01/08/2013 04:50 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

Higher Ed Leaders Must Lead Online

We are witnessing a historic transformation of how students learn, teachers teach, and universities are organized. Gone are the days when students need to crisscross a college campus to receive the highest quality education. Online technology is at the precipice of providing unprecedented, widespread access to quality higher education.

But we have to commit to doing it right. Much of what's touted as innovation in traditional higher education falls short for students seeking high-quality online degrees that will serve them in a tough job market.

At the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, our online education is delivered live, in real-time, with students and the professor appearing on-screen simultaneously (think The Brady Bunch), connected, conversing, and learning. There are chat rooms, small group discussions, multimedia presentations, videos. We also provide self-paced coursework, but that's not the core of the educational experience. And, most critical, this online experience is combined with hands-on field-based teaching experiences for each student in his or her community from the beginning of the program.

Delivered through the educational technology company 2U, our virtual classroom allows us to offer the same rigorous graduate degrees with the same faculty and same curriculum as we do on campus, and it demands that students do just as much as they would if they attended courses on campus.

We offer several online masters degrees -- some with a credential -- for teachers in the United States and around the world who want to develop or improve their practice. Yes, teaching teaching, of all things, online. In addition to providing small, interactive classes, we pair students with K-12 classrooms wherever they live. Students videotape their teaching and then review the videos with their classmates and instructor online. We've gone from conferring about 50 graduate degrees in teaching in 2008 to well over 1,200 since then, amid a national need to raise the level of teaching in our public schools.

Let's be clear that the iconic ivy covered college campus has its place. But they do not work for everyone. More and more learners are opting for online study. They need the flexibility and the ability to learn -- if not at one's own pace -- then in one's own space.

Without a doubt, higher education is undergoing a necessary transformation for the digital age. From tablets to smart phones to wikis and blogs, today's digital environment makes communication, collaboration and information sharing easier than ever before.

Professors at MIT, Stanford and Harvard and many fine academic minds have put thousands of top-notch college courses online. Millions of people around the world watch classes ranging from astronomy to cryptology and game theory. MOOCs ("massive open online courses") bring some of the most brilliant lectures in the world to people who may never set foot on an elite university campus.

Logging on to these lectures is often like watching through a one-way mirror -- albeit for free and, say, with 15,000 classmates. Coursera, EdX, Udacity and others working with universities are providing courses, but they are not the kind of lively, participatory learning that today's technology makes possible.

I can't help thinking that the MOOC explosion so far is a bigger, better delivery system of The Great Courses, which my husband and I have enjoyed for years. Great Courses has sold tapes of the best classes from Stanford, Oxford, Princeton and others for 20 years.

Some MOOCs award students a certificate of participation, an academic currency without much heft in today's job market. Only a small handful of courses give students credit toward a degree.

Many higher ed leaders have yet to fully embrace the challenge and the promise of the digital revolution, because it's hard. It takes a willingness to rethink how we've been teaching since Socrates. It requires a willingness to restructure and reexamine decades, sometimes centuries, of conventional wisdom about how students learn. It requires updating longstanding curriculum to match today's digital native students.

Most of all, embracing the promise of online learning requires leadership. It calls for the hard work of cultivating and winning over skeptical faculty, who are some of the most talented and change-averse people on campuses today. And while I salute the free availability of greater knowledge on the web, we in higher ed must be forthright in saying that providing high-quality, fully interactive degree programs online is costly and, at this point, cannot be free.

At USC, we are pleased to be among the pioneers in high-quality, interactive, for-credit, online degree programs, along with Georgetown University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Washington University in St. Louis and others.

We invite others to join us in bringing more students the kind of high-quality online degrees that will serve them in the marketplace.