These days, more and more students are earning credits from
home, enrolling in degree programs that include online
courses either exclusively or concurrently with regular
university courses. The University of Utah, for example, enrolled
1,692 students in online courses in spring 2003, compared with
4,719 students in spring 2009.
A recent U.S. Dept. of Education study on the efficacy of online classes looked at how online students learn. The report concluded that online learning was “modestly more effective, on average, than the traditional face-to-face instruction with which it has been compared.” There are some, like David Wiley, a professor of psychology and instructional technology at Brigham Young University, who predict that universities will become irrelevant by 2020 as more and more course work moves online.
Some educators, though, like Talitha Hudgins, director of
secondary education at Utah Valley University, think this would
be unfortunate. “You get more when you’re collaborating in
a group. I know some online classes have collaboration. But
social constructivist theory is huge on socializing and building
communities, and you can’t do that in a distance-learning
environment. Some learning has to be done face-to-face.”
Roberta Lopez, U of U director of distance learning, also has
a hard time imagining classroom learning going the way of the
dodo. “There are some who say, in 10 to 20 years, there will be no
brick-and-mortar schools. But, I don’t believe that. Young college
students want that experience of attending college. Older adults
may not want that, but younger students do,” Lopez said.
Rather than seeing online learning displacing the university
experience, Lopez and Hudgins see online and classroom learning
growing together, with the university side adapting to technology
in the classroom. “I tell teachers their jobs won’t dissolve; what will
dissolve is how you used to do it,” Hudgins said. “If you don’t adapt
to what’s coming, you will become a dinosaur and become extinct.
There has to be some type of face-to-face, and the technology
should be fused in with it.”
In fact, the U.S. Dept. of Education study supports Hudgins’
assertion. It found “advantages for blended learning (combining
elements of online and face-to-face communication) over purely
online learning experiences.” So, while online learning may hold
an edge over the classroom-learning experience, when technology
is incorporated into the classroom, results are optimal.
Hudgins explained how the physics department at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology sought to improve its 75- to
80 percent failure rate using technology to change the learning
environment. Even though technology was emphasized, students
still came to the campus to learn. The difference was they no longer
attended a lecture hall filled with 300 students.
When asked about the advantages of online learning, Lopez
gave an unexpected answer: involvement with the professor and
classmates. “In a classroom, you can sit face-to-face yet never
talk to the teacher in class,” she says. “You can sit in the back and
never say a word. In an online classroom, you have to have a
relationship with your teacher and your class peers. I don’t know
of [an online] class that doesn’t ask, ‘You need to respond to this
student or teacher. Give me your feedback.’”
While some courses do not require face-to-face interaction,
Hudgins says others are never fully deliverable in an exclusively
online format. “There are some courses where there is no way you
need to come to the university,” Hudgins says. “But in our teachered
program, you gotta have the interaction in the classroom.”
That hasn’t kept Western Governor’s University from offering
online teaching degrees. “The best—and cheapest—college
you’ve never heard of,” according to Time magazine, offers master’s
and bachelor’s degrees in business, nursing, and, yes, childhood
education. Founded in 1997 by a committee of 19 governors,
including former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, WGU is a nonprofit virtual
institution of higher ed.
“Those in the elementary education program work with students,
teachers, schools, principals, and observe classrooms. They won’t be
sitting in class for course work, but they’ll use online chat with other
students for that discourse,” said Joan Mitchell, WGU PR director.
Students are also assigned mentors who help them chart their
academic plan and keep on schedule with their goals. Because
of this, the boundaries between an institution like WGU and the
typical classroom experience are not so dissimilar.
Will the Web someday replace universities? The answer is not a
simple “yes” or “no.” It depends on what the student wants and what
will work best with him or her. But one key point is that students
must engage with the learning environment, whether online or in
the classroom: “Involvement in the learning experience is the No. 1
way the student gets through class. If they don’t feel involved, they
don’t do as well,” Lopez said.