Special Report
Classroom Technology

Higher Ed.'s Online Odyssey

By John Gehring — May 09, 2002 11 min read
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There’s not much time to hit the books after work, PTA meetings, and rushing your 9-year-old son to karate lessons. So when Adrienne Carrington, a soft-spoken, 45-year-old single mother from Baltimore, decided to go back and take some more college classes, she needed a university that could accommodate her harried lifestyle.

When she came across Capella University—whose online campus offers courses, certificates, and degree programs—you could say it was a virtual godsend.

“Going to a traditional school where you must attend class several nights a week was out of the question,” Carrington says one afternoon, sitting in her office cubicle surrounded by pictures of her son and one of Prince, her favorite entertainer.

She logs on to the university’s Web site and in moments is reading a question posted by the professor in her online instructional-design course. Often, she does classwork late at night after her son falls asleep. But she does her course assignments right on the job, too. Her bosses at CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, where one of her responsibilities is to give Internet-based training to employees, don’t mind: They’re paying for her classes.

“Just give me my materials and let me do my thing,” she says. “I’m an introvert, and being able to work at my own pace, make my own mistakes, and learn on my own fits my personality perfectly.”

While virtual colleges like Capella University, based in Minneapolis, have for some years now appealed to working professionals like Carrington, a growing number of secondary schools also have been eager to jump into online education. Many precollegiate schools have already made the leap and offer students online classes, or use some distance education as part of more traditional courses.

For the most part, though, traditional colleges and full-fledged online universities like Capella and the University of Phoenix have been educating students via the Web far longer than K-12 schools have. That experience puts them in a unique position to share with precollegiate educators their successes and failures along the way.

University professors and administrators, like many of their precollegiate counterparts, speak with enthusiasm about the enormous potential of online classes. But they also offer a sober perspective about the challenges in creating online programs that survive after the surge of initial excitement fades and the hard work of keeping a program afloat begins.

Above all, these experienced educators stress the need for setting clear goals for online programs, providing teachers with appropriate training, crafting original lessons that take advantage of the online medium, and blending online classes with some traditional classroom meeting time.

Indeed, many online higher education ventures have failed, for reasons that range from poor financial planning to a simple lack of student interest.

The State University of New York at Buffalo, for one, found out how ambitious plans for online education can go wrong. In February, the university’s school of management realized it couldn’t support its Web-based M.B.A. program after fewer students than expected enrolled in two pilot courses and an outside partner failed to provide the school with all of the funding it had promised for the venture.

“We weren’t as knowledgeable and sophisticated going into this as we should have been,” says Howard G. Foster, the associate dean for academic programs at SUNY-Buffalo’s school of management. “It’s very labor-intensive,” he says. “Students are demanding a high level of services.”

‘Right Conditions for Success’

Online classes and programs are the latest incarnation of an old idea: trying better to meet students’ needs by offering coursework outside a traditional classroom, whether by mail, over television, or by other means.

In the online world, the delivery methods include basic e-mail communication, real-time chat rooms, and “threaded discussions” on message boards that let students post work or take part in class conversations at their convenience. Some programs, like the online campus of the University of Phoenix, the nation’s largest private university, require that students be online at least five days a week. Others leave it up to students to decide how often they log on.

Gary Miller, an associate vice president for distance education and the executive director of the World Campus at Pennsylvania State University, says distance education began at his university more than 100 years ago, with farmers using rural free delivery of mail. Today, amore sophisticated system allows some students around the globe to take Penn State courses through the university’s World Campus, which opened four years ago and provides online distance education programs.

A hybrid of online and traditional in-class instruction has become the norm for many college online classes. With younger, precollegiate students, Miller says, that approach is even more important because they need more guidance and help in staying focused. He also emphasizes the importance of not simply recycling traditional classroom lessons: “Understand the unique pedagogical opportunities online classes offer. Don’t try and use the online environment to do teaching the old-fashioned way.”

“Teachers have to realize that they don’t have to worry if they can’t do everything their students can do with the technology,” Miller says. “It’s not about the technology. It’s about the learning environment. You’re teaching students to be more self-directed.”

While critics of online learning often contend that not having face-to-face learning diminishes the quality of virtual classes, Miller sees advantages to the more anonymous environment. “What you see are the students’ ideas, not their skin color, or whether they’re a boy or a girl,” he says. “It’s a purifying process because everyone is equal.”

But most people who have experience with online education stress that teachers must work much harder to nurture a sense of community with Web-based courses than they would in brick-and-mortar environments.

“Online learning environments are often socially impoverished compared to regular classrooms, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be effective,” says Brian Reilly, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Riverside, who has taught online courses. “There can be more interaction with online courses than regular classes, because you have tools that allow you to do this.”

Reilly, who worked for the Apples in the Classroom project that researched the impact of technology in education under the sponsorship of Apple Computer Inc., says teachers progress through stages when it comes to how they use technology. They generally start with learning how to “troubleshoot” or fix problems, he says, and ultimately figure out how to use the technology in more sophisticated ways to improve instruction.

“Typically, it takes three to five years,” Reilly says. “It’s a slow process, but people are often looking for quick results. Being an online teacher does demand a higher level of technical skill if you want to make the class more interesting.”

While most studies of online learning find little difference between the quality of online and traditional classes, a recent study published in the journal American Economic Review found that students in college-level virtual economics courses did not perform nearly as well on exams as students in regular classes did.

The economics professors at Michigan State University who conducted the study suggested that, in part, that finding could be explained by the tendency of online courses to do a better job teaching basic skills than more analytical reasoning.

Steve Shank, the founder and current chancellor of Capella University, which serves some 4,000 students online in the United States and some 40 other countries, believes that online courses must be carefully tailored, and that they work best with mature, independent learners.

“Our experience is you do need a student who is very motivated and self-directed,” Shank says. “That’s not to say in high school you don’t have those students, but it’s a subset of the population. You must think about the right student population and focus your attention on creating the right conditions for success.”

‘Comfortable in This World’

The content of online courses must be held to the same rigorous standards as traditional course offerings, says Mitch Vogel, the president of University Professionals of Illinois, a union that represents professors at eight public universities in Illinois, all of which are offering some form of online learning.

Vogel joined with a number of higher education officials, and staff members from the American Federation of Teachers, to issue a report two years ago proposing guidelines for “good practice” for online education. Among other recommendations, the report called for having professors deeply involved with course development, rather than relying on prepackaged curricula.

“If it’s being done for reasons that end up weakening standards, it really defeats the purpose,” Vogel says of online education.

But while attending to the big issues of high standards, he says, administrators also can’t forget the seemingly more mundane aspects of supporting Web-based courses, such as making sure teachers have technical support when the inevitable computer glitches occur.

In one survey of 200 professors from schools in Vogel’s union, a third of the instructors reported having had serious technical problems.

Such experience proves that if you’re trying to create online programs on the cheap, you’re making a big mistake, warns Brian Mueller, the chief executive officer of the University of Phoenix Online. “Some people looked at this as an opportunity to create a cash cow,” Mueller says. “Programs that fail don’t make the necessary investments in faculty training, technical support, and student-support systems. They think about it as a way to get in cheaply, and it just doesn’t work.”

At the same time, many online programs have made the mistake of overinvesting in what is seen as the latest technology. The online program of Syracuse University’s school of management, called the iMBA, is one of the oldest and the largest accredited distance-learning programs in the country leading to a Master of Business Administration. Paula O’Callaghan, the director of the program, says the online model did not require an enormous investment in new technology.

“The best place to start is to leverage what you are already doing well,” she says. “Look at what you can accomplish with the least amount of technology first. You should learn how to crawl before you walk.”

The Syracuse program, whose students are usually in their mid-30s and earn an average of $70,000 a year, requires that its students meet three times a year for a week of traditional on-campus classes at the Syracuse, N.Y.-based university.

“It is very tempting to go whole hog and put every course online, but that is the most expensive way to do it, ”O’Callaghan says.

While her students are successful business professionals—a world apart from teenagers who may not know what they want to do this weekend, never mind as a career—O’Callaghan believes precollegiate students are a natural audience for online learning if given the proper support.

“Generation Y has grown up with this technology, but at the same time they expect to be entertained by it, so you need a lot more interactivity than you would with a boomer audience,” she says.

David Szatmary, the vice provost of educational outreach at the University of Washington in Seattle, agrees that teachers need help developing virtual classes.

“Online learning is still in a lot of ways mimicking what is going on in the classroom,” he says.

To take advantage of the medium’s potential, Szatmary recommends forming a development team to help instructors design the framework for an online program. For example, his university, which offers 300 online courses and 25 online certificate programs, partnered with Microsoft Corp. for that purpose.

In addition, the university has a partnership with Bellevue, Wash.-based Apex Learning, a leading provider of virtual education to K-12 schools, to develop ten online-courses for high schools. Apex Learning had already offered online Advanced Placement and foreign-language courses to high schools around the country.

Beginning in the fall, with support from the University of Washington, Apex Learning will offer classes such as chemistry, intermediate algebra, precalculus, American literature, U.S. history, and earth sciences to high schools.

Sue Collins, the chief education officer for Apex, believes one of the greatest strengths of online learning for secondary schools is its ability to fill the gaps often left by traditional education. A remote rural school, for example, that would not otherwise offer an AP course or struggles to offer hard-to-staff courses like physics or advanced foreign-language classes, can provide such classes online with help from outside businesses.

Others tout online education’s potential to provide adaptive technology for students with disabilities.

Online learning will catch on at most secondary schools, Collins believes, as teachers and administrators become more comfortable with a medium that their students have long been using.

“These kids are so used to working with computers and things like instant messaging, that this is not strange to them,” she says. “They are comfortable in this world.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2002 edition of Education Week


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