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What’s the Future of Online Education?

To many students and would-be students who have yet to experience them, online colleges are sometimes viewed with a combination of suspicion and distrust—and occasional newspaper headlines talking about some CEO who, it was learned, received his or her advanced degree at an online “paper mill” do not help these impressions. And many in traditional academic institutions—including those who offer online courses—continue to quickly turn their noses up at online colleges, believing that any for-profit online college could not possibly offer the same quality education that they can.

As Dylan once remarked, how “the times they are a-changin’.”

Certainly, there was a time when many online colleges popped up that were unscrupulous, that offered little in the way of academic excellence, and that were interested in one thing: how much money could they take in from how many students. I recently had a conversation with Dr. David L. Elliott, associate dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Excelsior College, an online college based in Albany, N.Y., about the changes in online education. His observations both validate what we who read Online Classroom already know and offer additional optimism for the future of online education: not only is it here to stay, but it is expanding with a quality that just keeps getting better.

Here are some excerpts from that interview:

ECS: For many years, getting an online degree was viewed by many as a joke, as something that should not be taken seriously. How has this changed and what has been done to improve the image of an online education and degree?

DE: While it is true that, about fifteen years ago, most academicians dismissed it, and some saw opportunities and others saw it as a threat to jobs and education, this has markedly changed. With the rapid spread of the Internet across the world and the asynchronous technologies, online education is now available to a far larger potential student population than even the most enthusiastic supporters had envisioned. And the technological innovations have supported both online education and traditional classroom education, thus proving wrong the nay-sayers who saw it threatening education, per se.

As to the image problem, I think that the online programs, and the media, have actually done a good job of creating a positive image. The for-profits—such as University of Phoenix and Capella—have inundated the media (print and Internet) with advertisements, while major and prestigious universities, such as MIT or NYU, have attracted media attention from a news perspective.

ECS: There is no question that online education is the educational “wave of the future”; journal and professional education org studies underscore this again and again. What do you feel online colleges need do to secure their growth, not merely in quantitative terms (number of students) but qualitative as well?

DE: They must employ dedicated and qualified instructors. The key to quality education, online or classroom, is the interaction between faculty and students. Having qualified educators with a commitment to their students and the subject, regardless of the modality of instruction, remains the single most important factor in quality education.

ECS: When one thinks of the “typical” university or college that has students sitting in classrooms, on a campus, one usually thinks of students who have continued their education right out of high school, students going on for advanced degrees, and the so-called nontraditional student returning to school after a long absence as the primary student body demographic. Does the online college compete for these same student populations or are there student niches that are perhaps better served by online colleges?

DE: Students whose physical location, work and family responsibilities, or other personal circumstances make it difficult or impossible to attend classroom courses may have few realistic options to “online” or computer-mediated education. They may very well be best served by an online college. Moreover, the cost of education continues to increase, and the expectations of work-life are more pervasive, requiring of employees greater time flexibility. I think that we are seeing larger numbers of students closer to the traditional college age seeking online education in an attempt to balance the cost of education and the need for an income.

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In addition, when classroom courses are not available when a student needs them, students are increasingly turning to online colleges to fill in courses or even complete their degrees. In this sense, I see a convergence of the use of both online and classroom education for many students. Right now, I do not think that the competition is between classroom and online institutions but rather more competition among traditional classroom-based institutions and competition among online institutions. However, there is a secular trend toward more online education, and some traditional colleges may see online colleges as their competition. Most online colleges do not try to recruit traditional students right out of high school.

ECS: Students are, of course, taught by faculty, whether in a traditional college setting or an online college. Are there quality differences in the faculty teaching online? Do students need concern themselves that they are getting faculty who “couldn’t cut it” on a traditional campus?

DE: I don’t think that there is a systematic problem. One might be surprised at how many traditional classroom faculty teach online, as well. While most successful classroom instructors have success teaching online, there are important differences between these modes of teaching. I suspect that some instructors are more successful in an online setting than in a classroom environment, just as some students are more successful online than in the classroom. In addition, online colleges are more likely to have successful professionals in their fields teaching, and this may have enormous benefits for students.

ECS: What do you feel is the most important focus an online college must have in order to ensure that its students receive the very best education, while also keeping a very important eye on bottom-line growth?

DE: There are two focal points: the academic content delivered, which is far more standardized in online colleges, and the ability and willingness of the faculty to give sufficient personal attention to students.

ECS: Any final comments?

DE: I think that most students are well served by having some combination of online and classroom education. A good classroom course will appeal to students with good oral communications skills while asynchronous online education tends to appeal to the more contemplative students who express themselves better in writing. Both types of students are well served by developing both types of skills.

Online education is certainly not “your daddy’s online education.” And with the elimination of the “50 Percent Rule,”[1] a boom in online course offerings is soon to appear. How can we be sure that online colleges and others offering online education get it right this time—and continue to do so? Perhaps David Elliott best answered that question: “The institution that offers quality instruction in both the classroom and online will be making the wave of the future.”

1Passed in 1992, the “50 Percent Rule” was passed to stem a glut of fraud perpetuated by so-called diploma mills and correspondence schools of the ’80s. It stymied online course growth by preventing any college that enrolled more than 50 percent of its students at a distance or provided more than half of its courses via distance education from participating in federal student-aid programs.