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Online Education Is Everywhere. What’s the Next Big Thing?

Like many other colleges, Southern New Hampshire University is experiencing an online-education boom. But look under the hood of its digital learning operation, and what you’ll find in many ways resembles traditional education: students forking over substantial tuition payments to study in small, professor-led classes that last from eight to 11 weeks.

So what innovation will put that model out of business?

Answering that question will be the responsibility of a new two-person “innovation team” at Southern New Hampshire.

It’s an unusual job description: Disrupt the disruptive innovation.

And while the next online model remains unclear, Southern New Hampshire’s president, Paul J. LeBlanc, has sketched out one possible blueprint in a “thinking paper” that he wrote as a springboard for discussion. It’s called the “Next Big Thing.”

The vision is that students could sign up for self-paced online programs with no conventional instructors. They could work at their own speeds through engaging online content that offers built-in assessments, allowing them to determine when they are ready to move on. They could get help through networks of peers who are working on the same courses; online discussions could be monitored by subject experts. When they’re ready, students could complete a proctored assessment, perhaps at a local high school, or perhaps online. The university’s staff could then grade the assessment and assign credit.

And the education could be far cheaper, because there would be no expensive instructor and students could rely on free, open educational resources rather than expensive textbooks. Costs to the student might include the assessment and the credits.

“The whole model hinges on excellent assessment, a rock-solid confidence that the student has mastered the student-learning outcomes,” the memo says. “If we know with certainty that they have, we should no longer care if they raced through the course or took 18 months, or if they worked on their courses with the support of a local church organization or community center or on their own.  The game-changing idea here is that when we have assessment right, we should not care how a student achieves learning. We can blow up the delivery models and be free to try anything that shows itself to work.”

Many of those things are already happening in various ways. Think of Western Governors University, or Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, or Peer2Peer University, to cite just a few examples. And open online learning could get a big boost from a $2-billion grant program unveiled by the Obama administration this year.

So what do you think online learning will look like in the future? Is Mr. LeBlanc on the right track? If not, why? If so, why haven’t these ideas taken off yet in mainstream higher education? And what are the most exciting innovations happening right now?

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