A new report from Eduventures, a research and consulting firm that works with colleges and higher education-related businesses, says the number of people taking courses online nationwide may be leveling off. No one thinks this type of college education is going away, but the report suggests that quality -- not just convenience and cost -- may play a larger role in the future for students who are choosing where and how to get their degree.
This is welcome news to those of us who have built online courses and degree programs to complement their existing curriculum offerings. We have long held that educators and administrators must ensure that the online course/degree is comparable to the traditional face-to-face platform. And, as there are more and more pressures from politicians to provide high quality, low cost education, more and more universities are shifting their curriculum online. The question remains: how effective are these online courses?
Students, and potential students, should be thinking about the answer because it will make a big difference in their educational experience and could very likely impact their job prospects.
Anyone thinking about taking an online course should do some homework first. While research has shown the online learning is "roughly as effective" as classroom learning, to properly conduct an effective online experience requires a great deal of preparation and care on the part of the instructor. The "data dump and learn" model, where instructors set up online courses with the help of teaching materials from various publishing companies, who never interact with the course, the course materials, or most importantly, the students, is not only an ineffective way to deliver online education, but one that calls into question the usefulness of such courses.
Rather, for an online course to be successful, the "devil is in the details." Some questions to be asked might include:
Is there any kind of program in place to measure quality of the intuition's online programs and degrees?
Do you and your instructor understand the technology that will be used in the online class, whether it be the delivery system, webcams, videos, etc.(It cannot be assumed, even in this age of technology, that all students are "created equal" and know how the course technology. Simply telling students to contact the "Help Desk" is not teaching.)
Will the online experience provide as much interaction, if not more, than face-to-face students taking the same class? Will there be varied assignments, readings, and opportunities to for students to interact with the material and the instructor?
Are the objectives of the course clear? Particularly if someone is new to online education, it is easy to get caught up in the "bells and whistles" of online learning and lose track of the mission of the course while trying new technologies.
Do you have the time and place to devote to an online course? Once a course starts, there are deadlines for students and instructors for assignments, emails, reply to discussions, etc. The most effective online courses are those that are planned and organized before it begins. Students must be ready in a similar way.
Online learning can be a rewarding experience for both the student and the instructor. Certainly, online learning, whatever the form, is going to challenge, if not change the traditional paradigm of face-to-face learning.
A story about that Eduventures report in Inside Higher Ed (Mature Market for Online Education - http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/09/19/adult-students-interest-online-education-flat-study-finds) on Sept. 19 said "without a better-defined product online learning faces a risk of petering out and being little more than a back-up alternative to on-campus education for students."
We certainly do not see that happening. Many traditional colleges are seeing substantial growth in students taking online courses. Those that will continue to grow will do so because they are planning their online options in a way that will guarantee the quality of the experience, as well as provide a convenience option that many will continue to find attractive.
Gregory Domin, associate provost for graduate education, distance learning, and international affairs, Columbus State University.