How to think about online learning

Dean of Metropolitan College Jay Halfond comments on recent data showing that one in five college students is taking at least one course online.  Dean Halfond offers commentary on online learning and how it fits into today’s educational marketplace.

By Jay A. Halfond

Research results revealed this week state that more than one in five college students are taking at least one course online, a 13-percent increase in enrollment that far outpaced the growth of the overall student population.

Online education is challenging the very foundation of how we define teaching and learning.  There are far too many misconceptions about online learning and far too much nostalgia for the traditional classroom.  By comparing the best of one to the worst of the other, distance education can be embraced as a welcomed revolution or reviled as the apocalypse.

In the aftermath of Katrina three years ago, students evacuated New Orleans for other colleges throughout the United States.  This fall, those escaping Gustav could connect to their classes on the web wherever they were.  Likewise, as students and colleges struggled with increased fuel costs, distance learning is now helping to mitigate the cost of driving to campus.  Twenty percent of all U.S. college enrollments are now online.  A rapidly growing portion of the student population is demanding that their education be convenient and conducive to their life style and work style. Technology makes this possible. While the practical benefits are compelling, the real possibilities and implications are far more substantial.

Its potential is enormous, but we need to get past the myths and preconceptions – and hold both the status quo and emerging online instruction to similarly high standards.  In this new frontier, the varieties of “distance learning” are vast – some offer programs with profound academic integrity, others simply profit through a new means of mass production.  Some schools simply invite faculty to put their materials online, with little help or established expectations – and then call that distance learning.  Other institutions make a significant investment to provide the support for high quality instructional development.  Some allow young students to avoid the classroom through online self-study, while others reserve online education for full degree programs that target mature professionals, seeking advanced degrees on a part-time basis.

When done well, distance learning provides a virtual learning environment for engagement and interaction not only comparable to the physical classroom, but in ways conventional courses can rarely duplicate.  Distance education can expand the access and control students have over their academic careers, and ways universities can better link students across regions, backgrounds, and cultures.  Online courses empower the student to participate whenever and wherever possible, in discussions that allow for well-reasoned and researched contributions, without having to vie for airtime in the fray of a crowded classroom.  Non- native English speakers now can find the courage and time to contribute their ideas.  Older students from any part of the globe will be able to participate and bring their backgrounds to bear on the subject.  We are on the threshold of a truly global academic learning opportunity, one which will not require relocation, personal disruption, or great personal wealth to achieve.

Over the past six years, Boston University has expanded its audience to thousands of online degree candidates – with an average age of thirty-one, and mainly from other parts of the country.  Our programs attract a diverse, accomplished student population that could never be recruited to a campus program. These students dedicate about twenty hours weekly to their coursework, as they juggle their commitments to their family and a full-time job. Our faculty also reports that online teaching is far more demanding and rewarding than they anticipated, and helps to rethink and improve their teaching in the live classroom.

In surveying our online alumni, more than 95 percent believe that distance learning can be at least as rigorous, valuable, and time consuming as face-to-face classes, and said, in hindsight, they would still choose their online path.  Before enrolling, only one-quarter believed that online education could be comparable to on-campus; after their program, three-quarters had been converted from skeptics to believers.  They studied together in groups of less than fifteen students, and formed relationships that continue beyond graduation.  We are successfully addressing the needs of a new audience, and providing a rich environment for social networking and learning – not simply diverting those in from traditional programs to web-based programs.

Even as educators open their minds to the valuable lessons to be learned from distance education, the traditional residential college is not at risk. As we better understand how learning can occur remotely, one very likely outcome is that we will develop even greater appreciation for the invaluable role of live interaction on a thriving and engaging campus.  We are learning about learning. With many types of students, we need multiple ways to teach. The next time a crisis occurs that forces an evacuation, both students and faculty, even with technological tools on hand to continue their exchange, will still look forward to returning to their academic home.

(Jay A. Halfond is Dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University. )

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