Online Education's Next Twenty-Five Years: Will the Academy Lose its Sense of Purpose?

Concurrent Session 2
Streamed Session OLC Session

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Brief Abstract

A panel of leading educators will speculate on what the next twenty-five years will bring to online education.  The discussants will consider both the near future (2020s) and more distant future (2030s and beyond) and will explore advances in adaptive technology, brain-machine interfaces, and artificial intelligence on teaching and learning.  These evolving technologies have the potential to change the traditional role of professionals in our colleges and universities to the point that educators will have to redefine their purpose as teachers, administrators, and researchers.


Anthony G. Picciano is a professor in Education Leadership program at Hunter College, the Ph.D. Urban Education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He has held several administrative appointments at the City University and State University of New York. Dr. Picciano started his career working with computer systems in the late 1960s. He taught his first college-level course in computer programming and systems analysis in 1971. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was involved with developing computer facilities, computer-assisted instruction (CAI) laboratories, and data networks at the City University of New York. He started teaching online in 1996. In 1998, Dr. Picciano co-founded CUNY Online, a multi-million dollar initiative funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that provided support to faculty using the Internet for course development. He was a founding member and continues to serve on the Board of Directors of the Online Learning Consortium (formerly the Sloan Consortium). Dr. Picciano's research interests are education leadership, education policy, Internet-based teaching and learning, and multimedia instructional models. With Jeff Seaman, Dr. Picciano has conducted major national studies on the extent and nature of online and blended learning in American K-12 school districts. He has authored numerous articles and frequently speaks and presents at conferences on education and technology. He has authored sixteen books including: The Community College in the Post-Recession Reform Era: Aims and Outcomes of a Decade of Experimentation. (in press, Routledge, Taylor & Francis) Online Education: Foundations, Planning, and Pedagogy (1st Ed). (2018, Routledge/Taylor & Francis). CUNY's First Fifty Years: Triumphs and Ordeals of a People's University (2018, Routledge/Taylor & Francis) Educational Leadership and Planning for Technology, 5th Edition (2011, Pearson) Data-Driven Decision Making for Effective School Leadership (2006, Pearson) Distance Learning: Making Connections across Virtual Space and Time (2001, Pearson) Educational Research Primer (2004, Continuum) The Great Education-Industrial Complex: Ideology, Technology, and Profit (2013, Routledge/Taylor & Francis) Blended Learning: Research Perspectives, Volume 1 (2007, The Sloan Consortium) Blended Learning: Research Perspectives, Volume 2 (2014, Routledge/Taylor & Francis) Conducting Research in Online and Blended Learning Environments: New Pedagogical Frontiers (2016, Routledge/Taylor & Francis). Online Education Policy and Practice: The Past, Present, and Future of the Digital University (2017, New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis, Publisher). Dr. Picciano was elected to the Inaugural Class of the Sloan Consortium Fellows in recognition of outstanding publications that have advanced the field of online learning. Dr. Picciano was the 2010 recipient of the Sloan Consortium National Award for Outstanding Achievement in Online Education by an Individual. Visit Dr. Picciano website at:
Dr. Elizabeth (Liz) Ciabocchi currently serves as associate provost for academic affairs at Adelphi University. In this role, she oversees all curricular offerings, working closely with each of the University’s deans, faculty and administrative offices to implement, manage and revise the curriculum, including interdisciplinary offerings. She also serves as the primary Adelphi University liaison with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), the New York State Education Department and the U.S. Department of Education. With more than 25 years of experience in higher education, Liz most recently served as vice provost for digital learning and executive director of online learning and services at St. John’s University, where she led academic initiatives to develop digital learning strategies for programs offered in fully online and hybrid formats. Prior to her time at St. John’s, she served in various roles at Long Island University, such as associate vice president for online learning, and also in areas including instructional technology, academic planning and academic affairs. She previously worked at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and the New York College of Health Professions. Author of two book chapters, Liz has published peer-reviewed journal articles and has presented her research on leadership and e-learning in higher education and other topics at dozens of conferences. Her teaching experience includes graduate-level courses in St. John’s University’s School of Education and undergraduate courses and graduate thesis supervision at the New York College of Health Professions. She has been extensively involved in committees and evaluation teams for Middle States reaccreditation and has held board and committee positions with the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), which named her a fellow in 2015. Liz earned her EdD in Higher and Postsecondary Education from Teachers College, Columbia University; a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from New York Chiropractic College; and a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from the University of Scranton. She holds certifications from the OLC in Online Teaching and Leadership in Online Learning.
Julia Parra was a Las Cruces middle school teacher from 1994-2000 and was subsequently hired at New Mexico State University as a web-based curriculum developer and program coordinator for grant-based projects focused on K12 teacher professional development in educational technology. In 2010, she received her Doctorate in Education from Pepperdine University in Learning Technologies and is currently the Director of the Online Teaching & Learning Graduate Certificate Program and Coordinator for the Learning Design & Technology Program for NMSU's College of Education. Julia's teaching and research interests include learning design, technology, and innovation; online/blended/HyFlex teaching & learning; emerging technologies; and culturally responsive teaching with technology. For more about Julia, see her website at
Michael Torrence, Ph.D. serves as the President of Motlow State Community College. The college has campuses in Smyrna, Tullahoma, McMinnville and Fayetteville, Tennessee. President Torrence has spent his career embracing the use of technological literacy as a platform to increase student engagement and success. He has served in roles in support of online, accelerated, and mode neutral learning, engaged with TNeCampus and as a Tennessee Board of Regents statewide team leader for the integration of Emerging Technology and Mobilization in the areas of Gaming, VR, AR, and MR into teaching and learning. He has trained faculty, students, executives, and community members and developed immersive curriculum focused on STEAMB (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art/Aviation, Mathematics, and Business) for all grade levels and utilized these platforms teaching undergraduate and graduate students in his own classes where VR and entrepreneurship have become a norm. Currently, through researching and developing a platform for OER through support of Hewlett-Packard and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he hope to utilize the findings to support workforce development and student success. He earned a doctor of philosophy degree, with a major in exceptional learning, at Tennessee Tech University, and master of arts and bachelor of arts degrees at South Dakota State University, both with a major in English. President Torrence, a veteran, served in the U.S. Air Force.

Extended Abstract

In February 2019, an article in the New York Times described a global competition that hundreds of scientists enter every two years.  Referred to as the “World Cup” of biochemical research, teams of scientists tackle a biological puzzle called “the protein folding problem.”  Essentially, they try to predict the three-dimensional shape of proteins in the human body, a  problem that no one has ever been able to solve.  Past winners have chipped away at it but a solution still eludes the scientific community. In 2018, the Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction contest was not won by academics. It was won by a team at DeepMind, the artificial intelligence (AI) lab owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Incorporated.  In describing DeepMind’s accomplishment, Mohammed AlQuraishi, a biologist at the Harvard Medical School, who has dedicated his career to protein research commented that he felt “a melancholy” after losing to DeepMind.    “I was surprised and deflated. They were way out in front of everyone else.”  He criticized big pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Novartis, as well as his academic community, for not keeping pace.  “The smartest and most ambitious researchers wanting to work on protein structure will look to DeepMind for opportunities”  (AlQuraishi, 2018).  He urged the life-sciences community to shift their attention toward the kind of AI work practiced by DeepMind.

        DeepMind’s victory predicted the future of biochemical research, increasingly driven by machines and the people who oversee the machines.  Another researcher, Derek Lowe  said “It is not that machines are going to replace chemists. It’s that the chemists who use machines will replace those that don’t”  (Metz, February 5, 2019).

        AI development of this magnitude requires enormous amounts of data.  DeepMind can lean on the massive computer data centers that underpin Google as well as many of the world’s top AI researchers who know how to get the most out of these facilities.  “It allows us to be much more creative, to try many more ideas, often in parallel,” said Demis Hassabis, the chief executive and a co-founder of DeepMind  (Metz, February 5, 2019).  Universities and big pharmaceutical companies are unlikely to match these resources.  

     Kai-Fu Lee, a former senior executive at Google and Microsoft, stated that humanity is moving towards the establishment of a “new world order” dominated by AI, cloud computing and robotics (Lee, 2018) that will have significant ramifications for many aspects of  human endeavors.  How will our species respond?  Lee believes that many workers will experience a “psychological loss of purpose” as AI changes the nature of their occupations (Lee, 2018, p. 21).  A more pessimistic prediction comes from Yuval Noah Harari,  bestselling author of Sapiens, who commented that AI has the potential to create a “useless class of superfluous people” (Harari, 2017, p.322).   The term  ““useless class of superfluous people”  surely attracts attention but it may be a bit too extreme.  In a later book, Harari takes a more moderate stand and discusses at length the merging of workers with large-scale integrated digital networks (Harari, 2018, p. 22).  There are no firm estimates of the number of  jobs in this country that will be displaced by AI and other forms of automation.  While one estimate suggests 47 percent (Frey & Osborne, 2013), another poses 38 percent (Berriman & Hawksworth, 2017), and yet another puts it as low as 9 percent (Artnz, Gregory, & Zierahn, 2016). The fact is that no one really knows.  One aspect of this displacement is certain, and that is that many of these displaced jobs will be in white collar and professional areas such as teaching, law, and medicine as well as the corporate sector.

      The purpose of this session will be to speculate specifically on the future of higher education as online technology, such as AI infused adaptive software and analytics, changes the traditional role of educators in our colleges and universities.  Online and adaptive learning have already advanced within the academy, but the most significant changes are yet to come.   This session is meant to complement another session examining the role that online education has played over the past twenty-five years.