Americans are more and more willing to trust their lives to the Internet. It is easy to see how a generation that plays online, works online, and even dates online would embrace the idea of taking classes online. Undoubtedly there is much to gain from this. The flexibility and affordability of online classes give many the opportunity to study for a degree which they otherwise could not receive, and the technology improves on aspects of traditional education. Before rushing ahead, however, we must evaluate what can be lost without the face-to-face rapport between a student and her professor and classmates. Educators and legislators must insist that the next frontier of education emphasizes these critical personal elements.
The sprinting growth of online education is a clear indication of the need for Internet-based learning. Simply put, no professor can offer the flexibility afforded by the Internet and few traditional institutions are as cost-effective as online degree programs. Most online colleges allow students to start classes at many different points throughout the year, unlike traditional schools which only accept incoming students in the fall , and perhaps a few in the spring semester. Students can fit courses into their own daily schedule, which is a blessing in the current recession. Those who most need it can benefit from the convenience of courses online: working adults and single mothers – many of whom recently lost federally subsidized childcare and struggle to keep working – who must keep their jobs, but who strive for a superior education and a better living.
Although the cost of an online college course is similar to the price of a class taken in person at an average American college, a great deal of money beyond tuition itself is saved by taking a class online. Students learning from home save moving and renting costs, and any daily travel expenditures are eliminated. Paying per course with online institutions instead of paying by semester at most traditional colleges consider a full course load per semester, thereby saving a student hundreds to thousands of dollars per term. This opens up higher learning to many more individuals who would otherwise be unable to afford an education. In today’s economy, the flexibility and efficiency of online courses make them the most reasonable, if not the only, option for many Americans.
Online courses can also improve on aspects of traditional education. College-age students today and in the future will have grown up in front of computers. Classes online therefore provide a natural way for them to learn. Furthermore, online components in coursework may enrich students’ comprehension of material by supplementing the learning process and helping students retain information. Studies have shown that novel interactions with the same piece of information will reinforce this bit of information manifold, and thus online quizzes or videos going over the same concepts in different ways help students to remember what they have learned.
While the benefits of online education are clear, and its growth imminent, some concerns must be addressed. Online colleges must be regulated to avoid institutions that are regarded as “degree mills” and to ensure that future students are not short-changed in their choice of an online course over a traditional one. A human component should be maintained to give structure and to nurture the intellectual growth of the students. Without personal interactions between student and professor or spontaneous discourse between students, what is college but grunt progress toward a degree? Furthermore, a good professor adapts to the strengths and weaknesses of her students, often meeting with them outside a class to ensure that they understand the material. A human presence likewise can watch students for psychological and ethical problems. One student may need encouragement when thinking about quitting a class. Another student may think she can get away with cheating on an exam – and she might be right.
In order for the ever-growing student body at online institutions to succeed, we must integrate a human element into the program. The onus rests on schools to offer the right programming, and it may take legislation to push them in the right direction. A possible solution would be to set up counseling offices in major metropolitan areas, where advisors meet with students, visit them at home and can develop into trusted mentors. Another possibility is the incorporation of video conferences into class time. Taking technology one step further, students can hold discussion groups, or private conversations with a professor via live video feed. Relationships can then be built and connections reinforced by these face-to-face interactions occurring entirely online.
Through such ideas and others that may arise from a national discourse, we can avoid the pitfalls of online instruction and ensure the educational progress of future generations. Online methods, so full of energy and new ideas, will continue to invigorate old institutions and facilitate the learning of students at traditional colleges. We must now be vigilant to uphold the quality of online education as it is quickly becoming one of the chief ways students learn in America, and this trend will surely persist.
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