Bacow, L. et al. (2012) Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education New York: Ithaka

Purpose of the study

The purpose of this study is to explore the key obstacles that stand in the way of widespread adoption of highly interactive, adaptive, online learning systems at traditional colleges and universities….The Ithaka S+R team conducted interviews with presidents, provosts, and other senior academic leaders at more than 25 different institutions representing public and private research universities, four-year colleges, and community colleges [and] more intensive “deep dive” analyses at five of these institutions.

The premise

  • Virtually every institution we encountered is experimenting with online instruction. The rationale, form, and strategy differ from institution to institution, but change is occurring and, we believe, at an accelerating rate.
  • the first challenge we encountered was the lack of a widely accepted definition of the term “online learning.” Specifically, the more sophisticated forms of online learning that we wish to study, made possible by recent advances in technology, have not yet been widely implemented.
  • [thus] we invented a new term to describe more precisely the form of online learning we wish to investigate: “Interactive Learning Online” or ILO.
  • The best of these systems rely on increasingly sophisticated forms of artificial intelligence, drawing on usage data collected from hundreds of thousands of students, to deliver customized instruction tailored to an individual student’s specific needs—a technology often termed “adaptive.” 
  • Such systems are far beyond the capability of individual instructors to create on their own, and aretypically developed by teams of cognitive scientists, software engineers, instructional designers, and user interface experts. Relatively few ILO systems currently exist, and full implementation of any that do exist remains quite rare.
  • Recognizing that full implementation of ILO remains rare, we sought to learn as much as we could from institutions’ past experiences with other forms of online learning. We believe there is much to learn from these experiences, and that we can infer likely future barriers to adoption of ILO systems based on problems encountered in the adoption of these less sophisticated forms of online education.

Main findings or assumptions (I found it difficult to determine which were facts and which were assumptions in this report)

  • many institutions have created a set of courses (and sometimes entire degree programs) that are taught completely online, with little or no face-to-face interaction between students and faculty or among students. However, the vast majority of these courses essentially replicate traditional modes of instruction, with archived lectures streamed over the web, and “sections” and feedback provided by faculty via email and chat rooms.


It was at this point (on the fourth page of text) that I threw the report into the electronic trash can. Why?

First, the premise is all wrong. They have set up an untested, ideal model of online learning, but on what basis? Who gives them the right to say this is how online learning should be? I can think of a hundred reasons why it shouldn’t follow the model they are proposing, but that’s not the point. Ithaka is a consultancy company, and the study was funded by the Melinda Gates Foundation. They have clearly been sold a bill of goods by someone with a vested interest in a particular theoretical model.

However, what really got me was the statement that the vast majority of these [fully online] courses essentially replicate traditional modes of instruction, with archived lectures streamed over the web. Well, that is not true in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and many other countries – nor in fact do I believe it is true in the USA. If it is, where is their evidence? You cannot take 25 institutions and generalise across the whole of the US higher education system (and I know personally the statement isn’t true for at least two of the institutions in the study). The statement is certainly true for some institutions, but they are not institutions following best practice, as many others are. This is a classic straw man argument – take the worst case then knock it down. In order to promote their own version of online learning, they found the need to trash every other kind.

This report is so riddled with false assumptions, pre-determined positions, and lack of empirical evidence in just the first four pages that it is a waste of everyone’s time going any further.

I am particularly saddened then that EDUCAUSE is listing this report in their resources and that there are other studies to follow from this company. Also, I am bitterly disappointed. We do need a good study on barriers to innovation in teaching in higher education, but this is not the one.




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