On-line or On-the-sideline?

“Movies are a fad. Audiences really want to see live actors on stage”

Charlie Chaplin 

We are living in a new normal, where our society is being transformed at an accelerating and exponential rate of change. Individuals, organizations and industries can be rewarded with great efficiencies of progress as they fulfill their mission. But they must voluntarily embrace and direct the change or else the change will embrace and direct them.

In education, little has changed since Socrates stood before his pupils and transferred his knowledge and developed their minds in a face to face setting. Certainly, that has been the primary medium of education up until this day. However, online instruction is offering a mode that takes full advantage of today’s technology as a natural evolution of traditional instruction.

Louis Soares, director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress recently posed this question, “Is there a secret sauce to a professor sitting in front of 400 students and lecturing that couldn’t be [replicated] online?”

Or made better, using technology?

Of course not, and with the level of communication now available to students and faculty other than office hours, there is more likelihood and opportunity that students will be more engaged with their faculty concerning their studies.

After all, worldwide there are 294 billion emails sent per day and 4.1 trillion text messages. And today’s college students are using these, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Google+ and other social media to communicate. This means the transfer of knowledge through personal interaction is an “anytime and anywhere” proposition.

Online instruction is not making faculty extinct, but rather it is making them more accessible and therefore, more alive in educational terms. Volery (2000) noted that instructors will evolve from “intellect-on-stage” into “a learning catalyst because the level of interaction has changed in online delivery”.

Technology takes the classroom from bricks and mortar to electronic and virtual. But regardless, of whether it’s on a shaded hill in ancient Greece or a one room schoolhouse or a modern academic building or in front of your computer screen, there is always an instructor.

Wu and Hiltz concluded in their 2004 report that the instructor is an integral part of an online student’s success. They, also, found that effective instructors gave more guidance for discussions, and provided structured and focused topics for discussions. In other words, according to Knowton (2000), they create a learning environment and nurture a learning community with the benefits of today’s technology.

“The professor serves as coach, counselor and mentor; the students become active participants in learning. During the processes of learning, in teacher-centered classroom, professor lectures while students take notes. In online student-centered education, the professor serves as the facilitator, while students collaborate with each other in order to develop personal understanding of course content.” Yang and Cornelious (2005)

Due to the advantages of technology, online instruction properly developed and supported can be even more productive than traditional instruction.

In fact, a recent report for the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluations and Policy Development, entitled Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies (Washington DC 2010,) which examined comparative studies regarding online versus traditional classroom instruction from 1996 to 2008, found that  “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

This investigation, also, concluded that blended learning had better results than the traditional classroom instruction.

Barbara Means, one of the lead investigators and an educational psychologist at SRI International noted, “The study’s major significance lies in demonstrating that online learning today is not just better than nothing — it actually tends to be better than conventional instruction”.

A blind rush to online education can be fool’s gold if not well-assessed, strategized, marketed and supported. It is important to draw on the experiences and resources of those already in the field to develop the best business and instructional model for your institution. There can be no just “build it and they will come”. Conversely, once the decision is made, the faculty is committed, the plan has been thoroughly examined and approved and the proper resources are in place, the world is just a click away.

The decision to go online is being made by more and more colleges and universities, even our elite schools, as they start to appreciate the benefits as well as the market of online education.

Babson Survey Research Group and the Sloan Consortium, in their annual review of the state of Online Education in America, Class Differences, Online Education in the United States 2010, found that 30% of all higher education students have taken at least one online course. That’s 5.6 million students with projections of online enrollment continuing to grow significantly higher than total higher education enrollments.

Between Fall of 2009 and Fall of 2010, online enrollment increased by 21.1% while overall higher education enrollment only increased by 1.2%. The numbers are real. The trend is upward.  And though it might start to slow down just a bit, online programs will continue to outpace overall enrollment into the foreseeable future.

If you are not online or are not maximizing your online potential, then you need to start assessing your near term not long term strategic plan. Just as movies weren’t the fad Charlie Chaplin thought they would be, online learning and its further evolutions are not the fad that some in higher education think them to be.