The major reason we have moved so many courses online is student demand. Online education is more convenient for students. The face of education is changing. The higher education landscape includes more non-traditional students; the majority of students are no longer 18-21 year-old single students who either do not have jobs or work part-time. Rather, the large majority of college students are older, working adults with families and other responsibilities. The traditional model of classes meeting during the day on campus does not work for many of these students. An asynchronous learning model, particularly one which lends itself to self-paced learning and credit for life experiences rather than a seat-time based model, is much more appealing to these students.
Even among grade-school students, online education affords students who would struggle in the traditional classroom options they would otherwise not have. Customization and individualization allows both struggling and gifted students the chance to work at their own pace and pick their own curriculum to match their needs and interests. Online delivery provides instruction on demand, anytime and anywhere, while many online programs provide full access to qualified instructors should individual assistance be needed. Students who have fallen behind by a few credits can take advantage of online classes to make up a course or two in order to graduate on time with the rest of his or her peers.
I hate that people feel the need to compare online courses to face-to-face courses by asking whether online courses are “as good as” their face-to-face counterparts. First of all, the US Department of Education(Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009) has already done a meeta-study and compared the learning outcomes between online and traditional courses, and they found no difference. Students learned as well from either venue. Secondly, you can find exceptional and horrid examples of both. I have attended online courses where I was permitted to engage in a rich, in-depth learning experience where I worked with my peers to construct new knowledge and make connections to prior knowledge. I walked away from those courses feeling like I learned far more than some face-to-face courses where I sat for 90 minutes a week and listened to the instructor drone on, read a chapter or two a week from the text-book, and took two multiple choice tests covering what I’d “learned”. What constitutes a good example of a traditional course and what constitutes a good example of an online course are typically quite similar. They engage the student in an active learning process with other students, the instructor, and the materials. If the student is a passive recipient of learning and the instructor or the textbook are the primary sources of knowledge, the course is not going to be good, no matter what format.
For me as a student, convenience has been the major difference between traditional and online courses. When I was taking my traditional courses toward my bachelors’ degree, I had to ride a bus 90 minutes one way to get to school, sit in a physical classroom to attend class, move from class to class, stay on campus until classes ended for the day, which was sometimes late in the evening, and then ride the bus 90 minutes to get home. I missed dinner with my children and husband two nights a week. I spent $30 a month in bus fare, and that was with my student discount. I could not hold a job and go to school because the school work interfered with any possible work schedule, so we lived in a very slummy part of town because it was all we could afford on one income and owned only one broken-down car. On one occasion a blizzard trapped me halfway home as bus service was suspended between transfers, and my husband had to venture out on bald tires to come rescue me.
Online classes mean I can hold a full-time job, come home and spend time with my family, and then work on school in the evening. Even on the nights when I have a synchronous class scheduled, it is still more convenient to attend class from my bedroom, dinner in front of me, than to sit in a classroom 22 miles from home. I feel like I still know my fellow classmates thanks to our annual meetings and the wonders of technology, such as video chat and social networking, but I have the convenience of being where I need to be when I need to be there.
This will be my first semester to teach online, but I work with online instructors quite a bit and can already see there is a big difference between formats for the online instructor. First of all, there is a lot of responsibility in the beginning to prepare the course. Creating and setting up an online course takes an online instructor at least three times longer than preparing to teach a face-to-face session. An article by Boettcher (2006) estimates 1000 development hours to move a traditional 3-hour course to the web. Secondly, because the online instructor must act in the role of a facilitator rather than a lecturer to be effective, provide prompt and thorough feedback, establish presence and encourage active learning from his or her students, the act of online teaching requires far more of the instructor’s active time than that of a traditional instructor. An instructor in a traditional setting can rely on non-verbal cues to communicate his or her message or to locate students who do not understand, and because he or she is physically present in the classroom, is confident that misunderstandings can quickly be cleared up by student questions. In an online classroom, non-verbal messages are absent, so the instructor must be sure his or her messages are communicated clearly and frequently, and must prompt for student feedback as well. All this takes time and additional effort.
I do think that you cannot be a passive learner and do well in an online setting. I think there are a lot of learners out there with the mistaken belief that online classes will be easier. Some think that asynchronous means they can wait till the last minute to do their work, while others think they just need to pass some multiple choice tests they can cheat their way through to get the grade they want. There have, unfortunately, been some very poor examples of online courses that have fed into these rumors, or online instructors unwilling to flunk students who came into their classes unprepared for the work. By and large, though, online courses are at least as rigorous and typically require much more work than a traditional course. Students that take online courses should be able to handle working independently or in groups, should know how to manage their time effectively, and should be self-disciplined and able to advocate for themselves. If they lack these skills, they are probably better off taking traditional courses.
As far as resulting in different learning outcomes, I do not believe that we will find that in the long run. Initial studies do not indicate that. I think instead of format making the difference, we will find that course design makes the difference, and the way students are taught, such as passive versus active learning. Whether online or face-to-face, students will learn in a well-designed course better than they will in a poorly designed course.
Boettcher, J. V. (2006). How Much Does It Cost to Develop a Distance Learning Course? It All Depends…. Retrieved January 25, 2015, from http://designingforlearning.info/services/writing/dlmay.htm
Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. U.S. Department of Education (pp. 1–93). Retrieved from http://www.nachi.org/documents/US-Department-of-Education-Online-Education-Report.pdf