High-Tech or High-Touch? Online Learning and Independent Higher Education

Online Learning brief cover


  • Independent colleges and universities are cautious adopters of online education for undergraduate students. These institutions seek to balance a tradition of student-focused pedagogy in face-to-face settings and faculty wariness of online courses against the promise of lower instructional costs, changing student expectations, and the potential for better student learning outcomes.

  • Research shows that online learning can be at least as effective as traditional classroom instruction, but many faculty members remain skeptical about the quality of online courses. The gap between faculty members and academic leaders with regard to perceived quality represents a significant barrier to broader adoption of online education.

  • Although online education may have the potential to reduce instructional costs at the undergraduate level, the evidence that it actually does remains inconclusive. The development of online courses often requires a greater investment of time and resources than the development of traditional courses. For smaller independent institutions committed to relatively low student-faculty ratios, cost savings from online education are more likely to materialize after courses are offered multiple times or when institutions share online courses.

  • Barriers to the adoption of online education at independent colleges and universities include uncertain cost models, concerns about decreasing the ranks of full-time faculty members and outsourcing instruction, and the high cost of supporting and maintaining a sophisticated technology infrastructure and instructional platforms.

​Council of Independent Colleges
By Philip M. Katz
February 2016