Do Universities Think Online Education is the Future?

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Changing Course: A New Report on the State of Online Education

Online Education

Recently Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson and the Sloan Consortium collaborated on the publication of a new report on online education called Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States. Written by Dr. I. Elaine Allen and Dr.  Jeff Seaman of the Babson Survey Research Group, the report is the tenth in a series that was started by the Sloan Consortium. Survey researchers from Babson developed a comprehensive instrument that covers a number of important aspects of online learning. 2,800 chief academic officers completed the survey. The results provide solid information about how the administrative movers and shakers perceive online learning, its problems and its promise.

The report gives a picture not only of where online education was ten years ago and where it is now, but where this transformative method of teaching/learning may well be headed. Those of us who are enthusiastic about online education won’t be surprised by some of the changes in the attitudes of higher education administrators towards our favorite mode of teaching over the last ten years. Of course, more students are taking online courses! More schools are committing to online programs! Where else could this incredible movement be going?  But, sadly, there are some statistical disappointments too, such as the skepticism that still exists among traditional faculty.

The Data

Below is an infographic that I made—my first ever thanks to the wonderful folks at easel.ly. I pulled out some of the most heartening statistics reported in Changing Course and a couple of the disheartening ones as well.

Infographic for Navleen July 9 2013

From the Students’ Perspective

Five million more university students in the United States were reported to have taken at least one online course in 2012 than in 2002. This means that in every year since the report was first published about a half million new students took their first online course. This statistic indicates an impressive enthusiasm among college students for online learning. Students are not naive about the advantages or disadvantages of online classes, however, as this short YouTube video posted nine months ago by Ohio University students testifies:

It’s Not Just About Courses, It’s Online Programs Too

The report found a 26% increase over the last ten years in the number of universities that have committed their resources to building complete online programs. Certificate sequences, online undergraduate and graduate degrees: these are being designed, marketed and conducted by almost 71% of all the institutions of higher education represented in the survey sample. But it is not only that such courses allow growth in the student body without needing to adopt an expensive fundraising campaign to support buying more land and building more buildings. Online programs extend the reach for small and large schools alike to a population of students who might not otherwise be able to sign up. This short video developed by a community college in the United States gives some insight into what online courses can mean to a whole new group of students:

Issues of Quality and Student Participation

The number of administrators who see expansion into the online arena to be more important for the future of their institution and who consider the well-designed online course to be equal to or better than a face-to-face traditional course has grown over the last decade. But almost 90% of the administrators believe that to be successful in an online classroom, students need to show more discipline than they do in face-to-face environments. Students—as was seen in the Ohio University video—feel that way too. Clearly, in an online course, your success depends a lot on your willingness to give your all to your participation. Hiding in the back of the room just isn’t possible in an online environment.

Faculty Skepticism

The two most disappointing findings in Changing Course were the last two on the bottom of the infographic above. First, there is this idea that students will have difficulty getting jobs with online coursework, and worse still, with online degrees. Second, there is the sad fact that only 30% of the 2,800 administrators queried felt that faculty at their school were enthusiastic about online courses.

Whether students have difficulty with online credentials is an open question, and recent research has shown that all things being equal, it is easier now than it was for online course takers and online program graduates to obtain jobs in the United States. But faculty are pushing back, especially against the free online course movement that has produced that wonderful behemoth of education, the massively open online course or MOOC. A recent article published by the Economist online, under a section of their website called “Democracy in America,” discussed the pros and cons of such courses for universities in particular, higher education in general, for students, and especially for faculty who are both concerned about the quality of online education and the possibility that the rank-and-file professor will get lost in a world of MOOC superstars.

Skeptic Faculty

What Worries Traditional Faculty

I found online education to be frightening. Was I going to be able to use the technology? Was I going to be able to sort out the requirements? Was I going to be able to get what I needed from the teacher/facilitator? Was I going to feel lonely, sitting in my easy chair in my own living room, logging into a technology-filled space? Would there even be other people there? As someone with some mileage on my chassis (my undergraduate degree was completed in 1974), I wasn’t used to social media, multiplayer online gaming, or Webinars. I wasn’t used to studying in what was in reality a global classroom. I found even thinking about all the changes I would need to make in my habits of teaching and learning more than a little terrifying.

I would not be surprised if some of my old fears are in the minds of the faculty that 70% of the respondents to the Changing Course survey felt their school employed. I have the suspicion though, that as the years roll on, future iterations of Changing Course are going to find that more and more administrators can identify larger segments of their faculty population as positive about online education, excited about the future of open education, and even enthusiastic about the MOOC movement. The Zeitgeist in higher education in the United States, the Zeitgeist in global  higher education will encourage—if not force—those folks who are, like I was, too terrified to take that leap. More and more of them are going to have to take a deep breath, close their eyes, hold their noses, and just jump into new educational waters.

The Moment of Transformation

My bet is that, like me, when skeptical traditional faculty break the surface of the ocean of online education, when they realize they’re in it now and the water is fine, they will start to suspect that online education is a truly positive thing. They will have found that transformative moment that so many of us have had, whether we are independent teachers, grade school, high school or university faculty, trainers or tutors. For me, that moment occurred the first time I put on a headset and logged into a Virtual Classroom.

Although economics may have driven me to online education, although economics most surely drives universities in the United States to continue to invest more in online teaching, the benefits for faculty, staff and students are so much more than economic. When college students increase their participation in online courses—and they will—both offered by their own schools and from elsewhere on the internet, from everywhere else in the global marketplace for learning, there will be room for rank-and-file faculty to ply their wares, for all types of teachers to bring their own unique perspectives and their own unique expertise to the online world. But especially for traditional faculty, once they let themselves leap, more and more of them will find that online education is truly and positively transformative, not because it is being pushed by administrators and Boards of Trustees at the schools where they hold precious positions, but because online education is an organic walk towards a more interconnected, more customized, more personally-developed and more personally-controlled mode of teaching and learning.  Here’s a perceptive education analyst who says this much better than I could:

Brave new world! And the answer is YES to the question in the title. Not only do universities think that online education is the future, they know it. And as dedicated online teaching professionals and lifelong learners, so do we. Here’s to our collective future!

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Dr. Nancy Zingrone has a PhD in psychology from the University of Edinburgh and an MSEd in Higher Education from Northern Illinois University. She is passionate about online education, having learned a significant amount of what she knows about teaching online from the incomparable Dr. Nellie Deutsch and the wonderful folks at WizIQ. Her work background includes more than twenty years in personal and individual differences research, publishing, higher education administration, and adult education.

13 Comments

  • Reply July 30, 2013

    Debbie Ruston

    Great article Nancy! This comment says it all…. ” when skeptical traditional faculty break the surface of the ocean of online education, when they realize they’re in it now and the water is fine, they will start to suspect that online education is a truly positive thing.”
    Change is constant in life, and in business. When educators resist change, they are sending a message to youth that change must be resisted and are doing them a huge disservice. You cannot effectively learn to embrace change if you see change being resisted by those teaching you. This includes parents, educators, and anyone in a teaching, mentoring role.

  • Reply July 30, 2013

    Abbas Husain

    The issue is simple: if students won’t learn the way we teach we must teach the way they learn. And if that way is online, we can’t be offline!

  • Reply August 1, 2013

    Halina

    “The only constant force in
    the Universe is change.” – Heraclitus
    Thank you very much for your thoughts.
    The article is very informative and answers some of my basic quastions.
    Regards,
    Halina

    • Reply August 3, 2013

      Nan Zingrone

      Thanks for your comments, Halina! And boy was Heraclitus right! :-)

      • Reply August 3, 2013

        Halina

        Yes, he certainly was.
        Regards,
        Halina

  • Reply August 4, 2013

    Jason R Levine

    The WATER is FINE, INDEED!

  • Reply August 7, 2013

    Harry C. Lord

    I believe that online courses are an important component of our curricula, but it is not a simple task transitioning from teaching in the classroom to online, and many faculty are not prepared to put in the effort to be successful in doing so. Retention rates are lower, as students always believe they can make time, but somehow time slips away. Therefore there must be more focus on engagement. That is time-consuming for the instructor and the students. Secondly students learn in different ways, so simply posting some instructional material will usually not allow ALL students to learn. Either we must supplement the online learning with some F2F time (as in a hybrid course), or we must proceed to adaptive learning where the student’s learning is assessed, and only if they meet the passing criteria can they proceed to the next lesson. If they don’t pass, they must be offered some redial material, preferably using a different set of learning styles, to assist comprehension. I teach chemistry, and generally the online chem courses are hybrid, with the lab on campus. I have consistently found that close to 50% of the students did not “get” the information from the online work, and NEEDED the F2F classroom interactions to master the material. Was that because they KNEW we would have a chance to talk about it? I think not, as I have also taught a number of fully online courses, both for Professional Development (faculty) and also for Logistics (students), and I found a similar problem. Those that didn’t understand and couldn’t catch up usually dropped out. Now I am working on trying to overcome those limitations.

    • Reply September 2, 2013

      Nan Zingrone

      Wonderful comment! Thanks.

      I always have two frustrations with teaching online at the higher education level. First so many face to face faculty are not interested in teaching online but bricks and mortar schools seldom advertise for adjuncts who have online teaching experiences. There are a lot of us out here who find that the only places we can apply to are online schools, at the same time we read articles and see stats showing that bricks and mortar schools with increasing investment in online courses are having difficulties to finding faculty to teach within their own faculty population. Hello! We’re banging on the windows here!

      The other frustration is a creatively energizing one, and it’s all the things you outline. There are many things that need to be done and creatively not only to make sure your students don’t get lost in the sauce, to accommodate differing learning styles and to build in face to face time so that students who need that, can benefit from it. Some years back I designed a course for graduate faculty members called “meeting face to face in your online class” in which we worked through a variety of technological fixes when it’s impossible to get your students together in a physical space. They ranged from using technology that brought students together visually (like Skype) or through audio (like Voice Thread) or in a virtual environment like Second Life, an Open Sim world or Kitely.

      Sometimes I wonder too if there has to be a change in the way we allow students to engage with course material. I suspect one of the reasons why Coursera works so well and WizIQ classes too, is that you can sign up and work through what you need, and if it takes you three tries to get your working schedule set up and settle down to really finish a course, there no penalty for working up to completion. In traditional higher education not too many second or third chances are available. In countries like the USA where we tend to make life as difficult as possible for students seeking higher education, college kids tend to be working their way through, older than the usual 18-22, and with competing obligations, this way of dealing with course enrollment/completion is punitive. I don’t know how this can be changed especially since the Department of Ed is now leaning on completion/retention as a measure of accreditation-worthiness. But perhaps a movement towards the MOOC model in terms of chances to complete would be a good thing.

  • Reply January 30, 2014

    sophiasravt

    Good Article Very Usefull for online learners, Thank You For Info Provided

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