Does online education promote real learning?
Education is more than coursework
Stewart is vice president for academic affairs and a professor of psychology at Hollins University.
Online courses offered by regionally accredited institutions, like similar campus-based courses, connect satisfactory performance on term papers, exams or other assessments to the achievement of certain learning objectives. Therefore, students who successfully complete online courses do learn, according to commonly accepted standards.
We used to think of education as simply the result of the learning that occurs by undertaking a course of study at an educational institution. However, technological advances have made educational settings as varied as the needs and aspirations of the individual learners. Consequently, a paradigm shift has occurred and moved us away from the question, “Where does learning occur?” toward the more compelling query, “What constitutes an education?”
While learning might reasonably be defined as the meeting of certain objectives during a course of study, education is the sum total of the broad range of learning experiences (both formal and informal) that a person encounters over time. In a sense, an education is what’s left after learning occurs. An education provides the basic skills, foundational knowledge, habits of mind and insights that become ingrained features of one’s analytical style and work habits. Education is evident not only in the way we make a living, but also in the way we construct a life and the way we engage with our community.
The campus environment ought to provide a transformative educational experience that takes students far beyond the simple and sterile notion of meeting learning objectives via successful completion of each course. At the university level, significant intellectual maturation occurs while living and working alongside others who are exploring parallel issues. Students as well as faculty members challenge one another inside and outside of the classroom.
At Hollins University and other residential campuses, students, faculty and staff all form a community with traditions, norms, leaders, challenges and opportunities to test the assumptions that each person brings to the mix upon arrival. The formal learning of facts can certainly be replicated via online delivery of course material. However, the informal, transformative learning associated with complex interpersonal interaction among student learners and faculty experts in the campus environment cannot.
The process of constructing a life and a community while simultaneously facing and moving through demanding intellectual tasks moves campus-based students from meeting learning objectives toward the experience of education. Time alone turns children into adults, but education transforms the potential of adults and fuels the creation of innovators, leaders and confident contributors to society.
The campus environment may not be appropriate or desirable for every learner at every stage of life. However, there is no substitute for the educational outcomes that follow the immersive experience of campus-based higher education.
Online classes facilitate learning
Wubah is vice president for undergraduate education and deputy provost at Virginia Tech.
Efforts to facilitate learning in higher education can be enhanced by advances being made in our digital age. Access to computers and the Internet have allowed innovations in higher education, including the ability to offer some classes without physical meeting space constraints.
Virginia Tech began exploring this early on, offering its first distance learning classes in 1998. Since then, online learning has grown substantially to supplement the academic needs of students, with more options to fit their schedules and graduate on time. All of Tech’s academic departments are engaged in delivering or developing online courses.
In 1999, the university developed a strategic plan specifically for distance learning, recognizing its potential to expand learning opportunities in addition to the university’s thousands of face-to-face traditional courses. The plan led to the establishment of the Institute for Distance and Distributed Learning, which currently supports the advancement and success of distance learning by working with faculty to develop and deliver quality online courses. Evaluation and assessment are critical to make sure all of our courses — physical, online or even a hybrid of both — are resonating with our students and faculty. Recently, a new strategic plan has been developed for implementation in the next six years.
During the 2011-12 fiscal year, 18,442 undergraduate distance learning course enrollments and 5,914 graduate course enrollments occurred at Virginia Tech. Currently, 823 undergraduate and graduate courses are offered online, including 55 undergraduate core courses. Students can also participate in 38 graduate degree and certificate programs through distance learning. Of the graduating class of 2011, almost three-quarters took at least one distance learning course.
Distance learning serves as a valuable tool to give students access to courses, particularly popular core classes. Distance learning is also critical to attract and retain students, who expect the opportunity to take some courses online. Earlier this year, we surveyed past Virginia Tech students who did not complete their degree. Preliminary results show strong interest in a bachelor’s degree completion program, with all respondents indicating an online format would give them the best opportunity to complete their studies at Virginia Tech. Such survey results support the need to expand our distance learning profile to meet students’ needs.
Virginia Tech is required to expand access to affordable and high quality education to our citizens. Distance learning is one approach to meet this statute. Gov. Bob McDonnell’s “Top Jobs” Higher Education Opportunity Act committed Virginia to conferring more than 100,000 new college degrees for Virginia students by 2025, with an emphasis in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health care fields. Many of Tech’s most popular courses are in the STEM-H fields, and the ability to offer some courses online will give more students a chance to enroll and help meet this goal. Ultimately, online education can help keep costs down for students.