10/24/2012 01:04 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

It Is Not the Residential Campuses That Need to Worry

Every institution must evolve and adapt if it is going to survive, and in recent years there has been a lot of conjecture in the press and among colleagues that brick and mortar colleges have been doomed by the disruptive technology of online education. But as Mark Twain noted about his own obituary, the reports that residential campuses are dead have been greatly exaggerated.

That is not to say all residential campuses are going to survive what are difficult financial, demographic, and competitive times. Colleges in general need to adapt as much to changing business practices and student expectations as they do to online technology. However, students looking for that residential experience are not likely to find an acceptable virtual substitute and a smart strategy will be to capitalize on that residential component and leverage the transformational potential of an immersive experience.

Ironically, I believe the institutions most dependent upon online enrollments are the institutions most at risk. While the residential experience is difficult to replace, there is an emerging trend towards open content combined with degree-by-assessment. How do you compete with free? It is far more difficult for an online-based institution to differentiate itself from these low margin, and loss leader, programs than it is for a residential institution.

Unfortunately, many students may be short-changed by what could essentially be a GED on steroids. While many "traditional" robust online programs provide the strong faculty facilitation, peer interaction, and support services necessary for a transformational experience, the growing trend towards inexpensive MOOCS coupled with exams focused purely on learning outcomes may ensure knowledge acquisition, but it does not ensure a transformational experience.

Higher education as an industry has done an inadequate job of defining what it means to become an educated person, and it remains unclear to what extent accreditors will play a role in assessing colleges, or degree-by-assessment programs, on criteria beyond learning outcomes. In the absence of definitive guidelines or outcomes criteria, quality of degree-by-assessment will vary greatly. Certainly a well-supported and carefully designed assessment-based program might also provide something more transformative than knowledge transfer but there is also the possibility of a new wave of diploma mills that will be increasingly difficult for students to discern from legitimate college offerings.

At Granite State College, we are identifying assessments based upon performance outcomes and integrating action-learning approaches across the curriculum to better facilitate a transformational experience. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not there is a critical mass within the online market that is truly seeking transformational experiences and is willing to pay for that experience. There also remains the task of communicating that online differentiation from a branding and marketing perspective on something other than price. The residential college, on the other hand, may be far better positioned to distinguish itself among competitors in a visible way, and ultimately be less vulnerable to this evolving disruptor.