online learning

online learning

Online education and the virtual campus are replacing all bricks-and-mortar aspects of college life
JWU Online Learning Program


By Dick Upson and Cathy Sengel

Online education is hot — so hot that the virtual campus and social media are quickly burning down the “ivory tower” as well as other “brick and mortar” aspects of college life.

The facts speak for themselves. Sixty-six percent of America’s institutions of higher education now offer distance programs, according to a 2008 survey by the National Center for Educational Statistics. Thirty-two percent have degree or certification programs that can be completed entirely online. Credit-granting online courses accounted for 12.2 million enrollments in 2006 to 2007 alone. Theoretically, students can go from enrollment to graduation without leaving their PCs.

Some benefits of online education are obvious. Courses can be taken bent over a laptop cruising on a plane at 33,000 feet, or in your pajamas at a workstation in the bedroom — anytime, anywhere. Distance learning offers the chance to complete a degree without interrupting a career, or to pursue more cost-effective study while unemployed. Online discussions can be less intimidating than speaking in the classroom. Offerings can be tailored to individual learning styles. Medium can be shaped to demand. And in the face of rising fuel prices, telecommuting significantly cuts costs and reduces both a student’s and an institution’s carbon footprint.

As distance education expands, it offers a wide range of opportunities and challenges for entrepreneurs, educators and students alike.

“I think institutions that offer this type of instruction understand that it’s different from offering on-ground instruction, and that some of the processes and procedures that they use in more traditional settings don’t work as well in the online environment,” says Patricia O’Brien, SND, deputy director of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (CIHE), an educational accrediting agency.

Back to the Future Though “computer mediated distance education” is a familiar term in 2009, as recently as 2003, Columbia University unplugged its commercial online venture,, after investing more than $25 million to get the program going. Ironically, one of the biggest reasons for the company’s demise had to do with lack of interest. “One of the greatest barriers to online learning was peoples’ unfamiliarity with the process,” said Fathom chief executive, Anne Kirschner, in a 2003 New York Times piece. “They know what a book is. They know what a course is. But what exactly is an online course? That they don’t know.”

Six years later, technology is no longer an obstacle, says Johnson & Wales University Provost Veera Gaul, PhD,’91 MS, as the university prepares to launch its first online programs (see sidebar). “Today students expect and are very receptive to technologically mediated instruction.”

Technology is just one factor in online growth. O’Brien says the commission looks for quality of the program as well as the capacity of the institution to offer online education — if it has the technological, financial and human resources needed to do a good job as well as to support faculty in learning how to teach online and to do it effectively.

Online students have different needs than those who study exclusively on ground, she notes. Consideration must be given to how the institution will provide the panoply of services that students who never come to their campuses need, such as library and information resources, and how to best use those resources once they’ve gained access.

Global Appeal An obvious advantage of the classroom without walls may be its acceptance by the international community. Matthew Kenney, PhD., ’91, ’02 MBA, understands fully the potential of both online education and the global marketplace. An entrepreneur and educator, his entirely virtual Kenney College is set to launch in November with two areas of concentration: a College of Professional Development with open enrollment will help students develop entrepreneurial skills; the college’s Graduate School of Global Entrepreneurship will offer a master’s degree with an entrepreneurship specialization.

Content will be delivered both in asynchronous communications and real time, buttressed by streaming video, audio and video conferencing and 24/7 student access to a digital library of 500,000 e-books and 80 million articles.

“We specifically created the Graduate School of Global Entrepreneurship to position ourselves as a global brand,” says Kenney. “I recently had a meeting in Bangkok with investors interested in Kenney College. They came to me, so that suggests that others around the world are looking at the growth of this industry and want to get on board.”

Gaul understands the appeal, noting that online courses are a boon to overseas students who are not fluent in English. “Many are more comfortable responding through technology and in ways that allow them the time to compose their responses in their second or third language ... As with all students, international students will also benefit from the modular approach that online learning courses are presented in.”

Quality Control And while from an educational standpoint, comfort, access and technology will continue to shape the growth of distance learning, the expansion of the virtual classroom is a challenge for many institutions. Universities need extensive planning before launching online courses. “Without a long-term strategy and true understanding of what is needed to move online, many universities have tried and failed,” says Jo Hamilton, PhD., director of teaching effectiveness at Ohio’s Franklin University. Lack of focus has forced some to outsource courses to third-party vendors with decidedly mixed results. In addition, concerns have been raised about the quality of online programs.

Testing is another area that each institution grapples with — something on the mind of federal government as well, O’Brien observes. In the recent reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, a provision was added that institutions offering online education now must have verification procedures in place to assure that the student who registers for the course is the same one who enrolls in the course, does the work and gets the grade. Though similar criteria apply to on-ground students, online instruction has brought the issue into high relief.

“I think also for institutions there is a growing awareness of the level of support needed for students who study online and also an appreciation for the fact that online education is not the best choice for every student. It takes a fairly high level of motivation and students who are self-starters — who are able to thrive in the online environment,” O’Brien says.

Given the demographic of individuals drawn to online classrooms, institutions that make the commitment will find a broad student base for their offerings “Online students tend to be older, with the average age of freshmen being 36,” Kenney notes. Online students have a better sense of what they want to accomplish personally and professionally.

Sense and Savvy From the student’s standpoint, those considering online study should find a program that will meet their needs and learn about what services the institution provides, O’Brien advises. Questions to consider include how one accesses necessary academic support, career counseling or financial services, and what kind of orientation program the institution offers for students enrolled in online programs. “The student wants to make sure that she or he has a good understanding of the expectations of the institution with regard to the program,” O’Brien says.

Hamilton favors intelligent growth on the part of providers to ensure quality. “Too many programs today lack the pedagogical rigor required to maximize the medium for most effective learning.”

Gaul notes that expansion depends on competence as well as experience in online delivery. “Online classes require diligence, self discipline and consistent preparation by both the student and the faculty member.”

Constant monitoring and a good understanding of the student population are the best ways to address the issue, in Hamilton’s opinion. “Ensure the course design is informed by highly qualified instructional designers who can provide strategies that promote learning and intelligently embed multimedia that enhances learning,” she says. And enhanced learning, whether on campus or online is any valued educational institution’s ultimate goal.

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