Reflections on Online Higher Education

Educators who surf the World Wide Web frequently encounter advertisements for online universities. The sales pitches are enticing for busy adults who seek a graduate degree; “learn on your own schedule,” “save costs,” finish quickly through accelerated schedules.” The advertisements come from diverse providers, including for-profit universities which have been in the news for unflattering reasons over the last year.

Verifying the accreditation of any university is as easy as visiting the web site of an accrediting agency to find the status of member institutions. Understanding the nature of and quality of online teacher education is much more difficult, however. For more than a decade, I have been involved with online learning as a teacher, a learner, and a facilitator of students’ online work. My experiences have been ancillary to my work as a teacher and an adjunct instructor of graduate courses in traditional settings, and these have led me to several conclusions and six bits of advice for educators considering an online degree.

Good students are good students. Students who engage with the course content, their classmates, and their instructors in a reflective and active manner will gain the most from the course. This observation is as accurate for online learners as it is for traditional learners. Openness to ideas and interaction matters most, the differences between those experienced online and those experienced face-to-face are of minimal importance.

Online learners miss informal interactions. When attending face-to-face classes, students have the chance to chat before, between, after, and during classes. Such conversations are a safe place for learners to question and validate new ideas and to test their thinking. Those informal situations are difficult to replicate in online settings so online learners have limited access to these valuable interactions.

Online learners gain access to more diverse colleagues. The population of learners for face-to-face studies is usually drawn from local populations; the instructors may have been drawn from more diverse populations. Online learning communities tend to be comprised of people from urban, suburban and rural, rich and poor, and racially mixed backgrounds. Access to such populations is a benefit of online learning.

Becoming educated requires knowledge, not information. Although an online program delivered on an accelerated calendar exposes students to the same amount of information as a face-to-face course meeting over a longer calendar, accelerated calendars do not allow for reflection on and application of that information which is an essential experience for teachers who are graduate students. One way to gain such experience is to participate in professional organizations while a graduate student. This also provides an opportunity for building a network of local colleagues which can be difficult for online learners.

Expect “canned” curriculum. To ensure all students are exposed to the same curriculum and to make the curriculum appealing to broad audiences, many online universities employ curriculum developers to build courses. While this does free instructors from class preparation (perhaps to devote more time to assessing students’ work) and it does allow for quality control by the managers of the school, it does limit teachers’ freedom to expand the curriculum, include emerging ideas, or respond to events that may influence how the content is perceived by the students.

Many online universities mix business and education, and the results are equivocal. As more institutions enter the online education market, there is a great deal of competition for online students; so decisions are made with the goal of attracting and enrolling new students. Also, decisions may be made to maximize the tuition generated by a program and minimize the expense of providing the program; that goal is explicit in for-profit universities. I recently was offered an adjunct teaching position at a for-profit university. After a quick calculation, I realized that my pay would be well below the livable wage where I live, and my son calculated that he makes more per hour working part-time at the local supermarket than I would as an adjunct instructor for that university. There does appear to be a role for online universities in 21st century education. Providing graduate level coursework and degrees for busy and isolated educators does appear to be one role. However, educators who enroll in such programs have a responsibility to be active learners and to find professional experiences beyond online coursework. Further, students in these courses must realize that the degree-granting institution to which they pay tuition may be motivated by goals other than their students’ education. Although that may have been true of graduate education for teachers in the past also, it is more overt today.