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Ubell, R. (2022) Staying Online: How to Navigate Digital Higher Education New York/London: Routledge, 180 pp

This book was published on September 7, 2021, and is now available (paperback: US$31.96).

What is the book about?

From the publisher’s blurb: As colleges and universities increasingly recognize that online learning is central to the future of post-secondary education, faculty and senior leaders must now grapple with how to assimilate, manage, and grow effective programs. Looking deeply into the dynamics of online learning today, Robert Ubell maps its potential to boost marginalized students, stabilize shifts in retention and tuition, and balance nonprofit and commercial services.

Who is the author?

Robert Ubell is Vice Dean Emeritus of the Tandon School of Engineering at New York University and Senior Advisor at Stevens Institute of Technology. The author of Going Online, a companion collection to this book, he is a Fellow of the Online Learning Consortium, a columnist at EdSurge, and a recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Leadership Award.

What’s in it?

I Emergency Online Learning

Chapter 1 We Are All Online Learners Now

II Theory and Practice

Chapter 2 Theory and Practice

Chapter 3 Online as an Ethical Practice

Chapter 4 Adaptive Learning

III Scaling-up

 Chapter 5 Academic Digital Economy

 Chapter 6 Outsourcing vs. Insourcing

 Chapter 7 MOOC Invasion

 Chapter 8 Going Online Abroad

 Chapter 9 Finding and Keeping Online Learners

 IV Problems and Considerations

 Chapter 10 Online Cheating

 Chapter 11 Online Predators

 Chapter 12 Accreditation Works

 V Changing My Mind

  Chapter 13 Changing My Mind 

My review

This book is required reading for university and college administrators struggling to plan a route forward following the pandemic. It makes the point that digital learning will become an increasingly integral part of all higher education teaching, and institutions need to plan for this, even – or especially – when the pandemic has subsided.

A lot of space is given in the book asserting that online learning achieves outcomes as good as on-campus teaching, obviously directed at the large proportion of faculty and instructors who are still negative towards online learning, even – or especially – after their experience of emergency remote learning during the pandemic. This is obviously important if the book is directed towards faculty, but we know from surveys by Allen and Seaman (2012) that administrators in general are less hostile towards online learning.

What senior managers need to know is how to get faculty onside. Ubell suggests among other things the importance of instructional design and pedagogical and technical support for faculty moving online, with which of course I agree, but I would like to have seen more about the importance of engaging faculty in future planning of teaching and the curriculum, and especially new programming focused on 21st skills development, so that the importance of and need for digital learning becomes more obvious to faculty.

Ubell is right in emphasising that online learning is more than a delivery method, and that the demands on students in the 21st century also requires a change in pedagogy towards more constructivist ways of teaching, but I suspect this will be an even harder sell to faculty than getting them to move online. Indeed, the switch to emergency remote learning emphasised that online learning is relatively agnostic to pedagogical theory; you don’t have to change your teaching methods, even if you should.

Ubell is particularly good at looking at the relationship between online learning and disadvantaged students, especially regarding students in American community colleges. He notes research indicating that the big divide in completion rates is not between online and on-campus students but between part-time and full-time students, irrespective of mode of delivery. He argues that the answer is not to steer disadvantaged students away from online learning, but to provide at least the level of support and student services they would have received if they were full-time students on campus.

Ubell is also concerned about the need to scale up higher education programming to achieve economies of scale. He discusses MOOCs a great deal, swinging from strong criticism originally to support for the idea of MOOCs integrated within the framework of the U.S. higher education system, because of their ability to deliver online programs at scale. He also warns about the demographic changes in the USA, with fewer students coming through high school, while at the same time the increasing demand for lifelong learning.

He also takes a hard look at Online Program Managers (OPMs), private services that have made big inroads into building up online learning programs in many American institutions.

These are just a few of the issues raised by Ubell in this book that will resonate with university and college leaders, but if I have a criticism of the book, it is heavily embedded in the unique culture of American higher education, with its split between public and private institutions, heavy presence of commercial companies such as OPMs, high tuition fees, and increasing withdrawal of state funding for higher education over the last 20 years.

For instance, in the USA, online learning enrolments until recently have been concentrated in a relatively small number of institutions, such as Arizona State University, University of Southern New Hampshire, and the University of Phoenix (Seaman et al. 2018,), who have managed to scale up, although many other institutions in the USA are just beginning to move towards online programs,, which makes this book timely. In Canada, though, more than two-thirds of Canadian universities and colleges already have online programs (CDLRA, 2019), and many have had them for years. Reading this book, I came away with the view that the U.S. higher education system is in crisis, and hence needs dramatic change. I’m not so sure that is true elsewhere. Thus, while some of the issues in Ubell’s book will still be relevant, the context will be different outside the USA.

Another minor criticism is that although each chapter makes a number of important points regarding the future of higher education and the important role that digital learning should play, the chapters do not hang together well, in terms of a coherent theme or progression. This is probably because they were originally separate essays or blogs that have been stitched together, but nevertheless most senior managers will be able to draw on many of the lessons and arguments that Ubell suggests for advancing the higher education system.

For the readers of this blog, this is a typical book you might like to leave on the desk of your Provost, Dean or Head of Department. You will be familiar with most of the arguments in this book, but it’s more important that your senior managers read it – and good luck with that!


Allen, I.E. and Seaman, J. (2012) Digital Faculty: Professors, Teaching and Technology 2012  Inside Higher Ed, Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC.

Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (2019) National Survey of Online and Digital Learning 2019 National Report Halifax NS: Canadian Digital Learning Research Association

Seaman, J.E., Allen, I.E., and Seaman, J. (2018) Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States Wellesley MA: The Babson Survey Research Group



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