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Volume 22 No. 3
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Online courses for NCAA student athletes: Is the end at hand?

At the recent Minnowbrook Summit in New York’s Adirondack Park, NCAA President Mark Emmert (who gave an intimate, candid presentation) suggested the assembled industry leaders tackle the thorny issue of online education. These offerings are increasingly available to students of all ages but create stress when administrators suggest making it easier for NCAA student athletes to take online courses.

Minnowbrook is an annual gathering of NCAA faculty athletic representatives and academic directors for student athletes. It dives into the academic side of the NCAA house, the side increasingly charged with protecting the NCAA’s amateurism model. Like any think tank, the room was filled with intelligent professionals committed to identifying academic issues and finding logical solutions.

The initial reaction for many readers — about whether student athletes should get to take online courses — might lean to the negative and quickly focus on the likelihood of widespread cheating. From there, frantic sound bites will veer toward the NCAA assuredly spinning off its axis. Student athletes won’t have to go to class and they’ll start behaving like professional athletes. Cats will live with dogs. Yetis and abominable snowmen will come down out of the Himalayas.

Lost in that imagined pandemonium is the reality that many online courses are now taught with high-tech security measures designed to ensure a student is the right person taking a course examination and the interfacing individual doesn’t cheat during any test or quiz. Many online courses are regularly offered via cutting-edge learning systems, interactive applications for student-to-student and professor-to-student exchanges with high-tech exercises supporting independent learning. 

Not comfortable yet? Think about this: As of 2018 there are hundreds of accredited online universities, thousands of online programs and tens of thousands of online courses.

So, solving the problem of creating a quality program or preventing cheating isn’t enough. Online education opens the door for numerous other questions. What will happen if schools recruit student athletes and tell those athletes they can take all classes online? Doesn’t that mean less interaction with campus faculty and more isolation for varsity competitors? 

Could a cross-country runner set up camp in the mountains and study from their high-altitude tent to gain a competitive advantage through scientific acclimatization? Couldn’t entire softball teams, the ones based in snowbelt regions, relocate to Miami for the winter semester?

What about student athletes with special needs? Will online education inhibit their ability to ask for and receive faculty help? What if student athletes never have to visit campus? Won’t they miss out on the benefits of the residential university experience? Does the “athlete” become more important than the “student” (something the NCAA has never wanted)?

These questions may give many folks reason to pause but the hard facts reveal emerging technology is reshaping the academic landscape and doing so quickly. Professors are already recording lectures, allowing students to go back and replay segments they didn’t understand and might have failed to question. Digital content provides 24/7 access, particularly via wireless platforms (and headphones) that are carried onto team buses, into crowded airports and throughout plush locker rooms. Today, contemporary students can learn anywhere, any time, any place.

The comeback from the dissenting chorus, like a screamer back at the pitcher’s mound, is how students will miss the richness of in-class discourse. They’ll all cheat. Well-funded coaches will move entire teams to more favorable practice settings (warmer weather, better facilities, etc.). 

For this column, it’s not our place to resolve every issue. Rather, it’s to provide insight and start the discussion. For those favoring nontraditional, nonresidential courses, this suggestion probably poses a horrific threat to all of higher education.

Here’s a hard truth, though. Academic faculties and state education departments, not athletic directors, approve classes. Thus, if Oregon State or Arizona State want to make entire degrees available online, to fit the busy lifestyles of the communities they serve, the question is only whether the NCAA or its member institutions want to restrict the academic rights of their student athletes by holding them to a different (and often higher) standard.

If NCAA student athletes want to take digital courses like their nonathletic peers, the richness of higher education should hold the capacity to create unique learning possibilities. Already, cutting-edge education for grade-school children is showing it is possible to provide cost-efficient, virtual reality immersion, allowing students to go underwater and explore the Great Barrier Reef (watch the end of the documentary “Chasing Coral” if you want a great example).

The suggestion that student athletes can only be taught on main campuses and cannot experience breakthroughs in modern education is a restraint we would vote against. There are many online tools, mixed delivery options, dynamic gamification methods and experiential education avenues capable of providing incredible learning moments. But is this glib liberal view the death knell for residential universities? 

If readers believe in capitalism, it can’t be. The composition, structure and delivery methods of higher education will change considerably. The tenets of capitalism require innovation, entrepreneurship, convenience, price sensitivity and a host of other factors that make marketing products so competitive.

To wit, as Adam Smith noted around 1776, inefficient suppliers must fail. That’s something NCAA institutions must not do for the more than 450,000 student athletes they serve each year.


Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and SU’s faculty athletic representative to the ACC and NCAA. Norm O’Reilly is Director of the International Institute for Sport Business & Leadership at the University of Guelph and Partner Consultant at T1.