The recent growth of online education has added a new dimension to college learning that was unthinkable a few decades ago. Knocking down the traditional notion of the “ivory tower” college campus, online education presents an entirely new classroom paradigm, a shift resulting in more opportunities and challenges. For insight into both, we turned to college professors and administrators who reveal the good and the bad that accompany an online college education.
A diverse educational experience
College administrators, faculty and students agree that the most obvious benefit of online education is convenience. Additionally, online education connects students from all over the world, enriching the learning experience by presenting global perspectives in online discussion groups and chat rooms.
That’s the case at Regent University, a Christian-based college in Virginia, where administrators estimate that 50 percent of its 4,400 students now take courses online. Regent currently enrolls students from every state in the United States plus 56 countries, according to Tracy Stewart, the university’s vice president of information technology. In addition to attracting international students, online education has become an increasingly appealing option for active- duty U.S. armed forces personnel, according to Dr. Steven Gold, a professor of business administration with TUI University (formerly known as Touro University International).
This 10-year-old online university accredited by the Universities of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges markets directly to military personnel, an increasingly large part of its student body. Gold reports that online education works well for this demographic.
“They [military students] are smart, diligent and have high levels of integrity,” he says.
Students with these attributes, he says, make a good match for the type of teaching TUI promotes: research, critical thinking and analytical skills.
“We use no textbooks,” Gold says. “It’s all case-based critical thinking.”
Pushing professors’ and students’ boundaries Just as writing a thank-you letter to someone usually engenders a more thoughtful response than an in-person “thanks,” so too does an online educational response — from both professors and students.
“Practically all faculty members will tell you they’re better professors, that they’ve learned how to think about learning in a new way,” says Jay A. Halfond, dean of Boston University’s Metropolitan College and Extended Education.
“I find the richness of teaching online — both the ability to watch students think as they answer questions and my ability to respond thoughtfully — greatly enhanced,” says Dr. Michael Frank, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School of Management & Technology at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), one of 11 accredited, degree-granting institutions in the University System of Maryland.
“It’s easier for students to make thoughtful, substantive contributions, much more so than in the classroom, where you might get about 30 seconds to talk,” says Halfond, who has taught for several years, in both the traditional and online formats. “It encourages students to think more deliberately, and write better.”
Whereas it’s not uncommon for at least a few students in every traditional classroom to slump low in their seats in the back of the room, avoiding class participation, the same doesn’t hold true for online students. “You can’t hide online,” Frank says.
That’s why Frank believes online education is an ideal medium for more mature students, like the graduate students whom he teaches. Currently, UMUC offers 14 accredited master’s degrees and one doctorate degree online. Although the school has over 20 sites throughout Maryland that offer courses in the traditional setting, more than 90 percent of the school’s graduate-level classes can be taken online.
While convenience, flexibility and the potential for enhanced student and professor communication top the list of online education’s pros, this educational format is not without its challenges.
Nondisciplined students need not apply
For starters, it takes a certain degree of maturity and discipline to regularly log onto a computer, listen to a lecture, participate in online group discussions and take required tests in a timely manner. Not every student operates well in this self-motivated environment. Many 18-year-old college freshmen, coming directly from traditional high school settings, may not be ready for the leap.
“At Coppin, there isn’t a policy that precludes freshmen from taking online courses, but faculty members generally advise against it,” says Dr. Ahmed El-Haggan, vice president for information technology at Coppin State University in Maryland.
Workload pile-up for professors “They [professors] all say it’s more work than they thought it would be. You’re not just putting notes online. You really are packaging a learning experience,” says BU’s Halfond.
Halfond is quick to add, however, that at BU, faculty members receive ample support to ease the conversion from traditional to online courses. Ancillary support personnel available to BU professors going online include videographers, instructional designers and technical specialists.
“The professor is a subject-matter expert, not an educational media specialist,” Halfond says.
Niche programs not offered Students seeking to become educated online in rare subject matters might be disappointed. “Enormous public universities paid for by state dollars can handle obscure programs online schools can’t, if there’s no market for it,” says TUI’s Gold. He recalls a recent phone call from a prospective student wanting to know if TUI offered paleontology courses featuring uncommon dinosaurs. The student was out of luck.
Online sham offerings abound As with any consumer offering, when it comes to “shopping” for an online education, the phrase “buyer beware” applies. Educational fraud, online education notwithstanding, is a “a huge industry,” according to Vicky Phillips, founder and chief educational analyst at GetEducated.com, an online distance learning college directory and repository of information on online education.
“Right now GetEducated.com tracks more fake online MBAs than we do real ones,” she says, noting that the Internet has encouraged this fraudulent behavior by allowing anyone with money to advertise unchecked.
Some warning signs of fake or questionable online programs include promises of quick completion and limited contact information for the institution.
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