Auburn Distance MBA: Impacts of distance education on the future of academia

I recently finished a distance MBA from Auburn University as a ‘distance’ or ‘outreach’ student.  While I was reflecting on my experience, my thoughts centered around three main points of thought:

  1. What are the primary advantages and disadvantages of the distance MBA program for a student?
  2. What are the defining program characteristics of the distance MBA program for the institution?
  3. What does distance education mean for the future of academia?

This is the third of a three-part blog to record my thoughts on these questions. The first part recorded my thoughts on customer outreach as distance students. The second part talked about defining characteristics of the program. This post focuses more on my thoughts about the future direction of distance education and its impact on academia.

Q3.  What does distance education mean for the future of academia?

From a macro level, I wonder at what point does distance education growth start to take away from the numbers in the traditional on-campus education model?  It may seem far fetched to think of this happening, but consider these trends and factors:

  • High speed bandwidth is becoming accessible to more households.  As of June 30, 2007, the FCC reports 100.9 million lines in the US.  That’s a 55% increase from the previous year.
  • Owning computing devices that can access the Internet is becoming accessible to more households.  Entry level desktops can be purchased now in the $300 range and new ‘netbooks’ are being sold in the same price range.
  • Families with limited funding for higher education or that do not desire to take on large amounts of debt could opt to avoid the extra cost of room and board.
  • More schools are starting to use distance and taping technology for competitive alignment.  I see nothing to indicate this will slow down.  This trend makes the school accessible to more students.

Another thought is that this could ultimately start to move the location of the professors and staff members. Why wouldn’t it be possible to have the professor in a different location than the students? At some point in the future multi-point video feeds won’t seem like such a big deal.

This could even lead to ‘Consultant’ professors who are hired on a per course basis by multiple schools.  Imaging, Professor X is hired by three different schools to teach  Chemistry 101.  From his home he creates the lectures and then shares them with the remote class via some tool like WebEx.  The students can then use the interactive tools to converse with the Professor. Office hours? Think Skype.

A big trend in many industries these days is consolidation of businesses to afford continued growth and gain economies of scale.  Could we see colleges and universities go the same way?  As some schools with lesser budgets struggle to keep up and match the offerings of other schools do they become acquisition targets?  Is this a logical thought?  Perhaps, if you could use their existing space as a satellite campus.  Or if, just as in business, you can gain greater efficiencies of scale and profitability by using the smaller school’s resources.

As I mentioned in the first note of this series, the distance education model doesn’t fit everyone.  But this model hasn’t reached its potential.  It’s only just started to grow.  My view is that it will change some of the fundamentals of traditional education over time. It will become an industry to itself, supporting best practices, uses of technology, process work-flows, and the like. It may not directly impact you, but it will certainly be a factor to consider for your children or grandchildren.