As Georgetown University students, we participate in our classes in a fairly consistent way throughout each academic semester. Our experience includes walking across campus, finding a seat before a lecture starts, participating in discussions, writing notes based off PowerPoint presentations and putting pen to paper during exams.

While subject matter and teaching styles vary across courses, much of higher education — both at Georgetown and at most colleges — is largely the same: We sit in chairs, participate appropriately, absorb knowledge and engage in assessments.

Yet, the traditional pedagogy of higher education is now rapidly changing: The education of tomorrow will likely combine traditional methods found in classrooms today with digital learning.

Colleges will utilize aspects of digital learning and in-class teaching to create an education that is more flexible, more encompassing and more affordable. Higher education as we know it will not disappear altogether — rather, it will adjust to and incorporate current developments in online learning.

According to the Online Learning Consortium, over 6 million people are enrolled in at least one online academic course. Moreover, the term “digital learning” covers not only courses that one can take online, but also resources and programs that supplement a student’s overall knowledge. For example, Khan Academy, a site with video tutorials on concepts from kindergarten to collegiate level, is popular with students of all ages because of its accessibility and ease of use.

Other options are massive open online courses, or MOOCs for short. These programs, regularly offered online and open to anyone, are provided through services like edX, Coursera and Udemy.

MOOCs are often free, deal with advanced subject matter ranging from data science to business concepts and are based on actual university courses from schools such as Harvard University, the University of California, Berkeley and even Georgetown.

Couple the popularity of MOOCs and services like Khan Academy with the rise of Americans enrolled in online degree programs, and it becomes clear that the notion of a typical higher-education experience is changing for millions of adults.  

Yet, when advanced education and courses are a click away, it is easy to assume that traditional universities and colleges are in danger. After all, instead of enrolling in and paying the high tuitions of many institutions, future high school graduates and adults may perhaps find greater value in cherry-picking the online courses that will help them on their desired career paths, especially if such options are free or low-cost. Professional networking and social media services like LinkedIn also allow users to post their completion certificates from MOOCs so that individuals can demonstrate their acquired knowledge.

While there is tremendous value in instantly accessible online course offerings with low entry barriers, we should not expect our traditional higher education experiences to disappear by the time that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren arrive. What is instead much more likely is the integration of traditional forms of higher education with supplementary digital learning services.

Consider a future at Georgetown in which a student taking a normal course load decides to take a semester off, perhaps to work full time at an internship. Students can decide their enrollment status but still have the more flexible option to take online courses to supplement their curriculum.

Perhaps large introductory and required courses in the School of Foreign Service — think “Map of the Modern World” or “Macroeconomic Principles” — can be offered online, giving students an opportunity to take such classes even if they are studying abroad or find themselves away from campus.

In another scenario, a student in the College might discover a MOOC that deals with advanced mathematics or engineering and believe this course to be more valuable than the one offered by Georgetown. Perhaps this student could take this course and have it count for academic credit, believing it to be a worthwhile contribution to the student’s academic goals.

Ultimately, the progression, accessibility and breadth of online learning opportunities should enamor even the staunchest academic luddites.

Although it represents an exciting development, digital learning will likely not replace traditional higher education environments anytime soon. Nonetheless, the college classroom and education more broadly are amid dynamic change and progress, with more advances yet to come.

Humza Moinuddin is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Ones and Zeros appears online every other Wednesday.

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