University of Maryland campus.

Like  many professors, Henry C. Lucas was skeptical of online education. Lucas, now the chair of the decision, operations and information technologies department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, now believes it’s essential.

Henry C. Lucas (Photo courtesy of the Robert H. Smith School of Business) Henry C. Lucas (Photo courtesy of the Robert H. Smith School of Business)

Lucas, the author of “Technology and the Disruption of Higher Education: Saving the American University,” argues here that faculty must learn to embrace online education. — Susan Svrluga

Online education presents great opportunities for colleges and universities, but also great threats. As this disruptive technology spreads, some universities will become better, and rise in stature. Others will go out of business.

What will separate the winners from the losers? You might think the answer is money, to invest in new technologies.

But the real key to success — and also the chief potential roadblock — is the faculty.

Tradition-bound faculty tend to see online courses purely as a threat.

Until a few years ago I shared the common professorial knee-jerk opposition to online teaching, assuming it had to be of lower quality than traditional instruction.

But seeing in action software that allows real-time interaction between and among faculty and students convinced me that student-faculty exchange can remain at the heart of at least some kinds of online ed.

In fact, as I have seen first-hand, such courses offer the opportunity to move from passive to active experiences for students, in which they participate heavily in their own education and take more responsibility for it.

The efficiencies of online education, I now know, need not come at the expense of the kind of intellectual give-and-take you see in the best classrooms.

So why the bias against online education among my peers? For one thing, online classes are tarnished by association with for-profit colleges that have been criticized for providing poor quality education, leaving students with large debts and no jobs. But the fact that some institutions do online education badly is no reason to abandon it.

Denial is another factor in faculty opposition. In a recent debate at my business school on disruption theory and its application to higher education, a faculty colleague stated flatly, “MOOCS have failed.” He was perhaps thinking of some reports of low completion rates for Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs). But in fact they are doing quite well.

Online education comes in many flavors. In a “flipped” class, students view lectures and other instructional materials on their own time on the Internet, while class time is used for solving problems, discussions, and short talks to clarify points.

Students in a “blended” class study also study instructional materials on the Internet, on their own schedule. But a blended class usually meets in person for a shorter time than a flipped class does.

The most controversial of these courses is the fully online program, with little or no in-class time.

A MOOC is essentially a supersized version of a fully online program. MOOCs offer tremendous flexibility to time-strapped students, although with less interaction with teachers.

By now we’ve demonstrated that online education can be of high quality, especially when real-time video classes are combined with short residence periods, as we do with our online MBA program at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, which began in 2014.  If I showed my colleagues the final exams turned in by students in my online MBA course and the exams from my full-time residential MBA course, I doubt they could tell which students were in which program.

Notably, the drivers of the Smith School’s program were administrators, not faculty. If faculty had voted on the program, I doubt that it would exist today — a loss for students and for the state’s flagship university.

I view MOOCs as the utility infielder of education, something that can be deployed in all sorts of ways. Georgia Tech is offering an MS in Computer Science on the MOOC delivery format for around $6,600. The University of Illinois has an MBA program partially based on MOOCs for less than $21,000. EdX is partnering with Arizona State for a “global freshman academy” that lets students anywhere in the world log on, without a transcript or an application, and earn credit for first-year courses.

That doesn’t look like failure to me. What’s more, in addition to providing a new service to students, schools that produce MOOCs earn revenue from them. They share with the companies providing the MOOC platforms fees that students pay in order to earn certificates or other credentials.

Surely faculty are partly blinded by inertia and nostalgia, unable to imagine a university not organized around their own in-the-flesh lectures.

But research raises questions about how much students learn and retain when they sit listening to a faculty member talk at them.

How do we innovate when the people who have to change are the most resistant to it?

First, we need forceful and determined leadership. Professors are used to discussing and debating everything that goes on in the university. But if presidents, provosts and deans find that faculty members are putting their heads in the sands on this issue, they may have no choice but to go around them, when the rules permit this. (That is essentially what happened at Maryland.)

Second, we must change minds. Proponents of technology-enhanced teaching have to demonstrate to their peers that it is at least as good, if not better than, traditional methods. We have to educate students, too. Students who are now in elementary or middle school are getting a taste of flipped classes, but until they reach university, we will have to convince others that new approaches are effective.

Embracing online education is crucial because I foresee a great divide coming. Schools that produce content, both for their own use and to sell to other schools, will do very well. Professors who create popular, moneymaking MOOCs will become the new academic stars. In contrast, colleges that become consumers of online courses created by wealthier universities will suffer, possibly even collapse.

Most likely to fail are small colleges — especially private colleges with high tuition, a heavy reliance on tuition income, and a local reputation. It is highly unlikely that a flagship university like the University of Maryland will go out of business, but we face a risk as well. If we don’t embrace technology-enhanced education, we are likely to see our students and faculty flee to more convenient and affordable institutions. Or professors will be demoted to serving as middlemen for online courses from Stanford.

Faculty members and the administration hold the future of their institutions in their hands. They must not waste time spouting dated, misleading criticism of online education. They must take advantage of all that technology has to offer.