling based on how they are progressing through the material. And for institutions, online instruction may reduce the demand for facilities, potentially reduce staffing needs, and also allow them to reach non-traditional students who otherwise would not be able to physically matriculate in traditional classes.

Will online teaching work well at all types of institutions, or is it really only suited to certain sizes or types of colleges and universities?

I think as institutions gain experience and as online courseware becomes more advanced, institutions will find ways to adapt online instruction to their own needs. We are likely to see many flavors of online education evolve. American higher education is very diverse, very competitive and very innovative. Different institutions will create online courses and tools in their own image.

How do you think the use of advanced online learning technologies will change the relationship between professors and students?

I think this is a really good question and is hard to predict. The answer depends both on the technology itself and on how faculty and institutions rethink the traditional classroom setting. Some faculty report that they have closer ties with their online students because there are fewer barriers to communicating electronically. For some students it can be less intimidating to ask questions via email or in a chat room than to attend office hours. Other faculty report that by substituting the traditional lecture with online instruction, they have more time in class to engage students in more creative ways. Of course, it is also possible that online instruction may distance students from their instructors. Faculty certainly fear this so I think they are likely to work to ensure that it does not happen. Most of us went into teaching because we love spending time with students.

If you think back to your time as university president at Tufts and the research you did as part of this project, what advice would you give to university administrators who are considering increasing their investment in teaching with technology?

The technology is evolving very quickly. I would not assume that what is available today is what they will be working with in five (or even three) years. Also, the technology is changing far faster than the institutions that are employing it. Those presidents, provosts, and deans that are willing to rethink the traditional lecture-recitation mode of instruction to incorporate these new technologies are likely to open up far more possibilities than those that merely try to plug the technology into their existing curricula. Finally, I would note that students and faculty are changing. Today’s students have only known a digital world. In time these students will become tomorrow’s faculty. Thus I believe change is inevitable. Teaching in the future will involve far more online instruction than it does today. The only question is how long will this change take.