Friday, November 02, 2012

Online Schools Under Fire: guest post by Brianna Meiers

Brianna Meiers, an education blogger who writes regular profiles of schools offering distance learning classes, takes a look at online higher education from a variety of standpoints in today’s article. The blog has talked about trends in online education before, and this piece rounds out the discussion by highlighting some of the many ways in which online learning is continuing to change and improve.  

Online Schools Under Fire: Assessing the Effort to Improve

The Internet is reshaping the face of modern education, bringing with it many benefits in terms of accessibility and universality. More programs than ever before are offering courses and degrees online. An increasingly diverse group of students are responding, which in many respects is good—but also raises questions about legitimacy and true equality. While some online programs are arguably quite top-notch, not all are. Between non accredited for-profit universities and so-called “diploma mills,” there is a lot of room for abuse in the digital space. E-student enrollments are on the rise across the board, which means that issues of legitimacy and value deserve a second look.

Digital learning has come a long way even in the last five years. The online-only schools that once dominated the space by catering primarily to adult learners have been supplemented by a growing number of undergraduate degree programs geared towards more traditional first-time students. Many of these are offered by for-profit online academies, but a growing number are extension programs of more traditional universities. Some schools, particularly Stanford, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also offer some courses for free online through the Coursera and edX platforms.

The trend is catching on quickly. For schools, offering digital lessons can be a great way to attract more students and broaden the tuition base. Students enrolling online often benefit from lower costs, as well as exceptional flexibility. “Roughly one-in-four college graduates report that they have taken a class online. However, the share doubles to 46% among those who have graduated in the past ten years,” a 2011 report published by the Pew Internet and American Life project said. “Among all adults who have taken a class online, 39% say the format’s educational value is equal tothat of a course taken in a classroom.”

This trend may be indicative of what some call a “disruptive innovation” in the educational sector. Following this model, movement starts off small, usually by targeting just a few customers or, in this case, students. Speed picks up incrementally, effecting a slow permeation until the landscape has forever changed.

One of the biggest concerns with online education has to do with its quality. Though immensely popular, for-profit Internet schools traditionally have a lower reputation than in-person institutions. If online learning truly is a disruptive innovation, however, there is a strong likelihood that its quality will only progress and evolve with market needs.

“A disruptive innovation always starts out at a lower quality,” Louis Soares, director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, told U.S. News & World Report. "But if you take that for-profit energy out of higher education, online education wouldn't have grown the way it has in the last 10 years.”

And growing it still is, in some sectors eclipsing enrollment numbers at more traditional universities. This has some worrying that online education will replace the need for classroom-based learning, though most experts agree that these fears are too far out on the horizon to be a concern. More likely, most say, is a radical technological integration into traditional classrooms. Many of the college classes of the future are likely to be “flipped,” with lectures and lessons happening online in a student’s homework time. Class time is then devoted to more collaborative learning and the person-to-person teamwork and interaction that is more difficult to simulate in the online space.

“Although traditional lectures are a standard and acceptable teaching method, they are much less effective for today's students, who have grown up on high-speed Internet, video games and mobile gadgets,” EdTech magazine reported in 2012. “In moving away from the lecture-only model, faculty and students are using recorded class lectures; notebook computers and tablets; and digital content and learning management systems. Smartphones, student response systems and blogs are also on therise as learning technologies.”

Digital learning is still somewhat new when it comes to educational developments, however, and lawmakers are quick to caution against movin
g too quickly. Innovate too fast, and key aspects of learning may be lost, many say. An October 2012 meeting of government and education policy officials in Washington, D.C. tried to flesh out the questions related to online schools in more depth, mirroring the conversations happening in state governments and university boardrooms across the nation.

Top on the national meeting agenda were questions of cheating and fraud online—common when students cannot definitively authenticate their identity—and the value and needed rigor of accreditation. Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, played a key role in moderating the day’s discussions, trying to draw a balance between the sometimes questionable quality of online institutions and the unprecedented openness they bring to the market.

Inside Higher Ed, which covered the meeting, focused on the debate concerning how much oversight the government should have when it comes to overseeing the online learning platform. “Duncan echoed other participants throughout the day in his call for better data, standards, and accountability in higher education,” an Inside Higher Ed report said the day after the meeting. “That naturally leads to tension in creating quality-protecting policies without becoming an overly prescriptive regulatory regime.”

Though the overall value of online higher education is sometimes in doubt, there is little question that it is here to stay. Not only are more students than ever before earning online degrees and completing credited coursework online, more traditional programs are looking for ways to leverage technology for residential students. Rather than asking whether these programs should exist, scholars and academics may be better served wondering how they can be tailored to provide the best possible educational experience.



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