Reformers, Distance learning, and the Future of Honors Education

Recently, President Obama called for a series of reforms directed at reducing the cost of tuition at the nation’s universities. Most public institutions are already operating with minimal state support, and these latest demands to cut costs and improve efficiencies, are, one hopes, an attempt by the president to take over the reform agenda from those who use it as part of a larger plan to reduce the role of government in all areas of life.

Some members of this alleged reform effort also champion private, for-profit online colleges as an effective means to make college education more available and affordable, despite the low graduation rates and high student loan burdens that are frequently associated with these institutions.

Of course these schools rely almost entirely on distance learning. Whether or not they are effective, overall, as educational tools, rather than as inexpensive delivery systems, is a matter of debate. But for those whose only bottom line is the one with dollar signs, distance learning will always be appealing.

The president’s proposal gives a strong nod to the role of technology in reducing costs:

“Through cost-saving measures like redesigning courses and making better use of education technology,” the president argued, “institutions can keep costs down to provide greater affordability for students.”

So how will the reforms affect honors education, especially the emphasis on distance education? It is possible to see at least three scenarios:

(1) public research institutions could use distance learning and even campus online courses to lower the cost of education for most students, thereby allowing the universities to maintain honors programs as they are, with small, personal classes and the best professors; or

(2) honors programs will have to ride the technology wave and include online learning to the same extent as the university as a whole; or

(3) An approach that includes somewhat more online instruction but retains the essential, more personal quality of an honors education will generally prevail.

Some universities, notably the University of Central Arkansas and the University of Maine at Augusta, already use distance learning in honors education, with good results. Many others require honors students to develop digital portfolios that involve the students in a process of reflection; this process not only allows students to collect and synthesize what they have learned but also to discover new connections along the way.

Even so, too much emphasis on digital learning will change the essential nature of the public honors hybrid. The combination of high-level research and a liberal-arts atmosphere would surely suffer if direct personal contact became significantly less frequent.