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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Musings on Online Education

Online education has been getting attention lately and many people ask me about it. So, today, I will give my take on it (on the college level) which may vary a bit from what you have generally read or heard.

There is no question that online learning is going to grow. It is very inexpensive for colleges and universities to get in to it especially compared to the current standard classroom courses. Imagine the operating leverage that a school gets! One could add 100 students to a course who are paying full tuition and all that the school might have to do is add a graduate teaching assistant to help grade papers. No use of tight classroom space, no heat, no electricity in that scenario either. The sales pitch is that many people live too far from a university to attend class in person or are consumed by their jobs during the week. So you may still obtain a degree in the discipline that you desire and you can work where and when you want often at your own pace. The appeal is clearly very strong for cash strapped institutions to get involved in a big way by providing a wider net for their universities. Here are a few of my views on online education that I have not heard much about from others:

1) Online education is a godsend to VERY motivated students but not to indifferent ones. Imagine this scenario. A young man from North Dakota gets an economics degree from school in Wisconsin. While there he takes an elective in History of Economic Thought and loves it. He badgers his advisor who arranges for him to take an independent study that allows him to dig deeply in to the work of Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo (all early Classical Economists with Smith being the giant). The next semester he graduates, returns home, and helps Mom and Dad run their ranch in rural North Dakota. He would like to pursue study of History of Economic Thought but there are only six or seven schools left who confer graduate degrees in the discipline and several are outside the U.S. He continues to read omnivorously about the topic and spends a vacation in London sitting in on a symposium on the work of Carl Menger, considered the father of the Austrian School of Economics. His mother thinks that he is nuts but his father encourages him and the young man’s work at the ranch, which, he will one day inherit, is exemplary. To his great delight, one of the schools that he would like to attend suddenly offers an online graduate program in History of Economic Thought. He is accepted and loves it. The professors are amused by his constant questions and e-mails and more than floored by how much background reading that he has done on his own and continues to do for their courses. For this lad, online education has been great and he is the perfect candidate. He can continue to be an emerging wealthy rancher while he simultaneously becomes an economics scholar. Without his online education, he would be self taught but there would likely be gaps in his learning unless he put forth an absolutely Herculean effort.
2) Recently, while walking the halls of a university classroom building, I overheard two students talking. One asked the other how the semester was going. “Great”, the young man replied. “I am taking three courses online, am not doing a damn thing, and so far I have all B’s.” Clearly, he is not as motivated as my mythical North Dakotan and few are. He sees his online courses as a great way to be a slacker. If one does not sit down at the screen and stay a while regularly, the online experience will not be worthwhile.
3) Some people tell me that the existing faculty at most schools will put up roadblocks to growth in online courses as they fear for their job. True, if online really catches on in education, fewer professors will be needed. This may especially true in foreign languages where introductory courses lend themselves to video and audio presentations that resemble programmed learning. Yet, on balance, I feel that these attacks on faculty are largely mean spirited and made by people who have never taught a college level course. There will be adjustments, however. Professors who lecture with notecards yellow with age will have to adjust to a new way of teaching. A bigger and trickier roadblock with be with accrediting bodies. Will credits be transferable to other institutions are among the issues that need to be sorted out and carefully.
4) Professors, and many will hate this analogy, will have to become “coaches” or Chief Motivating Officers in students lives as online education gets more traction. The caliber of online materials is constantly improving but the students still need direction and guidance even from people whom they may never meet in person. Ideally, professors should be major motivators now.
5) How will elite institutions react to online education as it grows? Some were involved in early experiments but will they embrace online learning significantly? Consider Ivy League giants Yale and Harvard. Or, how about our best liberal arts elite colleges such as Amherst and Williams? There is tremendous cache to going to these four schools largely due to the exclusivity of each. Graduates tend not be simply big donors--they are often huge donors. Contacts made at these schools help people for their entire lives. Will the alumni who write the six and seven figure checks continue to donate if THEIR schools become democratic and have thousands of enrollees from developing countries or a handful who never leave their holler in West Virginia? Look at what Starbucks is doing with Arizona State University. Thousands of baristas who stick to it with true dedication will get degrees largely financed by their generous employer. And, some will never have to leave Dayton! It is those type of schools, not in the top tier, that may use online most for the  immediate future.

That’s how I see it. I would love to hear your take on it.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com or leave a comment on the blog

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