… or is the solution to go entirely online?

As higher education budgets are hit more and more seriously, one US state (Washington) is considering a partnership with the entirely online university, Western Governors University, as a way of providing a cheaper option to allow more students to benefit from a state-saupported university degree. The subtext in some of the discussions in this instance is that a ‘traditional’ classroom university programme is becoming unaffordable, or at least cannot be adequately supported by the taxpayer.

Those opposed to a move of this kind have suggested that the kind of ‘deep thinking’ that students should be encouraged to pursue is not readily available in online programmes. Or is that wrong, and it all depends on how such programmes are devised and run?

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13 Comments on “… or is the solution to go entirely online?”

  1. wendymr Says:

    I have done two online programs: one a postgraduate certificate, and one a continuing education course. Both of these were at community colleges and, since individual courses of the certificate program are available for anyone to take via continuing education, should in theory involve a similar amount of work, including analysis and reflection. They didn’t. I could have passed the second course in my sleep.

    The certificate program did have elements which didn’t seem to require a lot of effort; some instructors, for example, would award full marks for required discussion posts regardless of content. One instructor, however, awarded marks for the discussion posts based on content, analysis and relationship to the question asked, and students had to work hard for maximum marks. Assignments on (almost) all individual courses required research, analysis and argument. Overall, the program was as rigorous as any I’ve done through classroom contact.

    While I was still working at a British university, I taught on a Masters program that was almost entirely distance-learning (not online at that point by generally-understood definitions, although most contact with students was via email). There were short periods of classroom contact, but most of the program was taught at a distance. I always felt that academic standards were higher on this program than its full-time, classroom-based counterpart.

    So I would say yes, online programs can involve deep thinking – it’s more a function of whether those running them and doing the teaching set those expectations.

  2. Fred Says:

    It depends on the university. Generally on line programs can be more demanding if the university maintains the standards. On line students have to learn and study themselfs and that’s a great commitment. BUT there is always a temptation to lower standards and purely online US universities suffer in some cases by this.

    • wendymr Says:

      …and here I’ll name the University of Phoenix, where a friend of mine began a degree program and withdrew after two years, fed up with lax standards and poor instruction. When she tried to transfer her credits to her local university, she was given barely one year.

      • Fred Says:

        I had this one in mind! Generaly US professors don’t appreciate non-land universities much as far as I know.

  3. Jo McCafferty Says:

    Standards completely depend on the design, structure, teaching and support staff, the unviersity itself and last but not least the student taking the course. I’ve done an MA entirely online, and teach almost exclusively online. Yes, I’m sure there are simple “light touch” courses that perhaps don’t cater for “deep” learning, however the same can be said for traditional class based courses. So long as the standards set are maintained, there is no need for there to be a difference.

  4. Jo McCafferty Says:

    In addition to that note – online should not be seen as the cheaper option! Just because you don’t have to pay for a classroom doesn’t mean the cost goes down. It takes time and money to develop and maintain the currency of high standard courses, and it takes both the teaching staff and the support staff more time to look after online students.

  5. evertb Says:

    The “imparting of knowledge” is only part of the educational process. Being part of an educational community with it’s cross pollination of disciplines is an aspect that is just as important. The latter cannot be provided by an online facility only.


  6. I can see the enormous possibilities of e-learning/study/participation. However, as a technophile I have to work on curbing my enthusiasm. One of my techniques is to think about the degree to which technology has changed basic questions. Certainly distance learning has been hugely enhanced by recent technology. However, at some stage universities must have considered offering correspondence courses and decided against. The technology has changed and already increasingly students are staying away from the campus but great care is needed as we may be on the verge of destroying something very important.

  7. Norman Wyse Says:

    I find the statement “a ‘traditional’ classroom university programme is becoming unaffordable” very interesting. The promise of advanced western capitalism is that the trajectory of economic output is in the main upward, and dramatically so over time, such that the a day’s output of the economies of today would beat five days output of those same economies in 1900. Why is it, then, that what was affordable on the back of economic output in 1900 — or extend forward to a year where numbers going to university were broadly in line with today — is no longer affordable in 2011?

    Increasing efficiency, sophistication and reach of global markets, as well as dramatically greater economies of scale, technological advances and more efficient work practices should yield more resources for public or social needs. What is going wrong?

    • wendymr Says:

      I think one of the issues around affordability may relate to what is being counted. Yes, fewer classrooms may be needed, as would fewer class-contact hours by faculty and assistants (no regular lectures, seminars etc). But I wonder, in online progams, how much account is taken of the time spent by academic staff in connecting with students online, in particular answering questions on forums and through private emails. I was certainly surprised, on my postgraduate certificate program, to get responses from staff well into the evening and night as well as daytime. Students also appeared to expect it. This additional workload is unlikely to be accounted for in any costing system, as it’s likely to be considered part of the normal duties of teaching staff.

    • Jilly Says:

      worth bearing in mind that in 1900, most countries educated maybe 5% (that’s a wild guess, but it couldn’t be much higher) of their population to university-level. Now in Ireland we’re pushing towards 70%. That brings huge extra costs.

      I would second other people’s comments about online teaching (good online teaching, that is!) not necessarily being the cheaper option. Doing it well would involve considerable expense, mainly in labour hours from staff. Ironically, colleges might actually have to employ more lecturers to go online. Not sure that the lowered costs of buildings etc would fully account for this, let alone save money. Has any reliable comparison/study/projection been done on this, that anyone knows of?

  8. Vincent Says:

    The tax base in Washington is very narrow. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_income_tax

  9. Ros Says:

    Online would be the way to go in some instances, if we had a reliable broadband infrastructure in Ireland. I am lucky enough to have a good connection, whereas in the next village (just 3km out the road) they are still on dial-up with no prospect of getting broadband anytime in the near future. Many of the students I have met would be only too happy to undertake courses online if they had proper internet access.


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