The Excellent Inevitability of Online Courses

Tim Cook for the Chronicle

May 21, 2009

As students sign up for online courses in record numbers, faculty members and administrators on campuses across the country are considering what place such courses should have in their curricula. Each institution's answer goes to the heart of its mission, and the examination process involves debate and discussion about how that mission will be carried out using the newest technology.

Opponents of online instruction believe that traditional, face-to-face teaching is always better. A colleague of mine, wary of caving in to students' demands for online courses, remarked recently that "students demand free beer, too; that doesn't mean we should give it to them."

Pragmatic opponents may grudgingly accept the presence of some online courses, justifying them on the basis of external factors like competition from other institutions and the struggling economy —but even they see online teaching as a second-best alternative, something to be done by others and tolerated at best.

Outright supporters of online instruction, however, believe that online courses intrinsically benefit students' learning experiences, and are the intellectual equivalent of traditional courses.

I belong to the third group. Within our lifetimes, technology has fundamentally changed the way we get the news, make purchases, and communicate with others. The Internet provides a platform for learning about and interacting with the world. It should be no surprise that students line up for courses that make the best use of technologies that are so integral to their lives. It's not just the economy. It's not just the convenience. It's the integration of technology within society that's driving the development of online courses.

Online enrollments have grown much faster than overall higher-education enrollments over the past few years, according to a 2008 report, "Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States," published by the Sloan-C, a consortium that promotes online education. During the period 2002-7, enrollment in online courses grew 19.7 percent, compared with 1.5-percent growth in the overall college-student population. The study also found that more than 20 percent of American college students took at least one online course during the fall 2007 semester. Those figures suggest tremendous interest in online teaching and learning.

Here are eight reasons that colleges should proudly —and without apology —offer online courses:

1. We want our students to be actively engaged in learning. The traditional teaching approach features a professor giving lectures to a class, writing notes on the blackboard, and periodically asking questions to stimulate discussion. That kind of teaching will arguably always have a place in higher education. However, other, more-interactive teaching methods —group projects, debates, and technology-based tools such as PowerPoint and video —have evolved and gained their place in classrooms. Web and Web-hybrid courses simply take the trend one step further. Online courses provide another interactive way for professors to present ideas and materials to students. Technology-oriented versions of group work, debate —and, yes, even the traditional "lecture and discussion" —can all work well when incorporated into online courses.

2. We want to reach students with diverse learning styles. Many of our students grew up with the Internet and cellphones. They are comfortable communicating electronically with each other and with us as faculty members. A student who sits in the back and does not say a word in a face-to-face classroom may eagerly participate in a Blackboard or Moodle discussion. For that type of student, taking an online course facilitates the exchange of ideas and his learning of the course material. Students taking an online course may actually have more one-on-one interaction with their professor and fellow students through e-mail messages, electronic discussion boards, and other formats than those taking a lecture-based course.

3. We want our students to have a variety of experiences outside the classroom. Our students already have many opportunities for a variety of outside learning experiences, including service learning, internships, directed studies, study tours, and so on. As faculty advisers, we encourage our students to sign up for courses that offer such activities because we know that they enhance and contribute to students' overall college experience. We should similarly promote and recommend online courses, recognizing that students can have valuable learning experiences both in and out of the physical classroom.

4. We want to teach our students how to do independent research. Technology has become an integral part of how we, as scholars, conduct our research. For instance, when we try to locate a specific fact or example, our first inclination may be to turn to the Internet rather than walk to a brick-and-mortar library, as we might have done 25 years ago.

Likewise, we want our graduates to be technologically literate and proficient, as well as to master subject-specific knowledge and skills. We need to teach students about the responsible use of technology and Internet resources while they are in college. Web-based courses, by their very nature, provide students with hands-on opportunities to improve their proficiency in using technology and in evaluating sources of information on the Internet.

5. We want to make college more accessible to students. Our students all have other things in their lives, and there are times when taking a course online may be the only option. Some students have day jobs and families to support. Some are physically disabled and have trouble getting around. Some are temporarily incapacitated with injuries or illness. Some have family members who are ill or dying. Some give birth in the middle of a semester.

If our colleges don't offer enough online courses, we run the risk of losing such students, either altogether or to competing institutions. Even if they represent only a small percentage of our enrollment, we need to care. Online students may be the ones struggling the hardest with life situations. It is our job to understand their needs and to offer them a choice of accessible courses, including online courses.

6. We want to make attending college more affordable. Even though working one's way through college can add years to the expected graduation date and significantly increase the cost of attaining a degree, many students do not have a choice. They may be shouldering bills for living costs, tuition, and fees. Their parents' ability to help with expenses may be severely restricted because of student-loan borrowing constraints and the loss of financial assets in the current housing and stock markets. To make up for financial shortfalls elsewhere, students are likely to work more hours while attending college.

In addition, a deep and prolonged economic recession will give part-time students less power in the labor marketplace, and, perhaps, less control over their hours and working conditions. Online courses provide financially constrained working students with the flexibility that enables them to more effectively manage their work and study responsibilities. Doing so may allow them to keep college costs down by completing their degrees in less time.

7. We want to teach our students values and ethics. Critics claim that online courses are inferior to traditional courses because they are supposedly more susceptible to cheating. But widespread Internet connectivity, through laptops, cellphones, and other technologies, already provides opportunities for cheating in every type of course —pure lecture, pure Web, and everything in between. Students who want to cheat can find a way to do so even in nonwired, traditional class settings.

Throughout their college experience, we need to teach our students about making wise ethical choices and about the responsible and safe use of technology in all the courses they take. Alert instructors can identify plagiarism, identical answers on exams, and other breaches using well-designed assignments and tests. As always, we need to trust our faculty colleagues and our established departmental procedures to provide high-quality oversight to online courses, as well as traditional ones.

8. We want our students' degrees to be valued by employers. Some employers can be skeptical about the value of online learning. Fortunately, acceptance seems to be increasing. To overcome lingering doubts, colleges should continue their efforts to ensure that their online courses and programs meet the same high standards as their traditional ones.

Let's reread our colleges' mission statements. The justifications for offering online learning opportunities are clear. And as far as the students are concerned, that's a whole lot better than free beer.

Margaret Brooks is a professor of economics and chair of the economics department at Bridgewater State College, and president of the Massachusetts Council on Economic Education.