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Click or Brick?

Online course offerings are transforming campus life.



These days, more and more students are earning credits from home, enrolling in degree programs that include online courses either exclusively or concurrently with regular university courses. The University of Utah, for example, enrolled 1,692 students in online courses in spring 2003, compared with 4,719 students in spring 2009.

A recent U.S. Dept. of Education study on the efficacy of online classes looked at how online students learn. The report concluded that online learning was “modestly more effective, on average, than the traditional face-to-face instruction with which it has been compared.” There are some, like David Wiley, a professor of psychology and instructional technology at Brigham Young University, who predict that universities will become irrelevant by 2020 as more and more course work moves online.

Some educators, though, like Talitha Hudgins, director of secondary education at Utah Valley University, think this would be unfortunate. “You get more when you’re collaborating in a group. I know some online classes have collaboration. But social constructivist theory is huge on socializing and building communities, and you can’t do that in a distance-learning environment. Some learning has to be done face-to-face.”

Roberta Lopez, U of U director of distance learning, also has a hard time imagining classroom learning going the way of the dodo. “There are some who say, in 10 to 20 years, there will be no brick-and-mortar schools. But, I don’t believe that. Young college students want that experience of attending college. Older adults may not want that, but younger students do,” Lopez said.

Rather than seeing online learning displacing the university experience, Lopez and Hudgins see online and classroom learning growing together, with the university side adapting to technology in the classroom. “I tell teachers their jobs won’t dissolve; what will dissolve is how you used to do it,” Hudgins said. “If you don’t adapt to what’s coming, you will become a dinosaur and become extinct. There has to be some type of face-to-face, and the technology should be fused in with it.”

In fact, the U.S. Dept. of Education study supports Hudgins’ assertion. It found “advantages for blended learning (combining elements of online and face-to-face communication) over purely online learning experiences.” So, while online learning may hold an edge over the classroom-learning experience, when technology is incorporated into the classroom, results are optimal.

Hudgins explained how the physics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sought to improve its 75- to 80 percent failure rate using technology to change the learning environment. Even though technology was emphasized, students still came to the campus to learn. The difference was they no longer attended a lecture hall filled with 300 students.

When asked about the advantages of online learning, Lopez gave an unexpected answer: involvement with the professor and classmates. “In a classroom, you can sit face-to-face yet never talk to the teacher in class,” she says. “You can sit in the back and never say a word. In an online classroom, you have to have a relationship with your teacher and your class peers. I don’t know of [an online] class that doesn’t ask, ‘You need to respond to this student or teacher. Give me your feedback.’”

While some courses do not require face-to-face interaction, Hudgins says others are never fully deliverable in an exclusively online format. “There are some courses where there is no way you need to come to the university,” Hudgins says. “But in our teachered program, you gotta have the interaction in the classroom.”

That hasn’t kept Western Governor’s University from offering online teaching degrees. “The best—and cheapest—college you’ve never heard of,” according to Time magazine, offers master’s and bachelor’s degrees in business, nursing, and, yes, childhood education. Founded in 1997 by a committee of 19 governors, including former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, WGU is a nonprofit virtual institution of higher ed.

“Those in the elementary education program work with students, teachers, schools, principals, and observe classrooms. They won’t be sitting in class for course work, but they’ll use online chat with other students for that discourse,” said Joan Mitchell, WGU PR director.

Students are also assigned mentors who help them chart their academic plan and keep on schedule with their goals. Because of this, the boundaries between an institution like WGU and the typical classroom experience are not so dissimilar.

Will the Web someday replace universities? The answer is not a simple “yes” or “no.” It depends on what the student wants and what will work best with him or her. But one key point is that students must engage with the learning environment, whether online or in the classroom: “Involvement in the learning experience is the No. 1 way the student gets through class. If they don’t feel involved, they don’t do as well,” Lopez said.