According to a recent survey, more than one in four college students are taking at least one online course at any given time. The number of online institutions has increased, and hybrid courses that blend in-class and online class time together are becoming more popular on college campuses. Are we moving in the right direction? How has technology and the Internet improved or negatively affected college coursework?
For riders of the New York subway, advertisements for online courses are a daily experience. Catchy phrases remind us that we could use our lunch break to work on a degree from Monroe College or Phoenix University. We could get technical training, an undergraduate education, or an advanced degree, all at home while the baby is sleeping. These ads answer deep yearnings as the commuters try to keep their dreams alive in spite of tight schedules and stifling economic pressures. As an undergraduate student I also took advantage of online classes that allowed me to finish my vertebrate biology requirement during the three-week Christmas break, and to maintain my student status when I traveled for a semester. The convenience of internet education is inarguable. The accessibility is laudable. For parents and busy working adults, online college sounds too good to be true— because it is.
During the summer of 2010 media reports and congressional inquiries have addressed the problems caused by for-profit colleges that charge high tuition, use taxpayer money to subsidize financial aid, and fail to deliver useful education. These institutions, such as Phoenix University, often specialize in online learning. Their motives for using this new instructional approach are clear: online education can tap into a new market of students and reduce the cost of teaching by automating many of the professor’s tasks. These clever business strategies do not have the best interest of the students in mind, most of whom either dropout or graduate with a degree that does little for their employment prospects.
Of course, not all colleges and universities use online education to prey on desperate students and make a buck. Most simply seek to accommodate the increasingly complex needs and schedules of a modern student body engaged in rigorous curriculums in reputable, accredited programs. Administrators recognize that a few online classes can make things easier for a busy pre-med who wants to travel to volunteer, or a mid-career professional returning to school.
It is important to make some things easier— to avoid forcing a student to endure lectures on a topic she already understands, or a class he finds intuitive. It can be good to provide appropriate shortcuts to the student who knows clearly where he is going. It is essential, however, to understand that online classes are shortcuts, generally lacking the accountability of supervised exams and the stimulation of real-time group conversations with instructors. I appreciated the opportunity to take vertebrate biology during a break, but I did not learn as much on the topic as I did on functional plant ecology, or any other course that I took in a classroom.
While online classes can make school too easy, and regular classes can involve unnecessary difficulties, hybrid classes can offer a perfect balance. Online quizzes and homework free up professors’ time and give students instant feedback, and the use of computer interfaces ensures that pupils practice basic computer skills. The online components require that students learn to manage their time and monitor their progress independently. The students still have access to lectures, discussions, supervised exams, and possibly office hours with an instructor or tutor. Physical proximity to other students allows educational conversation and collaboration to continue outside of classroom hours or chat sessions.
Hybrid classes could even reduce the classroom schedule to a degree that would be manageable to a student juggling the responsibilities of work and family. Careful combinations of online courses and traditional courses can accomplish the same goal. As I ride the subway and read the enticing invitations to get an associates degree online in as few as six months, I am reminded how important that goal is. Access to education changes lives. School administrators, politicians, and members of regulatory agencies should work for increased access to education, but they should not eliminate the all-important classroom experience in doing so.
Here are a few suggestions for the creation of accessible, high value educational opportunities: taxpayer money used to subsidize student aid at expensive online colleges should be redirected into community colleges, increasing the number of campuses and the availability of night and weekend classes. Colleges offering online and hybrid classes should target students who live near by, offer tutoring, and encourage study groups and mentor pairings to form. Schools that reduce the cost of a certain class by conducting it online should pass the savings on to the student— either by reducing tuition, or by providing more instructor office hours, tutoring, and mentorship. When appropriate, schools should allow students to access course curriculums and test out of classes for little or no money, rather than taking an online version. As a rule of thumb, colleges should work to increase educational opportunities among non-traditional students, but they should not sell students anything that is available on wikipedia for free.
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