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What the UVA Squabble Tells Us About Higher Ed for the Masses

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The New York Times on Tuesday wrote about the difficulty public universities are facing in the wake of the online revolution; and specifically, discussed the case of University of Virginia (UVA) President Teresa Sullivan who was terminated by the University's Governing Board because of her "incremental" strategy to affect change.

A "radical plan" was needed said the board.

"The sheer scale of the new online courses has jolted every leading university into thinking about how online learning may transform higher education," said the Times, asking:

1) Will there be much demand for each university to develop its own courses, when a state-of-the-art version from a prestigious university is available online?

2) Will employers accept a set of certificates from online courses as a traditional diploma?

3) Will families pay ever-higher tuition if a free online alternative exists?

4) Does it make sense for universities to invest in brick-and-mortar branch campuses, in the United States or abroad, when they can so easily take courses to students everywhere via the Internet?

A fact of life in the 21st century is that technology has moved faster than anyone imagined. And unless we use technology to reinvent our current systems of education, we all will suffer as more and more people are left behind the learning curve, and left behind the mainstream of world economic development.

The facts underlying the need for the radical approach are devastating.

Last year, at an event sponsored by the prestigious International Council of Fine Arts Deans (ICFAD), Martha Kantor, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education, put it bluntly: by 2018 60 percent of available jobs will require some college education, and at least one third will need an undergraduate or graduate degree.

The sad thing is fewer and fewer young people can afford it.

According to a recent report on CBS-TV, at "a film and art school in central Florida, the average price of tuition, fees, books, and other expenses totals $43,990, even when grants and scholarships are factored in." It can be higher when all housing and living expenses are included. That's $176,000 assuming the student only needs 4 years to graduate. The average senior carries at least $25,000 in student loans and the total for all college students exceeds one trillion dollars.

Blended learning, online alternatives, and the strategic use of technology to make education accessible and affordable to more people are the only answers to the current dilemma -- which will only get worse.

A revolution in public education is overdue.

The positives are that the students actually like technology and online classes. They can usually log in when they want, from where they happen to be and watch and read the assignments at their own pace. Most instructors using the online method also allow students to email any questions they might have and/or participate in online discussions with other students too.

Whether online or offline, computers are changing what is taught, how the material is digested, and doing so in a way that allows the student to get feedback almost instantly -- and, importantly, to ask questions without the embarrassment of looking stupid in front of one's peers.

The "cyber school" approach is fast becoming ordinary at high schools and colleges in America, Europe and in other developed nations. In many states it is slowly becoming an integral part of the new thinking in education.

Given the need to educate millions, perhaps billions, who otherwise remain ignorant of what is happening in our world today, there may be no alternative other than cyber-learning, online learning.

And yes, it may mean that some universities should be cooperating with others who may have better courses, better teachers, or simply be more advanced. Even within most universities, education leaders should be looking at more collaboration -- even mergers -- between disciplines. And employers need to be assured that students who receive an online degree in fact have earned that degree and are qualified. This isn't perfect yet, but increasingly the academy is finding ways to minimize fraud and maximize efficiency. The use of teaching assistants and large classes and blending learning has contributed to better methods of evaluation.

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan was reinstated by the end of the day, but the massage sent to her and UVA and public universities across America became louder:

Change.