In an age where digital technology is essentially ubiquitous, colleges and universities are expanding their presence beyond the traditional classroom setting.
Ten top universities — including Emory, Duke, Vanderbilt and the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill — announced this week that they will be launching Semester Online, a consortium offering online courses for college credit, next fall, USA TODAY reported.
The educational platform 2U will operate the program, providing students with experiences similar to those they would find in the traditional classroom. Each student will have his or her own square — similar to those from The Brady Bunch theme song — so professors will know who is “present” in class, according to The New York Times.
This new program follows a recent proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCs), in which faculty from several colleges teach free online courses, though participants do not receive academic credit.
These new educational online platforms, however, raise questions about the direction higher education is headed and the potential impacts of the online classroom’s debut.
Many online education experts view the recent surge in online courses as a “disruption” in higher education. A “disruption” is “something that historically was complicated and expensive [that changes] into something that is so much more affordable and accessible,” said Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovative University and a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School.
“That really is what online learning can do,” Clayton said. “It makes education affordable and accessible for people who can’t come to campus to get an education.”
About 77% of college presidents said in a 2011 Pew Research Center study that their institution offered online courses. And, about half of these respondents said they believe students will enroll in at least some online classes in the next decade.
Despite the prevalence of online courses, some colleges have been quicker than others to adopt the digital classroom as part of their undergraduate and graduate curricula.
“Those colleges and universities that are slower to adapt are often driven by fear,” said Marina Kostina, author of The Golden Climate in Distance Learning and founder and CEO of Wired@Heart. “There are a lot of bad examples out there. Once distance learning is based on solid pedagogy and research, then it will be successful, and there’s no need to be fearful of that.”
Kostina said institutions offering online courses should focus on the quality of the education rather than being “driven by cost,” or the financial gain that can come with offering such classes.
As of recently, Kostina said, more colleges have been establishing online programs based on research that guides the industry, such as an understanding of the different types of training an instructor must undergo when teaching an online versus traditional course.
Online education, though, has both advantages and disadvantages, though the decision to take an online course typically often comes down to one’s reasons for enrolling.
David Dixon, a research statistician at Washington University in St. Louis, has taught a statistics online course for several years. He said that while he uses the same material in person than he does online, his online course students have more flexibility in terms of when they plan on attending class and completing assignments.
“Some people are busy and can’t come to class [in person],” he said. “I even have some people who are in Iraq taking this class. It works out well for busy people, people with work and family commitments. At 10 at night, they can go online and do their assignments.”
Meanwhile, Rebecca Liebowitz, a State University of New York (SUNY) Binghamton junior, said taking an online psychology class this past summer was “comfortable and convenient,” as she was able to watch lectures and complete course material at home. She added, though, that online learning is more “self-motivating.”
“I enjoy being in a classroom setting where the professor and students are face-to-face,” Liebowitz said. “One of my courses had the professor on a video-chat lecture, and this helped make it feel more like I was in the seminar.”
As for the future, the Pew study found that a majority of Internet experts believe colleges and universities will undergo “a mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning” by 2020, combining online and in-class components.
“You need to create an incredibly engaging classroom and constantly fight for students’ attention. … It requires different types of activities than we’ve been using in the classroom,” Kostina said.
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