Online Education: Solution or Problem?

By Denise Murray

I CAN hardly open a magazine or newspaper without reading about some new course being offered online. The latest surge has been in MOOCs (massive open online courses). Several for-profit and non-profit companies have emerged to offer these courses across a range of subjects. They collaborate with universities around the world to offer their courses online. Anyone can sign up for the course, but they won’t receive academic credit, only a certificate of participation.

Why do institutions offer online courses? And why do students enroll?
The answers to both questions are complex. Online courses actually have their origins in distance learning (DL), developed to provide education to students who could not travel to a brick-and-mortar institution. DL was first offered as paper-and-pen lessons via mail. It then developed to use taped materials. Next came video. All of these modes of delivery still exist, depending on the resources of a particular country or region.

Institutions offer online programs and students take them because of time and distance constraints. For example, my home state in Australia is huge. When I was college-age, there was only one university in the capital city. I began teaching at a school 1,300 miles (2,092 km) from the capital. But I wanted to continue my bachelor’s degree.

Problem: distance. Solution: correspondence.

Australia has historically invested in DL because of its large land mass and small population. Children in outback farms and ranches studied via the radio. University students studied via correspondence. Distance wasn’t the only reason people chose DL. In some cases, it was (and is) time. People who want to study without giving up their jobs can take classes at night, but they often prefer DL because they can study any place, any time. With the advent of the Internet and its popularity around the world for almost every aspect of life—social, work, shopping and information, it was inevitable that education would seize on the web for delivery. In Australia, the university through which I had studied via correspondence now offers its courses via the web. Children in the outback now study via the web. The introduction of technologies in industry has been used for increasing efficiency: making more with fewer resources, including people. The same holds for online education. Some institutions, buffeted by reduced finances and increasing costs, have seen online education as a panacea: they can reach more students (increased revenue) while using fewer resources (fewer faulty, decreased expenses). However, as universities have started to offer online courses, they have found that designing and delivering them comes with unimagined costs. Yes, it can be cheaper. But that’s if youwant lower quality. Other for-profit institutions have jumped into the mix, believing that they can capitalize on this emerging educational market. Naturally they want to have increased revenue and decreased expenses, thus they sacrifice quality for profit. Some have minimally reined tutors to deliver a curriculum developed by someone else. Some do not even provide information about who the instructors are or their qualificaitons. Students, too, choose online for the wrong reasons. They think it will be easier than a face-to-face course. After all, they won’t have to go to lectures. They’ll have more free time. Students with these attitudes drop out of online courses.

What should you look for when choosing an online program?

In the U.S., The Sloan Consortium has conducted research into online higher education for many years. They have found that quality programs depend on learning effectiveness, cost effectiveness and institutional commitment, access and faculty satisfaction. To choose a quality program takes time and effort on the part of the potential student. Surfing through all the programs available does not help. Many claim excellence but do not deliver. A recent study of online programs for training teachers to teach English as a second or foreign language found that quality programs focus on the learner, have excellent teaching and nonteaching staff, provide opportunities for learners to interact with other students in the class and with the instructor, and have instructors who provide ongoing feedback to students.

When choosing an online program, check:
»»Who are the instructors? Are they well-known in the field?
»»What types of interactive technology does the program use?
»»Do students have a chance to interact with other students?
»»Do students have a chance to interact with the teacher?
»»Are previous students satisfied?
»»Is the program accredited? Is the accrediting agency reputable?
»»Are you taking the program online because you think it’s easier or because it’s more convenient and higher quality than you have locally?

Professor Denise E. Murray

Anaheim University
Emerita, Macquarie University
Emerita, San José State University
For more information on the online program for teaching
English, see tj

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