Monday, July 9, 2012

Kia Smythe: Online study and the loneliness of the long distance freshman

  The ever increasing availability and power of home computing and the internet means that 31% of all higher education students in the U.S. now take at least one course online. Whilst the growth rate for online enrollments may have recently slowed a little, it still far exceeds the growth of the overall higher education student population. These trends mean that 65% of all higher education institutes include online learning as a fundamental part of their long term strategies.

  Despite this, there is a vocal minority of academic leaders concerned that the quality of online instruction simply does not measure up to equivalent courses delivered face-to-face in traditional bricks-and-mortar colleges. Overall, academics’ opinions on the respective quality of learning outcomes from traditional versus online tuition appear to be rather subjective – influenced more by whether or not their particular institution offers online programs, rather than on any hard evidence of lower attainment or standards of the online cohort.

  The simple fact of the matter is that online tuition is both here to stay and will continue to expand; driven as much by economics as by any other single factor.

  At the macroeconomic level the strong economic imperative of education was highlighted by then President George W. Bush in The California Postsecondary Education Commission Federal Education Update (2004) as ‘America’s best tool in building an increasingly competitive global economy’. The global economy in 2012 looks rather different to the one facing Bush eight years ago but this does not change the fact that the economic imperative must remain the same. If the nation needs to work harder to achieve and thrive in that reality, then increasingly higher educational standards will need to be reached by larger numbers of our citizens.

  Set against the Federal government’s macroeconomic need, is the students’ microeconomic reality. The debt of the average college graduate in student loans is currently around $23,000 and rising. reports, that for 2010, the mean annual total cost (including tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board etc.) of public university stands at nearly $28,000 (add another $12,000 at least for private university). Offset this against falling average household income levels and high unemployment rates and the scene is set for years of stagnant or dwindling college student numbers.

  Those colleges that already embrace online learning will undoubtedly be in the strongest position to attract new students who find themselves priced-out of mainstream traditional colleges. Little can be done about the cost of books and supplies; the cost of tuition and fees, however, should be lower and removal of room/board costs significantly reduces the cost of higher education study for students. As remote, online study becomes more widespread and maybe even the norm for the average higher education student, acceptance will have to be reached that the educational standards being achieved are at least equal to those being achieved by students in traditional colleges. The challenge to those academics who say currently that this is not the case is to prove their point and suggest ways in which the gap in standards can be closed.

  There is one more element that the critics of online study regularly champion as insurmountable in the world of virtual colleges – the college experience. There is undoubtedly much that every residential campus student learns from their college experience that does not take place in the classroom. Nobody though should suggest that that experience is equal in value to the study itself and it is naive to imagine that online study will result in generations of light sensitive post graduates emerging from their bedrooms for the first time after three or four years of study. Groups of students will meet up and create their own experiences, they will network and good colleges will create opportunities for real face-to-face interaction.

  With many courses of study there has always been a limit to how much can be learned in the classroom and lecture theatre and this will be equally true of online learning. How could a student tell the story of the 20th century with only text books and computer generated images as their guide? It would matter little how high the image resolution might be or how informative the accompanying text, the full impact of artwork – size, texture, technique etc. – will only be appreciated when viewing the real thing. Colleges teaching art history online will still need to give students effective opportunities to come together at galleries or at summer-schools and students will be adept enough to continue that interaction away from the college organized activity. Young people are used to social networking and using the online world to organize real world activity. The debating group and the college football team will not become things of the past – put simply, with a little thought by the college, online students will become just as intelligent and well rounded as those who leave the campus.

  Online study at higher education levels is here to stay and it will grow. It may still feel like new territory but crafting courses that deliver the academic standards the country needs, whilst delivering a worthwhile life experience to students, is something that has to be got right and not something that can be shied away from.

  About the author: Kia Smythe is an expat originally hailing from NYC who studied International Business and Culture in the United Kingdom. Since graduating, she found her feet writing about finance and economics but also indulges in art story work and more creative endeavors from time to time.

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