This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on October 8, 2014.
There is a variety of opinions in the media these days regarding online learning. Depending on what you read, online education can appear to be either a cure-all or cancer. In an effort to cut through the smoke, here are the top eight established facts you need to know.
1) Online learning is here to stay. Since 1986, when the first online degree program from an accredited institution was offered (by John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, California), growth has been exponential. Today, one-third of America’s 21 million enrolled students are taking some or all of their instruction online. The eleven-year study by the Babson Survey Research Group shows over seven million online enrollments in the fall semester of 2013.
2) There is no significant difference in learning outcomes. Some 30 years ofresearch, including that of the U.S. Department of Education, has found no evidence that online learning is qualitatively inferior to that obtained in a traditional classroom. Unfortunately, those who have preached online learning’s “convenience” for so long have led many to believe that this means “easy,” which is not true. Online courses can be more or less rigorous depending on the instructor who develops the course and the academic department that reviews it.
At the same time, advances in information technology now make it possible to offer significantly more rigorous courses that don’t “feel” as difficult because of the design of the course and the support features that can be directly integrated. For example, one online provider, Excelsior College, sought to address the fact that its students, like most students, live in fear of anything quantitative. In response, Excelsior built access to the Khan Academy‘s tutorials into the lessons for its required courses. The result? Both grades and completion rates went up, with no dumbing-down required.
It also is important to note that, given the “anytime, anywhere” nature of online instruction, it allows for maximum student readiness to learn, as opposed to fixed-time-and-place classroom formats. Employing new adaptive technologies, it is possible to incorporate a student’s learning style in the organization and delivery of instruction. With such features, there is increasing reason to believe that online learning can surpass that of the typical classroom, for certain students.
3) Online learning is widespread. Eighty percent of regionally accredited institutions of higher education are now offering online access. This includes elite institutions, among them, Harvard University, the University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Chicago.
4) There is no single form of online learning.Learning formats range from text-only “electronic correspondence courses” to multimedia-rich offerings featuring a high degree of interactivity, access to external links, animations, and high-quality simulations.
However, most of what is currently offered, especially by public institutions, is at the less-sophisticated end of the spectrum. For schools that can afford the more-sophisticated versions, the current generation of courses is producing superior completion rates and better learning outcomes. Excelsior College again provides an illustration. It has spent over $100,000 per course to support the online version of its associate degree nursing program. Its completion rates are 96 percent, with demand growing. But the amount budgeted by most institutions for a single three-credit-hour course is typically $10-$20 thousand, resulting in a product that is less interactive, less eye-appealing, and less engaging. These drawbacks likely hike student dropout rates.
5) MOOCs are not an example of high-quality online learning. Contrary to perceptions created by the media, Massive Open Online Courses’ (MOOCs’) principal benefit to students is not their learning outcomes, but their price. The fact that such “mega courses” can issue from elite brands, such as MIT, Harvard, and Stanford, has led some to suppose that they have invented a new form of online learning. They have not.
Moreover, the notion—“If it comes from the elite schools, it must be good”—is an error. What MOOC has implemented a psychometrically prepared, nationally-normed assessment as part of its outcome measurement? None of which I’m aware. (Perhaps this is in the works.) Absent such metrics, it is difficult to know if anyone has learned very much. This may explain MOOCs’ typical, 90-plus-percent attrition rate, along with the fact that “traditional” online courses offer considerable faculty-student interaction, personalized attention, flexibility, and attention to outcomes.
6) Online learning is well-suited to adult learners, but not necessarily traditional-aged students.Recent studies by Columbia’s Teachers College conflate these groups and hence come to some questionable conclusions regarding online education outcomes. For older, self-motivated, adults, online programs produce superior results to those of the classroom. For less-focused, less-sure, 18-24 year olds, there are often issues of persistence and completion. Moreover, there is reason for concern over our sons and daughters “going to college” in their bedrooms at home. Although younger students can indeed benefit from the much-publicized “blended model” (combining online learning with brick-and-mortar classrooms), they still need the experience of practicing to become an adult—living with others, reconciling differences, being held accountable for what they do and don’t do, etc.
7) “Institutional” cost savings from going online are less than is often acknowledged. The only area of great savings for schools is the decreased need for classroom facilities. For adult students, there also is no need for recreation and extracurricular support services.
However, whether physical or virtual, there remains the need for the entire spectrum of enrollment management services, as well as an enhanced need for IT support. Student-savings is where we find the real difference. Those studying online can be anywhere in the world, have no commuting costs, no childcare costs, and no lost income from the need to study on campus fulltime. Here, the savings can be considerable.
8) Online learning could soon become the norm for “post-traditional” and graduate students who cannot afford the opportunity cost of traditional programs. That said, while online learning is here to stay, neither the residential campus nor the flagship research university is going to go away. Society always will need the campus-based option to help our youth become adults and citizens. Society also will always need the research-intensive institutions to continue the quest for new discoveries, and to provide the content that online learning distributes so well.