Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Culture of Accessibility in Higher Education in the Era of Networked Communication (Media Essay - Stephanie Herzog)

The Culture of Accessibility in Higher Education in the Era of Networked Communication

            The world of higher education with it’s traditional image of the nearly impenetrable ivory tower and brick and mortar campus that was for many decades out of reach for those who were not high socioeconomic status, white males, has seen a dramatic transformation in relation to access within the past twenty years due to the evolution of online higher education. This media essay will address how the shift from mass communication to networked communication has changed the culture of accessibility in higher education, both in terms of awareness of higher education opportunities as well as the actual attainment of higher education.
            Accessibility takes a binary approach through looking at two different aspects of access in relation to higher education and what about the culture of access has been changed since networked communication arose. First, how do potential students gain literal access to college in terms of information gathering, the application process, and also arranging details about classes and campus life? Second, how do students access their actual education in terms of classes, research, and working with faculty and peers? In regards to both awareness and attainment within higher education, the shift from an era of mass communication dominance to a world of networked communication control has drastically reshaped the landscape of higher education.

            Access to higher education before the shift to networked communication was heavily dependent upon knowledge passed along via pamphlets and marketing materials, books, TV and radio commercials, campus representatives and guidance counselors, as well as family and personal knowledge. Students with more of these resources were able to gain more information about college and could weigh their various options. It can also be argued that these print and mass media resources are rather finite, meaning that depending upon how many books or pamphlets are printed about various universities, or when a particular television commercial aired, they could only have the possibility of reaching a limited number of students.
            With the exception of during televised athletic events and possibly even local radio spots, many higher education institutions aside from proprietary institutions have not traditionally relied on television and radio as sources of advertising. Therefore, in the era of mass communication, distributing information about higher education institutions, opportunities, and scholarships was still primarily through print media. For underrepresented students, awareness about various higher education options and majors may be something that they had little or no contact with depending upon the resources available in their school. Additionally, books and other print resources quickly become outdated in terms of tuition costs and other details that are constantly updated by institutions. Radio and TV ads generally cannot fit many details into a restricted amount of time and rely more on visual aids, which typically are tailored towards a specific type of potential student. In fact, just about every television commercial for colleges today refer viewers to seek more information about them by visiting a webpage, such as the conclusion of this University of Phoenix television advertisement: 

( However, institutions that are already well established rely more on reputation rather than providing information in their TV advertisements, such as The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s:

( This commercial assumes that potential students will know how to access more information about the institution on their own, a trend common in a search engine-oriented, networked society. What both of these television ads both do is play into the internet’s ability to provide further information, thereby allowing the commercials to act as emotion-grabbing teasers, rather than sources of information about their respective institutions.
            Functions related to accessing higher education, such as filling out applications, have also been transferred to primarily online forms. Furthermore, scholarship applications and the process of seeking financial aid are other means of accessing postsecondary education that have been relegated to almost solely online forms. Applying for college has never been simpler, as seen by the clear and concise application instructions on UNL’s admissions webpage:

( If a student has a question while filling out his or her application, he or she has countless answers with the ease of weblinks and search engines. This is where the notion of access takes on another meaning – these precious resources are only available to those who have access to a computer and the internet. Even for potential students who may not have a computer and online access at home, if they have to use such resources within their high school or the public library, their time on the internet may be limited. Furthermore, even if students, particularly nontraditional students, have access to a computer and the internet there is no guarantee that the student has a level of computer literacy that would enable him or her to successfully seek information and complete college applications. On the other hand, with the cost of home computers and internet becoming more affordable, those who are able to afford these technological tools for home use, and know how to use them properly, have at their hands a greater means for accessing education than could have ever been realized during the era of mass communication.
            Institutions themselves have been empowered through networked communication, particularly social networking frameworks, to reach out to potential students and engage them in conversations about their educational plans in ways that were previously impossible. Most institutions, such as The University of Nebraska-Lincoln have both Facebook!/unlnews that they maintain daily to keep in touch with and engage potential, current, and distance students. The prevalence of social media in higher education has become so common that an institution that elects not to utilize such resources may be viewed by students as less accessible. Blogs are another networked technology that higher education institutions have tapped into in order to make daily life at their institution appear more accessible to potential students:

The message from student bloggers isn't always pretty, yet college officials say the blogs are worth the risk. High school students can get unvarnished views of any colleges from Facebook, MySpace, or unsanctioned student blogs. They may be more inclined to trust a school they think is willing to show them real campus life, officials say. Plus, the technology gives colleges another tool to help applicants make the best decision, especially if they cannot afford to fly in for an overnight stay (Bombardier, 2007).

The student blogs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed such a strong following, that they are featured prominently on the admissions website and are considered a valuable source of information for potential students desiring access to information on what life as a student at MIT is like: As networked communication continues to go mobile, institutions, such as The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, are even developing applications “apps” for further integrating students with their educational experience by leveraging the latest in networked technology:

            As networked communication has led to an age of information sharing, so too has the ability to access information about higher education mushroomed. All institutions from the Ivy League schools to community colleges and proprietary institutions have created websites designed not only to inform potential students but also to serve as a gateway for accessing education at that particular school. Networked communication has created a new culture of access in the realm of higher education by moving processes and knowledge online. Now, potential students can instantly seek out available degree programs, download a list of required courses, see which professors are teaching each particular course, view a bio of each professor online, and then read student opinions on that particular professor or course. This video from Babson college gives potential students the opportunity to hear from current students about their favorite classes and professors, without having to go on campus and meet the students, something that would not be possible before online communication: 

( Unlike during the days of mass communication when potential students relied on television commercials of happy, productive students sauntering casually across well-manicured lawns while on their way to class, or marketing brochures with idealized, limited descriptions of actual courses students can take, now students can just get onto the internet and plan their higher education experience right down to the daily menu of their future residence hall dining room: Networked communication has eliminated a lot of the “unknown” that was previously associated with higher education ventures and has enabled students to become pickier consumers of their own college experience.

            Actual attainment of higher education is another form of access that has been dramatically altered by the shift from mass communication to networked communication. The culture of access within postsecondary education has changed from one centered around brick and mortar campuses and thousands of published journals and books sitting in a library, to one focused on instant dissemination and sharing of knowledge and resources, and connecting socially through online networks. UNL, a traditional Land-Grant Institution, has within the past few years established a global internet presence through offering a variety of degrees online, including even doctoral degrees. On their website ( - Q1)

UNL (2012) stated that offering distance education as part of the institution was important because,

Distance education is becoming an important trend in higher education. A growth rate of 33% in distance education is expected during the next several years, according to figures from the International Data Cooperation. The NU Board of Regents has called for distance education to be a part of the core activities of the University.
        Not only has access to information about higher education been widened in the  networked society, but so too has actual physical access to a higher education degree. Jones International University, the first accredited online university was founded in 1993, less than twenty years ago. Since then, online education has exploded and hundreds of credited and unaccredited postsecondary institutions now exist online, offering anything from certificates and associates degrees right up to doctorate degrees. Some institutions were founded as online institutions, while others are well-established physical institutions that have made the shift to offering various parts of their curriculum online. The culture of how students access higher education is changing so rapidly, that institutions who are not currently providing online courses or degrees will inevitably have to submit to the technological shift of networked communication, as suggested in the article, “GLOBAL: The challenges of global online education:”

As the digital generation progresses, there will be a challenge and a need for colleges and universities to integrate online learning into the mainstream of academic programmes as students will expect technology to be woven into what they experience in school” (Shirvani, Scorza, Alkhathlan, & Garcia, 2011).

Will the culture of how we access higher education be so dramatically altered that every class in the future will either be conducted partially or entirely online? Higher education leaders must learn more about how these dramatic changes in the ways that student access postsecondary classes will impact learning.

            Considering that only twenty years ago an individual had to be on a physical campus in a physical classroom with a tangible book in order to earn a postsecondary degree, it can be argued that the culture of how we access higher education has been altered so severely by networked communication that in the very near future there may be more students walking around with bachelor’s degrees who have never set foot on a college campus than those who attended a physical institution for their bachelor’s degree. The culture of global access to higher education has also been altered in ways that were inconceivable before networked communication arrived through opening up the opportunity for education to anyone with a computer and internet access. Students and faculty are now able to access and share research around the world through utilizing online journals and other academic websites. Libraries are now almost entirely digital, and even for journals and book articles that are only available in hard copy form, these pages can be scanned into a computer and e-mailed to students around the world. Even scholarly journals such as JOLT, Journal of Online Learning and Teaching:, which has been around since 2005, are devoted strictly to issues in regards to online education, an area of research that did not exist before the era of networked communication.
            Now millions across the globe can come together to participate in the same virtual classrooms and work towards earning the same college degrees. Steve Kaufman, who wrote the article, “How the Internet is Changing Education,” believes online capabilities are far less limiting than the traditional model: “Interactive functionality and methods of searching for, storing and then reviewing bits of knowledge can make this environment a more effective learning space than the University lecture hall.” Even in the U.S. alone, access to higher education has been widened in ways never thought possible before through allowing rural citizens who could not leave their farms to take classes, and single-mothers who could not afford child care to work towards their degrees from home. According to Campus Compact’s website, networked communication has affected accessibility in a positive manner by widening participation of students in a manner that was not possible before:

However, around the turn of the century, higher education encountered developments in distance learning technology that could change its ways forever. The development of the Internet forced institutions to consider new ways of teaching, learning and doing research. As so-called ‘virtual universities’ emerged, many have had more success in attracting diverse populations than traditional colleges and universities (Campus Compact, 2012).

Networked communication has led to an influx of higher education opportunities, which in turn as allowed students who may have normally not had the resources to earn a college degree, to find such a goal more realistically attainable. However, because the internet makes establishing structures of higher education cheaper, there is the danger of falling into the trap of quantity over quality, especially within the arena of for-profit education.

The ability to attend college online has created a new culture in regards to accessing higher education, with some companies going so far as to make the normally intimidating process of earning a degree look fun and relaxing, even suggesting that one can attend college in one’s pajamas:

 ( While making postsecondary education look less formidable and more accessible, especially for underrepresented student populations can be seen as a positive function of the new casual culture of access in higher education, the diminishment of the seriousness and significance of pursuing study at a higher level may also be taking place. AmericanInterContinental University, a for-profit primarily online institution, is attempting to take a jab at the traditional structure of higher education through marketing their online approach as more serious than typical colleges with large campuses, mascots, and Greek life:

 ( The internet has allowed other institutions to remain competitive with the traditional model of higher education simply because they have changed the culture of access to a college degree through widening opportunities, making these opportunities readily available, and also creating environments where degrees are easier to attain.
            While the shift from mass communication to networked communication has widened access to higher education for many across the globe, access to computers, an internet connection, and also a certain level of computer literacy needed to attend classes online is still a significant problem. A mixed-methods study by Goode (2010) explored the technological gap that occurs between different student groups when they get to college:
Without any formal technology prerequisites, students come to college with differing technological skills, stratified by gender, socioeconomic status, and racial backgrounds. Beyond skills, students’ varied computing histories can result in a range of technology identities that impact their relationship with technology in their academic, social, and career aspirations. (p. 583)

Findings indicated that social reproduction is further perpetuated by higher education’s assumption of technology knowledge on the part of their students. Furthermore, earning a degree online may save an individual the expense of moving closer to campus or commuting, but it does not help one’s ability to afford postsecondary education. Still one of the most pronounced barriers to access of higher education is the high cost of a college degree, something about the culture of accessibility in higher education that has not been as drastically altered by networked communication. One very unique postsecondary institution that has sprung out of the decreased cost of online education is University of The People, the world’s first tuition-free online university, which was founded in 2009: This cutting edge concept for a free, non-profit, global institution accepts low socioeconomic status students from around the world who participate in online, collaborative classrooms where the students learn through peer-based knowledge sharing and discussions under the guidance of volunteer faculty:

University of the People (UoPeople) is the world’s tuition-free, non-profit, online academic institution dedicated to opening access to higher education globally. Based on the principles of e-learning and peer-to-peer learning, coupled with open-source technology and Open Educational Resources, UoPeople is designed to provide access to undergraduate degree programs for qualified individuals, despite financial, geographic or societal constraints. UoPeople offers Associate and Bachelor degree programs in Business Administration and Computer Science (UoPeople, 2012).

This university is a prime example of how networked communication can be harnessed in a cost-effective way to lead to previously unprecedented levels of access to higher education degrees, even in some of the poorest countries in the world. UoPeople founder, Shai Reshef, discusses the particular of the groundbreaking institution in this YouTube video:

(, including how they combat many of the barriers the institution faces through enrolling students throughout the globe. Even with no tuition costs, access problems still exist for students who have to find computers, an internet connection, and also must have a good working knowledge of English, issues that continue to grow as a networked divide grows across the world.
            Some online institutions may claim to offer degrees for cheap, but the ease of creating environments on the internet, whether they be educational or otherwise, has also led to a boost in the industry of fraudulent institutions and degrees. This is another noteworthy impact on the culture of access to higher education that networked communication has changed – the ability to take advantage of more people through easily developing fake institutions that with the help of the internet look quite real to unsuspecting potential students. Websites focused more on profit rather than quality higher education, such as some search engines, may chose to display institutions that pay them more money to appear first in a potential student’s search, rather than displaying the institutions that actually fit the student’s personal needs best. Higher education professionals need to be watchdogs for steering online access in a positive direction so that the beneficial results of increased access to higher education work to serve students around the globe in valuable ways.


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1 comment:

  1. Nice work Stephanie. As we spoke last week, I am very interested in this kind of research. Thank you.