Technology speeds apace, sweeping everything and everyone it touches in its train. Such a rush inspires fear in some of those affected, hope in others. This holds particularly in the field of postsecondary education, in which various innovations are displacing and disrupting conventional forms of instructional delivery.
In his September 10, 2011 column appearing at PostCrescent.com William Tallon identifies those factors around which revolve debates about technological development in higher education. These factors are "quality, cost and time investment," he writes.
On one side of the debate stand distance-learning advocates. They believe online education offers flexibility and convenience when it comes to students' completing their coursework. These advantages would thus allow to obtain degrees many individuals who for various reasons are unable to matriculate in the traditional manner, i.e., by attending a four-year residential institution.
On the other side of the debate stand the champions of traditional in-class instruction. Their biggest problem with distance-learning is that those qualities that advocates tout as its virtues -- flexibility and convenience -- come at the sacrifice of the social or communal dimensions that make higher education an enriching experience.
Having thus situated the debate, Tallon offers his two cents. "In my opinion, a successful learning outcome depends upon a student's individual learning style and the content of the course or program," he writes. "Each student is different and we, as educators, need to find the balancing point to reach all of our students."
Just where on the continuum between online and in-class learning this balancing point lies remains to be determined. Tallon admits that each method of instructional delivery is not without its demerits. "Students who prefer online courses and programs tend to produce better results in this format than those who prefer onsite learning environments," he observes. At the same time, however, "there is also a higher drop-out rate [in online courses] than in traditional on-site classes."
Exactly how success is measured becomes, then, the real sticking point. Can online-education advocates point to the successful few distance learners as vindication of their position, or do the dim hordes of those who have fallen by the wayside cast into doubt the entire enterprise?
As Tallon sees it, the assessment ought to be more nuanced. In order to determine the efficacy of online education versus traditional, it helps to take stock of the learners themselves -- both those who prevail, and those who don't, in either context. "My experience has shown that younger and less experienced students who have fewer family and job commitments tend to produce better learning outcomes with the in-class, face-to-face class environment," writes Tallon.
You're thus left to conclude that those students desirous of a degree but lacking these important advantages will simply have to take their chances in the riskier environs of online education.
Tallon certainly offers some thoughtful commentary on this thorny debate. We should wish for the day, however, when distance learning need not be the consolation prize for those shut out of traditional institutions, but rather the equally valuable option for those facing unique life challenges.