As we close the book on another week of online higher education news, we pause to consider the story that had just unfolded.
According to one pundit, this story is largely a work of fiction, which imputes to online higher education many shortcomings real and imagined. "Philip D. Long, a professor of innovation in educational technology at the University of Queensland, in Australia, suggested many issues that endanger the integrity of online learning, such as assessing individual contributions to group projects, are not unique to online education, reports an October 21, 2011 Inside Higher Ed article. "Issues that are [sic], such as identity authentication and proctoring, stand to become less salient as technology such as Proctor U — a technology that allows universities to monitor test-taking students via Webcam — becomes standard. (And though Long did not mention it, anti-plagiarism software arguably has made essays submitted electronically more reliable than papers submitted in hard copy.)"
It's heartening to see that the pernicious myths that persist about online education have done little to dampen the appeal of this method of instructional delivery. "Various reports have shown that online education is becoming increasingly popular on college campuses," reports an October 19, 2011 U.S. News and World Report article For example, the 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning indicates that about 5.6 million students took at least one web-based class in the fall 2009 semester. This marked a 21% increase from the previous year, compared to a 2% increase in overall higher education."
The one quality that these nontraditional students esteem above all others when it comes to distance learning? Flexibility. "While every student has his or her own reasons for engaging in distance learning, many decide to pursue online education because of the flexibility it allows them," The U.S. news and World Report article continues. "According to a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics, nontraditional students - or older individuals, those with full-time jobs and people who have children and spouses - are more likely to take web-based courses than other degree seekers."
Of course, the enthusiasm that attends online higher education isn't shared by everyone. One critic finds this method of instructional delivery a pale imitation of the in-the-flesh model it is increasingly supplanting."Teaching in the truest sense is what occurs when a committed instructor gets in a room with a group of equally committed students and engages them in an interactive, probing and challenging treatment of a subject," writes one John Villasenor in an October 16, 2011 opinion piece appearing in The Shreveport Times. "A good lecture or seminar has its foundation in words but gains its texture and flow from countless other subtle cues and interactions in the classroom. These include students' body language that an alert instructor will observe and use in modulating the pace and content of the discussion, the pauses and inflections in student questions that would escape capture by a microphone, and the dynamism that occurs because each student, sitting among different neighbors at a unique location in the room, experiences and engages with the class slightly differently."
Villasenor's points, which are certainly well taken, lead one to wonder whether something is gained if the gestalt of immediate interpersonal interaction is lost. This may simply be a technical issue, as improvements are constantly made in the area of the modalities by which instructional content is delivered online. "As a disruptive innovation — an innovation that transforms a sector from one that was previously complicated and expensive into one that is far simpler and more affordable — the rise of online learning carries with it an unprecedented opportunity," reports a September 14, 2011 Washington Post article.
An opinion piece appearing in the October 5, 2011 edition of The Daily Cougar (the student newspaper of The University of Houston) states the matter succinctly. "Online courses are a great idea, they are already being used by some degree at most universities," it reads, "but implementing the online change slowly may make room for constructive criticism and ensure that the system works as well as it could."
An old saying from aerial warfare goes, "If you're drawing heavy flak, you must be over the target." That online education continues a focus of controversy is a welcome phenomenon. As the technical details become ironed out and improvements proceed apace, online higher education is bound to win more converts.