Online Education Policy and Practice: The Past, Present, and Future of the Digital University

reviewed by John Bell & William Cain - July 25, 2017

coverTitle: Online Education Policy and Practice: The Past, Present, and Future of the Digital University
Author(s): Anthony G. Picciano
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 1138943630, Pages: 240, Year: 2016
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In his latest book, Online Education Policy and Practice: The Past, Present, and Future of the Digital University (Rutledge, 2017), Dr. Anthony Picciano states, “It is the position of this author that online education is not just an evolution of distance education, it is an evolution of all education” (p. 4). If this is true, what will the next generation of the university look like? What will the next-next generation of faculty look like? And how should faculty respond? Accordingly, Picciano's purpose "is to consider how online education in all its manifestations has influenced and will continue to influence the evolution of higher education, especially the professoriate" (p. 3). A central question is whether the disruption of technology should lead faculty to hold fast to the existing model of higher education or to respond by "disrupt[ing] their existing [practice] themselves." (p. 156) His conclusion is that higher education must take seriously the impact of new technologies, and must make changes based on them, yet not be controlled by them. "Let the academy control the technologies and do not let the technologies control the academy." (p. 207)

Picciano, currently professor and executive officer of the Ph.D. Program in Urban Education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has distinguished himself for decades as a leading voice in online higher education, and he writes from the perspective of someone who has seen its evolution up close. True to his central thesis, Picciano identifies and discusses technological, economic, and political trends he argues have shaped online higher education in the United States up to the present, with an eye on what this means for universities adapting to new and unexpected realities such as blended learning and MOOCs. Drawing from selected research, government statistics, news reports, disruptionists’ warnings, futurists’ predictions, and personal insights, Picciano’s book reads as both a primer on the birth and development of American online higher education and a cautious speculation on where it takes us in the future.

Online Education reads almost like two books in one. Like its title suggests, “Section I The Higher Education Landscape” is Picciano’s overview of the key players and socio-economic forces he sees re-shaping present day universities. Chapter One works as a brief on the state of the present-day universities, reviewing the impact of increasingly powerful information and communications technologies; a growing trend of neoliberalism among policy makers, entrepreneurs, and students that views higher education in terms of commercial value; private, for-profit online educational ventures that promise outcomes that universities rarely have generated in the past (namely efficiency, equitability, and careers); and university faculties simultaneously engaged in and alarmed by online innovations.

Indeed, university faculty, with their traditional dual capacity for innovation and governance, play an outsized role in Picciano’s narrative. He sees higher education faculty (like himself) as both leaders and critics of online educational practices and technological innovations, and he bristles at the idea that they are “stuck in the ways of their predecessors one hundred years ago” (p. 9). Chapters Three through Four attempt to position university faculty as a counterbalance to neoliberal trends and disruptive technologies. In particular, he recounts the recent case in which the faculty at San Jose State defended their right to determine curriculum in their departments by rejecting the university president’s decision to contract a well-known MOOC provider to develop six courses. Through these and other examples, Picciano argues that while individual faculty members are often at the forefront of pedagogical innovations involving new and emerging technologies, departments and faculty governance boards still must help guard higher education lest those innovations disrupt what he sees as core university values and goals.

“Section II Online Education” breaks down the evolution of online education using a wave metaphor to describe what he sees as online education’s different stages of technological, pedagogical, and policy development. Picciano’s “First Wave” of online education arrived with the birth of the Internet in the 1990s and was driven by large universities, organizations such as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and purely online projects such as the Anytime, Anyplace Learning Program. His “Second Wave” in the 2000s is characterized by efforts to blend both face-to-face and online elements of instruction, content, interaction, and assessment. This is also the period when teachers and researchers realized that blended learning can result in educational outcomes that are as good or better than those in traditional, face-to-face courses. Picciano’s “Third Wave” is marked by the rise, decline, and subsequent re-evaluation of MOOCs (massive open online courses) that took place in higher education in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Picciano pays particular attention to the efforts of for-profit ventures like Coursera and Udacity to gain a foothold in online higher education and to increase their market-share through aggressive promotion and university partnerships. The “Fourth Wave” brings us to the present and near future (2020s), which Picciano sees as a period of integration between the best elements of Second Wave and Third Wave online educational developments (e.g., blended learning with MOOC-like access and content). The “Fifth Wave” takes readers into the slightly more distant future (2020s-2030s), as Picciano reviews a number of books that specifically deal with the future of educational technology, then speculates on what these futures mean for policy and practice. While acknowledging that technologies like artificial intelligence and learning analytics software could have enormous impact, Picciano hesitates to commit to a specific vision of what online education policy and practice will look like, saying only that the “2020s will be a dynamic period for higher education policy at all levels” (p. 191). Likewise in his final chapter that looks to 2050 and beyond, Picciano can only speculate about what impact potential future technologies (like supercloud networks, neural devices, and, again, artificial intelligence) may have on learning and instruction.

We saw a great deal of value in what Picciano has to say. His latest book contains much on the histories of both practice and policy in online education that is interesting and helpful, and his ability to weave a coherent narrative from numerous developments in technology, higher education policy, and socio-economics trends is especially welcome. We would highly recommend this book for faculty and administrators, especially those involved in academic governance, who have an interest in the future of higher education as it is deeply affected by ongoing technological advances. We would also highly recommend this book for those who are embarking on faculty careers in educational technology and educational policy.

That being said, we felt that Picciano misses an important opportunity to say more. In particular, we would have liked to hear more clearly articulated lessons from the past to prepare us for likely policy challenges in the future. For example, Amara’s Law, a computing adage coined by Roy Amara, states the principle that people tend to overestimate a technology’s impact in the short-term and underestimate it in the long-term, is an important lens for understanding new technologies that are often greeted with high expectations for change. Picciano does a great job of illustrating this law with his description of the early enthusiasm for purely online education as well as MOOCs. This early enthusiasm was disappointed, only to be later replaced by a different role for these technologies, which arguably had a broader influence than the initial expectations. Anticipating this tendency is an important safeguard against inappropriate expectations for the changes that the next new technology (such as artificial intelligence) will bring.

Picciano also provides good examples of an important strategy for avoiding Amara's Law, that is, to watch for a confluence of technology, policy, and societal changes. He nicely illustrates the confluence of the development of technology for online learning, the commoditization of higher education, and the change of policy to give greater freedom to for-profit educational institutions based on online technologies. When these three factors coincided, the impact of the change in technology was magnified, and in some very costly ways. So as we encounter new technologies and technology categories (such as the supercloud), we should be especially vigilant for ways in which the new technologies relate to policies and society in order to have a better understanding of the likely influence the new technologies might have.

We would also like to reinforce Picciano's illustration of, and warning against, the tendency of people to let technology be the primary driver of changes in society and in higher education. As he highlights in his description of the Fourth Wave, it is important to be sure that "pedagogy drives technology in a comprehensive and sophisticated" (p. 176) blend of new technologies and a clear understanding of human learning. Faculty have an important and continuing role to play in the evolution of higher education in the context of the anticipated dramatic advances of technology, and with Picciano, we hope that faculty will find ways to change with, and be a change agent within, the evolving world of technology-influenced higher education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 25, 2017 ID Number: 22100, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 1:34:29 AM

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