Why online learning? Lessons from Arizona State University’s Michael Crow

by John Watson

Revolutionizing online education: A conversation with President Michael Crow of Arizona State University is about post-secondary education and one university’s quest to use technology to expand access. It’s striking, however, how many of Crow’s comments apply to K-12 students and schools. I’ve pulled out some key quotes, edited lightly to remove the points specific to post-secondary education, and in some cases adding some notes:

“As an eager learner from a nomadic family of limited means, I changed schools often and learned that intellectual curiosity alone was not always enough to realize your academic goals.”

The key point in this quote above is about “intellectual curiosity not being enough.” This point is critical because too often the examples used to highlight successful digital learning are based on students who are able to learn mostly or entirely on their own. But these students do not represent most students in most situations. Most students, at some point at least, need significant support from adults, which can be teachers, mentors, learning coaches, or others.

“People learn in different ways and there needs to be more than one route to success. As educators, it is up to us to devise what those pathways are and how to provide the knowledge and support that produces positive outcomes.”

“More than one route to success” is the key here. In the post-secondary context, students choose their schools so are inherently choosing a route. In K-12, many students are not actively selecting a path, because they don’t know their options or may live in a region where few options are available. Online, blended, and digital learning should support a variety of educational options that educators, families, and students select together. 

“Until now, learning has followed a conventional, linear sequence from K-12 to college and then onto a career. In the future, accelerated changes to the workplace will necessitate that education not be relegated to only early life, but instead to a continuous, non-linear series of learning interactions that add new skills and credentials to fulfill evolving expectations in work and personal fulfillment over a lifetime.”

Another way to make this point above is to say “students have to learn how to learn.” This is increasingly important for the reasons that Dr. Crow states, and it is more important than ever that students develop these skills and have opportunities to apply them early in their education.

“The standard arguments against online education persist. Opponents continue to cite inferior quality/value as compared to traditional education; lack of affordability; insufficient support for underprepared or disadvantaged students; and poor learning outcomes due to a lack of face-to-face instruction as reasons not to move forward.

ASU has demonstrated that it is possible to design and conduct digital courses that are equal in quality to in-person coursework and leverage analytics and technology tools to foster student success.”

These points encapsulate many of the arguments about digital learning. The questions related to “does it work” persist, even though it is clear that the right question is “under what conditions can it work?”

Dr. Crow and ASU have shown how online learning works at a university. We have plenty of examples from K-12 as well. That’s not to say online learning always works—just that it can, when implemented well.

Disclosure: I’m a big fan of Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, because of the clarity of his views on extending post-secondary education to a wide range of students, and ASU’s use of technology to support that vision. Also, my wife is a professor at ASU, and ASU Prep Digital is an Evergreen client.