May 20, 2024

Revolutionizing online education: A conversation with President Michael Crow of Arizona State University


In our recent blog, Top 6 trends in higher education, we highlighted the increasing prevalence of online education opportunities in the fast-changing higher education landscape. In the U.S., online courses have more than quadrupled in the last 15 years and are growing even more quickly around the globe. Pursuing a degree through a high-quality online program offers not just cost reduction but also increased flexibility, especially for nontraditional students.

Michael Crow sitting To explore this growing trend in more depth, we spoke with a top leader of online education, Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University.

Q: You have been a pioneer in online education. Can you tell us what personally motivated you to become a leader in this field?

A: Arizona State University is designed to enhance access to quality education for all learners capable of performing university-level work, regardless of the person’s socioeconomic status or geographic location. As an eager learner from a nomadic family of limited means, I changed schools often and learned that intellectual curiosity alone was not always enough to realize your academic goals.

People learn in different ways and there needs to be more than one route to success. As educators, it is up to us to devise what those pathways are and how to provide the knowledge and support that produces positive outcomes.

During my career in academia, I have seen too often that our educational systems fail learners by clinging to outmoded philosophies and structures, forsaking capable learners to sustain “exclusive” reputations, and shunning educational technology as a subpar learning fad.

What we need to do instead is figure out how to educate across the spectrum of society. We need to identify every effective learning strategy, tool, and option that exists and make them available. With the help of a design culture focused on student success at every level, reliable analytics, knowledgeable partners, and leading-edge innovations, technology-enabled learning can elevate students to new levels in both fully immersive (on-campus) and digitally immersive environments.

Q: Where do you see the direction of online education going over the next 10 years?

A: The advancement of technology and our related knowledge creation is growing exponentially at an unprecedented speed. The resulting data is giving us new and important insights about how people learn and how we can tailor lessons to more effectively meet the needs of individual learners. This increasingly sophisticated information provides a better understanding of the biological, psychological, cultural, and sociological factors that impact learning, and the capability to personalize educational experiences to facilitate successful mastery.

Right now, ASU has more than 175 online degree and certificate programs that serve more than 46,000 undergraduate and graduate students and learners in Arizona and around the world. With the help of custom course designers using pioneering technology, we can present knowledge in new ways that empower learners to comprehend content in the manner and pace that best suits them. Students also have access to a dedicated success center that serves both an advisory and advocacy function for online students. This model has shown that students who were previously unsuccessful in passing courses taught in traditional models can now thrive and move forward.

We are also thinking carefully about how the future of learning will evolve in general.

Until now, learning has followed a conventional, linear sequence from K-12 to college and then onto a career. In the future, accelerated changes to the workplace will necessitate that education not be relegated to only early life, but instead to a continuous, non-linear series of learning interactions that add new skills and credentials to fulfill evolving expectations in work and personal fulfillment over a lifetime.

At ASU, we are advancing our own approach to Universal Learning, which integrates online learning, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, game-based learning, entrepreneurship, public and private sector partners, and global alliances to design accessible education pathways for students of all learning levels at any point in their lives. We are currently developing a series of demonstration projects, student success programs, and employee learning models to position ASU as a future-ready leader.

Q: What are the most important arguments that people make against online education and how would you respond to them?

A: The standard arguments against online education persist. Opponents continue to cite inferior quality/value as compared to traditional education; lack of affordability; insufficient support for underprepared or disadvantaged students; and poor learning outcomes due to a lack of face-to-face instruction as reasons not to move forward.

ASU has demonstrated that it is possible to design and conduct digital courses that are equal in quality to in-person coursework and leverage analytics and technology tools to foster student success. The same faculty members that teach our on-campus classes teach all of our online courses.

Our knowledge enterprise, EdPlus, is responsible for developing and delivering our digital teaching and learning models at scale, with focused attention on how these offerings enhance student access and success. Within EdPlus, our Action Lab conducts intense research on digital teaching and learning and translates that knowledge to drive our continuous improvement in the online learning space.

U.S. News & World Report recently named our online bachelor’s program number two in the nation, and multiple online graduate degree programs were ranked in the top 10. When our digital immersion students graduate, their diploma does not read “ASU Online.” It reads “Arizona State University” because we are committed to providing the same quality education received by our full immersion students.

If we hope to produce the number of college graduates we need to remain competitive in the global economy, we need to focus more on surrounding people with as many educational opportunities as possible. The real question is, “Can we help people to fulfill the totality of their human potential?” We believe that we have a moral responsibility to do just that and therefore will utilize every tool to do so.

Q: ASU has over 40,000 online students. Can you discuss the biggest challenges in growing the program and the strategies that have been most effective in mitigating those challenges?

A: One challenge is helping skeptics to understand that rigorous and individually attentive online education programs are possible. Another is helping policymakers to understand that online learning is not a replacement for full-immersion education, but instead another valuable pathway to enhance degree completion. And yet another, and the most vital, is meeting the rapidly growing demand for digital education offerings by learners all over the world.

At ASU, we focus our energy on convening the best educators, designers, technology experts, and support teams to demonstrate that quality learning is deliverable at scale.

A great example is our partnership in the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, a program that offers Starbucks partners 100 percent tuition coverage to complete their first bachelor’s degree through ASU Online. They have 80 programs from which to choose. We also created a separate pathway to help learners that do not initially qualify for admission so they can work toward that goal. I am proud to say that we have graduated more than 3,000 Starbucks partners to date and we have more than 12,000 partners participating in the program. The direct and consistent feedback from those individuals has been that their experience with ASU has been nothing short of life changing.

Q: You have been a strong advocate of universities having a global outlook. Can you share your vision for how online education could help students outside the U.S.?

A: One of ASU’s eight core design imperatives is global engagement. Our responsibility to enhance access to quality higher education does not end at the edge of our campuses or the state border. Insufficient degree attainment is not specific to the United States, and ongoing social, political, and infrastructure complexities around the world pose serious challenges for people everywhere who are eager to learn.

ASU wants to be a leader in developing models, forming relationships, and applying available technologies to make our knowledge resources available to those who need them. We are demonstrating this commitment through programs like “Earned Admission,” which began in 2015 as the Global Freshman Academy, a partnership with edX, to make college freshman courses available through interactive, digital platforms. Enrollees can begin taking ASU classes instantly, without applications or transcripts, and then pay for courses if they pass and want academic credit. More than 230,000 students from more than 180 countries have participated.

Last year, we also launched the Al-Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE) Open Learning Scholars program, a collaboration that provides education scholarships to high-achieving Arab youth seeking to complete their master’s degrees through ASU Online. So far, $11 million has been granted to fund the program for the next three years, and 43 student recipients have been or are in the process of being admitted to ASU. Another 500 recipients are anticipated over the next few years.

To address a separate need, EdPlus has also launched Education for Humanity, an online learning initiative that collaborates with local organizations to provide higher education access to refugee, displaced, and marginalized learners.

By marshalling our institutional strengths and leveraging our commitment to deploying innovative solutions, we are working to remove the cost, technology, and support barriers that keep learners from progress. It does not matter if these students are in our backyard or half a world away. Our institution is committed to using every available idea, tool, and option to help them achieve their learning goals.

Emal Dusst, a Robert S. Brookings Society member, works in private equity at Sterling Partners. He is a trustee of the American University of Afghanistan, a board advisor at ReCoded (coding school for refugees), and served on the board of Coursera. Dusst was previously head of strategy and chief of staff to the CEO at Laureate Education, a B Corp and the largest international network of degree-granting higher education institutions. Dusst has a bachelor’s in economics from UCLA and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. As a Robert S. Brookings Society member, Dusst provides financial support to the Brookings Institution. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the authors and the content adheres to Brookings’s commitment to quality, independence, and impact.