New Research Brief Explores Online Education: High-Tech or High-Touch?

CIC in February released the fifth in a series of research briefs on innovations in teaching and learning that have been prepared as part of the Project on the Future of Independent Higher Education. The latest brief, High-Tech or High Touch? Online Learning and Independent Higher Education, explores how online education can support the student-focused instruction that has traditionally characterized independent colleges and universities—and perhaps reduce instructional costs in the process.

Online education is a large but amorphous teaching method comprising technologies, pedagogies, and institutional structures that are either well-established or rapidly emerging. The brief includes a glossary and list of resources to help orient readers to the shifting landscape of digital learning but focuses on one aspect of online education that is especially relevant to smaller liberal arts institutions: credit-bearing undergraduate courses that are entirely or partly delivered online.

The brief summarizes recent research that seeks to answer three questions: Is online education high-quality education? Can online education help traditional institutions reduce instructional costs without sacrificing quality? What are the barriers to incorporating online education into the undergraduate curriculum at independent colleges and universities? Among the key findings:
  • Online education can be at least as effective as traditional classroom instruction—but faculty members remain skeptical about the quality of online courses.
  • Although online education may have the potential to reduce instructional costs at the undergraduate level, the evidence that it actually does so is still inconclusive. Institutional collaboration may be the best path to cost savings.
  • Barriers to the adoption of online learning at independent colleges and universities include uncertain cost models, maintenance of technology infrastructure and support, the potential impact of online learning on faculty roles and incentives, and the need to adjust digital technology to a student-focused mission.
“These research briefs are well designed and provide a helpful overview of the key issues. I’ve shared and discussed them with my colleagues and recommended them to other presidents,” Mary B. Marcy, president of Dominican University of California, recently remarked.

CIC’s research briefs are designed to be practical resources for institutions that are considering new opportunities and strategies. Together, they aim to help CIC members reflect on the distinctive pedagogy and missions of independent colleges and universities. Each brief includes a review of recent research, identifies examples of proven and promising innovations at CIC member institutions, and poses questions for further discussion. CIC encourages member institutions to share the publications with faculty and staff members, trustees, and supporters as well as local media. All of the research briefs and other recent CIC publications that explore the distinctive strengths of smaller independent institutions are available at