Online universities have been popping up like mushrooms over the past decade. And, like mushrooms, they are tremendously varied, running the gamut from institutions that specialize in professional credentials and certifications, to for-profit, nonprofit public and private universities that confer bachelor's, master's, and even doctoral degrees. For those averse to venturing onto a college campus, opportunities for higher education achieved remotely have never been greater.
These opportunities have not come easy. As with any new venture, a sort of groping-forward has marked the online higher education industry. Certain pedagogical strategies have been tried and jettisoned, others retained – all in the interest of refining the model with a view to optimal effectiveness. Sought in these experiments, in other words, were institutional best practices.
Whether these best practices were actually hit upon is up for debate. Digital distance higher learning has its skeptics, but it has its champions, as well. If, as poet Wallace Stevens once wrote, there are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, then there must exist at least two ways of looking at online university study.
For those inclined to regard digital distance higher education in a positive light, best practices are both determinable and readily implemented. In the white paper, "Best practices for online teaching," author Craig J. Bailey identifies seven hallmarks of effective teaching. Specifically, the successful instructor:
It doesn't require any great imagination to realize that these seven virtues can apply just as easily to online as they do to traditional classroom instructors. "As an online university implies, it is virtual," observe Wanda Curlee and Robert L. Gordon in their book, "Complexity Theory and Proejct Management."
Many online universities create their curriculum with adjunct faculty members who are not present at the university. The development is done virtually. It is very well organized. For a six-week course, a university will normal allocate twelve weeks. The course project manager has a discussion with the course developer before the work starts. Via [sic] this discussion, the course project manager understands how the course developer works. This then allows the project manager to clearly lay out a project plan and schedule for the course development. This method works because there are numerous conference calls and e-mails to ensure the timetables are met. Should the adjunct faculty member fall behind, the project manager increases the number of phone calls and will provide tips on getting the work done. There are milestones built into the process where the project manager can request that the adjunct faculty member be replaced.
Does this system of relations among developer, project manager, and faculty member – which is efficient, if in fact not harmonious – represent best practices in action? Again, the answer depends on whom you put the question to. A December 9, 2011 ZDNET.com article considers the lean-and-mean profile of online universities as eminently adapted to 21st-century job market realities. "The increasing cost of campus-based education may cause those who attend university in the future to be a select few, but online education has the potential to remove these barriers to education," it reports. "This in turn can ensure people become more desirable to employers."
Becoming more desirable to employers is certainly what job-seekers seek to do. It seems, then, that choosing digital distance higher education is a no-brainer. In terms of convenience, ease of access, and expedience, online education is hard to top, which no doubt explains why such venerable brick-and-mortar institutions as Boston University and Notre Dame are jumping into the digital distance learning game.
Jumping into the game doesn't require inordinate effort, either. In their book, Why Does College Cost so Much?", Robert B. Archibald and David Henry Feldman remark that "if all instruction were delivered online, many of the nonacademic services provided by colleges and universities today could wither away."
In the absence of these nonacademic services would appear – nothing at all. This withering away would free up revenue that universities could direct to other aims. "Online institutions would focus exclusively on the academic progress of students," Archibald and Feldman continue. "They would need academic counselors of various types, but a student's nonacademic life would be the responsibility of the student and the student's parents."
Life lived within or outside the confines of academics is sure to remain a pressing issue in this young century, practical considerations of instructional delivery aside. The temptation to resist, however, is to resort to that haphazard and rarely successful strategy of throwing everything pedagogical at the metaphorical wall to see what sticks. What must be always borne in mind that, however remotely they're situated, it is human beings that digital distance higher education is meant to serve. Just because technology is ubiquitous, it doesn't mean that every challenge people face is necessarily a matter of technological improvement.