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Online Education is the “Real” Thing!

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Yesterday’s post was a rebuttal of Eckerd College president Donald Eastman’s post in the Tampa Bay Tribune, "Online education no substitute for the real thing," on the grounds of some fundamental flaws in his argument against online learning. The most important of those assumptions being that every single college student has the exact same need from their education – to become a competent adult. While it seems self-evident in retrospect that online education is simply another educational vehicle that will appeal to some students in the same way that brick-and-mortar education will appeal to others, there is a real need to consider one more point in Eastman’s article – that online learning is not the real thing, and a reliance on it in any capacity is an attempt by the White House to "simplify and cheapen the intricacy and quality of first-rate undergraduate education."

Quality is as Quality Does
There are several aspects in which an online education can be comparable or even superior to one acquired on the ground. As all online programs are not the same, of course all brick-and-mortar universities are not created equally either(Washington Monthly, College Dropout Factories). As an example, I was in a recent meeting with the founder of an online program who was adamant about the fact that for him, the program and the university housing it, the quality of the education was the primary consideration. This program is housed in a top regional university, and this administrator felt confident in saying that the quality of the education available from this institution’s online courses was comparable to that which students on campus receive.

In this individual’s view, there was no fundamental conflict between online and F2F learning; they are simply two different vehicles for achieving the same end. This institution invests a great deal of time, effort, and money in assuring that their courses are excellent and that their instructors are all trained to take full advantage of the medium. This certainly may not be the case in every online program, as it certainly is not the case at every traditional university. In fact, this approach to quality assurance in online course development and delivery is far different from and provides a more centralized degree of control than any traditional program that I am aware of. Quality education is possible in a wide array of contexts.

Growing Up is Hard to Do
While it may be the case that a certain number of students need a great deal of hand holding in order to achieve their potential, this argument does a great disservice to those who take responsibility for their learning and do it online. Think of the online learner as an individual who is self-motivated to learn. You simply cannot complete an online degree program without a significant degree of commitment and a concerted effort – qualities essential to maturing into adulthood.

The point could well be made that becoming an adult requires a more hands-off approach than Eastman is arguing for in his piece. One of the biggest problems with our current society is that children are not given the leeway to explore and develop on their own. If helicopter parents (and helicopter professors?) are constantly telling them what to do, how to do it, and what to think, they will not develop the capacity to plan, do, or think for themselves. We may actually be doing students a great deal of harm by providing too much structure, support, and hand holding – in effect stunting their emotional and intellectual growth (PsychAlive.org). The very thing that Eastman perceives as a lack of quality in the online sphere, may in fact be exactly the type of self-directed, intrinsically motivating environment that 18-21 year-olds need in order to become adults.

Learning How to Learn
Eastman did make an excellent point in his article when he wrote, "In the increasingly complex and competitive economy of the 21st century, sending young people out to find good jobs and run cities and states and countries without a well developed ability to learn at a high level is a sure recipe for personal and professional disaster."

Certainly, learning how to learn rather than learning what you are taught is a key component of a liberal education. It is not, however the sole domain of the liberal arts to teach students how to think critically. The world is rapidly shrinking; traditional boundaries are being beaten down by technology and innovation. New disciplinary fields such as nano-technology, and cyber-security are emerging which are fundamentally constructed as areas which require thinking beyond a single intellectual silo. Surviving and thriving in the 21st Century is very much about being able to produce information to contribute to the global economy. The innovative nature of the online medium and the interdisciplinary, broad-based thinking necessitated by working on the World-Wide Web foster the thinking skills that Eastman is talking about. You cannot be a successful online student without being able to learn new technological tools, incorporate them into your world view, and adapt to constantly changing circumstances. Flexible, creative thinking is a necessity for the online learner and an integral, though largely overlooked, part of the virtual learning process.

Who Said the Online Environment Isn’t Supportive?
Eastman makes the point that, "Young people, in addition to learning the skills and traits needed to move from dependence to independence, require individual encouragement, coaching, support and correction, course by course, paper by paper, day by day." The question is, why doesn’t he think that that kind of support is available online?
Last year, while teaching a residential master’s degree class in educational technology, I arranged a guest lecture from one of the instructors at the Columbia Virtual Academy. This individual was an experienced teacher who had been teaching at the academy for several years after a stint in a nearby brick-and-mortar high school. In his presentation he explained how much more connected to every one of his students he was than he ever was as a teacher in a traditional classroom.

This is only one example, but the technology is now available to allow faculty members teaching online to connect with their students and stay connected with them in ways that most classroom teachers never even think to utilize. Learning management systems, Facebook, Skype, text messages, email, IM, and Twitter all allow unprecedented connectivity. Add those tools to the prevalence of the now nearly ubiquitous cell phone and video-capable smart phones that every young person seems permanently attached to, and all it takes is effort and a little creativity for the online instructor to become an important and present guiding figure in their students’ lives (Baker, 2010).

Calling a Truce!
Shouldn’t we be past this debate by now? I worked on my first online course design in the late 1990s and taught my first one soon thereafter. In general, online education has been around since 1994 (OnlineEducation.org). That is nearly 20 years to develop, grow, and refine a method of education that has now achieved a permanent place in the pantheon of learning. While not every online program is as good as the best F2F ones, some are. Conversely, not every traditional class provides a comparable value to what is available online.

Ultimately, the decision to participate in online learning is an individual one. Each student needs to weigh all of their options, their objectives, and the available resources before making a decision. As a wise man once told me, there is no one best college, but rather several best choices for each individual depending on their unique circumstances (Ask the Experts, 2009).  Let’s move on to focus on improving education overall so that every option available is a high quality, affordable one.

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