The efficacy and quality of online education have been contested in academic circles and questioned in business circles since the explosion of the internet in the 1990s. As online education expands and improves, however, it is becoming a formidable alternative to conventional programs, especially for working professionals who are seeking to further their education without sacrificing the stability of their occupations. But it isn’t just students being impressed by and drawn to online education; more and more professors at traditional universities across the country are offering and experimenting with courses in the online medium.
According to a study conducted by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities-Sloan National Commission on Online Learning that assessed administrative and faculty views of online education, nearly one-quarter of all faculty responding were teaching at least one online course at the time of the survey and over one-third of faculty have taught online at some point in their career. Furthermore, the study reported that “fully 56% of all faculty (those with online experience and those with none) have recommended an online course to at least one student or advisee.” Viewing these in conjunction with results from other studies, such as a 2010 comprehensive survey of the state of online education, which reported that over 75% of academic leaders at public institutions rate online instruction as good or better than face-to-face instruction, a positive picture of online education starts to develop. It is one that brings online education up as a real challenger against traditional education, and one that will presumably only get better as time goes on if the current trend continues.
Professor Mike Hubbel of Temple University, who has been teaching at the collegiate level since 1983, beginning in a physical classroom and later transitioning to primarily online courses, has high hopes for the online medium, backed by nearly two decades of online experience in it. “The virtual classrooms,” said Hubbel, “with live video and audio streaming, white boards, slides, group break-out rooms, etc., can actually be used to do more than we can do in most live, physical classrooms.”
Having taught in both physical and online classrooms, Hubbel has a uniquely insightful opinion about instructional methodology and has come to see the strengths and weaknesses of both types, often using one to inform or complement the other. When leading an online class, for example, Hubbel makes use of synchronous video and audio chat technologies to connect students in an immediate, conversational way. Hubbel said, “I think there is still a need to have the ability to have spontaneous discussions about the subjects being covered, and the capability to allow students to ask questions during the coverage of material … I think this immediate interaction outweighs the benefit of access to material any time of the night or day.”
As technology improves, the delivery of online courses becomes easier, and closer emulates the physical environment, which will probably continue to attract more and more students and professors alike. For example, in order to facilitate this instantaneous dialogue with students across the country, Hubbel conducts his lectures at a specified time, and pauses every three minutes to afford students the opportunity to engage with the material. The technology to make this possible simply did not exist a decade ago.
Even when Hubbel teaches a face-to-face class, he often supplements the class discussion by continuing it in online discussion threads. And while he did not express a preference between online and face-to-face instruction, Hubbel did go on to extol the many progressive and beneficial virtues of the online platform. “I think in some ways, the online courses are a purer form of education; there is more focus on the subject of study and less distraction from social interactions.” He continued, “I also think the seemingly anonymous polls solicit a more honest response from the classroom giving the instructor an instant view of the thinking of the students … It’s harder for the students to ‘sit in the back of the classroom’ in the virtual environment!”
Another professor, Ernie Weeks, whose teaching career brought him to several different online programs (including University of Phoenix, Lincoln Memorial University’s online program, and online courses at community college systems in both Kentucky and Tennessee), shares Hubbel’s optimism for online programs, if not his current enthusiasm for them. “I think we have gone through a period of experimental failure, ” Weeks said, “and the question is whether we will learn from it … The technology promises instant customization of a knowledge product. Right now, we are barely able to put a curriculum online.” Weeks noted that, in fact, the thing that most often holds online programs back is the professors themselves. “Faculty do not tend to be the most technologically literate group as a whole, and lag the students in technical skills in almost all cases,” Weeks said.
Still, both professors recognize the power of the online platform — the potential of which is reflected in the growing number of faculty and academic leaders participating in and advocating for the online platform, as several studies have shown they are. All other things being equal, the trend seems to be moving in the online direction, and eventually the entire educational paradigm may rest on online delivery. For now, though, technology is slowly but surely working its way into the preparations of professors across the country, and online programs are making more and better use of synchronous technology.
“We’ll continue to see a mix of online and traditional delivery of college degrees,” Hubbel said, “but online delivery will increase with current professionals and international students because of the convenience of online courses, and with younger people already comfortable with online activity.”