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Next Generation of Online-Learning Systems Faces Barriers to Adoption

More colleges are experimenting with online-learning platforms to meet the growing demand for higher education and to increase revenue in the face of budget cuts. But the next generation of online-learning systems faces several barriers to adoption, according to a new report.

Chief among them are professors’ desires to customize what they teach and their reluctance to use prepackaged course material. The most sophisticated of today’s online-learning systems rely on machine-guided instruction to adapt lessons to the needs of individual students. But most of those systems do not yet allow instructors to deeply tailor the material to meet their course needs. And highly-interactive systems are often too complex for pioneering professors to adopt and sustain on their own.

Those are the findings of a report issued today by Ithaka S+R, the research service of the nonprofit group Ithaka, which promotes technology use in education. The report is based on interviews with presidents, provosts, and senior administrators from a group of 25 institutions that included public and private research universities, four-year colleges, and community colleges. The authors also conducted more in-depth research at five of the colleges studied.

Kevin M. Guthrie, president of Ithaka, said emerging types of online-learning platforms, which collect data about student performance to customize lessons, offer the potential to make instructors more efficient. But many of them are not yet widely used, he said, because professors want to retain control over the creation of their online courses.

“There’s a tension between the productivity gains that you get from these new systems and the natural inclination of faculty to want to customize their teaching experience,” he said.

As the online platforms that collect student-performance data mature, Mr. Guthrie said, another concern is becoming apparent: the question of who owns that learning data. That information could be controlled by third-party software providers to dominate the market, he said. And when it comes to shaping education policy in the future, if those data are “not available for broad research, that will be a loss,” he added.

As colleges come under more intense pressure to curtail rising tuition prices, Mr. Guthrie said, the next generation of online-learning platforms could offer one way to keep costs in check. But those gains may be difficult to realize, he added, since online learning has been typically used as a way to reach more paying students instead of reducing the cost of instruction.

“The tougher challenge is how to use those technologies to change the cost structure,” he said. “And that feels like it’s going to be increasingly important with the kinds of pressures that are on these institutions to reduce costs and reduce tuition.”

[Creative Commons-licensed Flickr photo by ilouque]

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