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Can online courses enhance learning

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by Jack Roth

A few years ago, excitement about the expectations for online courses to provide access to quality higher education was rampant. Huge enrollments in MOOCs (massive open online courses) and perhaps eagerness to create a more economical business model for higher education led one Wall Street Journal editorial to opine:

“Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive) which has happened in every other industry — making schools much more productive.”

While the jury may still be out on that particular outcome, the question higher education asks now is: How do you effectively blend online courses with classroom-style instruction and interaction to enhance learning?

“Today, a wide array of students are looking for different things, and we understand that individuals learn in different ways,” says Provost Beth Paul, Stetson University’s executive vice president for Academics. “In today’s era of increasing technology, the question shouldn’t be whether you offer traditional courses or online courses, but rather how are you implementing the online courses to ensure that learning standards are still high and that you’re cultivating life-long learners.”

According to the latest figures from the Babson Survey Research Group, 7.1 million Americans enrolled in at least one online course in 2014. A study from U.S. News & World Report found that even when online education is equal in cost to traditional education, online students save money on books, transportation and fuel costs. But increasing access to college and making it less expensive is not the same as graduating a well educated, workforce-ready individual.

“As faculty, we are always looking for ways to best engage students in the learning process, and we reflect on how we can take different approaches,” says Paul. “Every generation of students comes to us with something different … a different way of learning and a different exposure to technology. Online learning is simply an evolution of the learning process based on cultural and technological factors.”

online courses, Stetson University

Keeping students engaged and motivated to learn without the on-campus college experience is one of many challenges for online courses.

The challenges for online courses are many: keeping students engaged and motivated to learn without the on-campus college experience; more reading such as discussion boards populated by classmates expecting a response; deciphering emails, posts and chats to ensure appropriate interpretation or meaning; communicating quickly in writing instead of verbally; lack of personal connection with faculty or classmates.

“We would be doing a disservice to students if we didn’t offer online learning options,” says Karen Ryan, dean, Stetson College of Arts and Sciences. “We can adopt technology to enhance what we do rather than replace what we do. In the digital age, we need to realize as educators that we aren’t the keepers of information and knowledge anymore. It’s more about how you process and apply knowledge that is critical.”

Ryan believes that for students, it’s about critical thinking and problem solving, not about being in a classroom listening to a lecture. Both traditional and online courses should be designed to be interactive in order to teach students how to form valid opinions through interaction with others — whether through in-class discussion or online chat and collaboration features — and to communicate these opinions in writing or verbally in the best way possible.

“The teaching we do now isn’t like filling a bucket, but more like lighting a fire,” she explains. “Teach them ‘how’ to learn and they will be able to do it for the rest of their lives. It becomes deeper learning, but teachers need to give up the ‘getting through every chapter’ mentality that was common in the past.”

Stetson offers summer online courses that provide the same personal attention and live interactivity among classmates and professors that its traditional classes offer. The online curriculum is based on small classes and serious interaction using the latest in online learning technology. The University also offers both an online and campus-based Master of Accountancy (M.Acc.) program, which is designed to ensure that students and professionals meet the academic requirements for the CPA examination and gain the necessary range of knowledge and practical skills needed for successful careers.

“We made the decision to offer this as an online degree program to expand Stetson’s national reputation in accounting,” says Michael Bitter, CPA, director of the Master of Accountancy programs. “Having an online program is an ideal way to reach a national audience, but the factor we considered the most was the ability to partner with a learning company that has significant expertise in online learning, including course design and development, marketing, admissions, and IT support.”

Stetson also has partnered with Virtual Education Software Inc. to offer continuing education units courses for K-12 educators online or via CD-ROM. These interactive continuing education courses provide expert instruction at a pace that fits the student’s schedule. Some online courses offer synchronous sessions, in which students and professors meet online at a predetermined time, but most online courses are asynchronous, meaning that students access course material and participate in class activities on their own schedules. This allows students to maintain their work and family commitments with more flexibility than is available at traditional colleges.

online courses, Stetson University

Interaction and collaboration with others — whether in class or online chat — teaches students how to form valid opinions and to communicate these opinions in writing or verbally.

“I believe online education is good for working students who cannot attend class ‘live’ at a set time,” says Bitter. “However, it does require independent work, organization, self-motivation and hard work. If you need more structure, you may be more suited to a traditional classroom setting.”

Bitter sees online courses as being much more independent from a professor’s perspective. He believes you simply need to be a little creative in how you structure the course and assignments to end up delivering the course material.

“I like both for different reasons,” he explains. “Having the students in front of me allows me to get to know them and allows for good in-person discussions, but I like the online courses because we’re providing an education to people who otherwise might not be able to get one. Most of the online students have significant, relevant work experience, so the discussion boards can be rather interesting, and the level of questions asked of me are often much more thought-provoking and high-level.”

In many cases, providing a “blended” form of education combines the intimacy and face-to-face interaction of a physical classroom with the flexibility and convenience of an online one. This provides students with cutting-edge, artificially intelligent, tutoring software while allowing instructors flexibility in planning their syllabuses. Students tend to appreciate this because it offers a reprieve from textbooks and mundane lectures.

At Stetson, the idea of a hybrid approach to learning achieves this goal.

“All of our online courses are meant to facilitate contact and communications between students and faculty, and between students and students via chat rooms and other online formats,” says Paul. “Even in our traditional classes, faculty are looking for ways to be more interactive during class time. We have ‘flipped’ classrooms in which students listen to lectures online before they get to class so that they have more time to interact during class.”

Technology has provided schools with the ability to create curriculums that both enhance the type of interaction students are having with both professors and other students, as well as provide flexibility for students who don’t have the time or wherewithal to be physically present in a classroom. The goal at Stetson is to continue to enhance and expand its curriculum to meet the needs of the modern student.

“I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition when it comes to traditional versus online learning, but rather a both/and proposition,” stresses Ryan. “As educators, we have an obligation to provide students with as many learning options as we can, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve here.”

Paul agrees that being able to use technology in a higher learning environment is advantageous. The key is creating online courses that are designed to keep students engaged no matter where they are.

“If your online curriculum is part of your overall curriculum, which is based on the highest quality of higher learning, it’s an added value and educational benefit,” said Paul. “It provides alternatives to teachers who want to maximize the learning experience.”

Online learning may never replace the in-class excitement and interaction of spur-of-the-moment dialogue, white board problem solving, extemporaneous answers or camaraderie shared when learning together. But when done well, online learning has its place in higher education.

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