If there has been any backlash against online education by traditional bricks-and-mortar universities, that notion is usually couched in words such as “confusion” and “misuse.” Confusion as to what online learning is supposed to be and how to make it effective. Misuse as in one-size-fits-all approaches for students and faculty who are neither prepared nor motivated — the proverbial mistake of trying to fit the round peg (fluid online models) into the square hole (traditional, on-ground models.)
“Many colleges and universities came to e-learning for reasons other than teaching and learning quality,” says Jeff Borden, a vice president and director of the center for online learning at Pearson, a leading education company that provides a huge array of services, including online courses. “Some saw a quick financial win. Some saw it as interesting for research. Some wanted to be ‘cutting edge’ for their marketing efforts. Others were scared as they lost on-ground enrollments and believed it was the only way to survive. “But, as e-learning has ‘grown up’ to be a viable and very real alternative for millions of students, many schools have had to catch up to efficacy,” Borden says. “Obviously, it’s a never-ending experience — we find the same to be true in face-to-face teaching and learning. But over time, more schools have figured out what works for them and/or their student population.”
For many, Borden says, the key is a blended approach.
Some schools, for example, offer classes that meet part-time online and part-time on ground. Others offer full courses online. At Chaminade University of Honolulu, where Borden is a lecturer, fully online courses make up most of the eLearning, but a hybrid model is the fastest-growing approach in general, he says. Like anything in its infancy, online learning has indeed had its growing pains. Central Michigan University (CMU), which jumped into the pool early, hit a technical wall in 2006 with Blackboard, a widely used e-learning platform, due to faster-than-expected enrollment growth, say Marnie Roestel, manager of online programs, and Kaleb Patrick, director of graduate programs. CMU updated its management systems and has kept up with enrollment since, they said, while reminding faculty to maintain academic standards.
Northwestern University in early April announced that Courses for Semester Online, a consortium of universities in the U.S. and Europe offering a set of online courses that could be taken at any of the schools, would end this summer. Reasons included resistance by some faculty to the model and difficulty in maintaining consistency across the spectrum. “On the basis of a lot of experience, I can attest to the fact the consortia are very hard to manage,” says former Princeton University President William Bowen. “There is a great temptation for lowest-common-denominator thinking to prevail. This is a field in which you need nimbleness and the ability to test things out, to make mistakes and fix them, and I’m not convinced consortia are very good at that.” The CMU online experts say universities have been, overall, slow to embrace online education. The likely reason: They realize it isn’t easy to do right.
Students, meanwhile — especially adults in the workplace — are champing at the bit for it, statistics indicate. They want it because it fits their increasing need for higher education at their own pace, in their own space, and because it works well in a new, job-hopping environment that requires short bursts of focus on specific skills that serve career goals. “As with any technology, it takes time as well as practice to test their capabilities and optimize their effectiveness,” says Drexel University Online President Susan Aldridge. “Online education isn’t something you do by the numbers,” Aldridge adds. “It’s an ongoing process of discovery and improvement, which is guaranteed to produce mistakes along the way. By embracing those mistakes, we are learning to navigate the roadblocks in a way that defines and leads to true success, for both our students and our faculty.”
According to the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit think tank devoted to online learning, most increases in online education are happening at two-year institutions. Pam Quinn, director of online learning for seven community colleges in Texas, says not to blame the medium. “If students are not engaged in online learning, either the courses are not designed properly or the faculty are not trained appropriately in online learning communities that support student engagement,” says Quinn, provost for the Dallas County Community College District’s LeCroy Center for Educational Telecommunications.