The swiftly growing popularity and recognition of online schooling is forcing educational institutions to rethink the way they do things. Some institutions, like MIT, are developing their own tools, systems, and content for online education. Others, however, are partnering with third-party organizations to supplement their conventional methods with online programs.
Coursera is one of many organizations offering educational courses through online platforms. In early 2012, Coursera entered into partnerships with various universities across the world to offer courses to their students. These courses are based primarily on online video lectures and instructional videos. Students attending the partner universities receive university credit for taking part in the courses. This agreement has been an exciting development for proponents of online education.
The universities involved in the Coursera partnership – including University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania and Princeton – enjoy various benefits that come with offering classes through the Coursera platform. First, offering credits through Coursera courses cuts costs. No longer do students have to physically go to a lecture hall to attend their classes. This helps to alleviate problems universities are having with both budget overruns and overcrowding. Second, when it comes to scheduling, online courses are intrinsically versatile, allowing students to fit them into their own personal schedules whenever it is most convenient.
Critics may say that, if online education really is so great, all universities should teach all courses online. The insinuation is that universities are adopting online education only for the sake of saving money – and that, by doing so, they are giving students an educational experience of lesser value. However, what critics must realize is that some courses of study are more conducive to the online model than others. For instance, a course that is based almost entirely on lectures, reading materials, and exact-answer quizzes and tests may be a good fit for the online model, whereas a course that requires a lot of interaction, research, workshopping, and project work may not be so conducive.
As it is, universities across the United States exhibit a common tendency of packing thousands of freshman students into huge lecture halls and putting upper-level undergraduates and graduate students into small classroom environments. As the massive lecture hall scenario usually leads to very little per-student interaction anyway, moving such classes to an online platform seems to enhance the educational experience.
Reputation of academic pedigree is another concern. Online universities like University of Phoenix and DeVry are simply not given the same regard as conventional universities. There are three main reasons for this. First, such universities tend to have very low standards for admission. Second, largely because they tend to be for-profit institutions, such universities flood the market with a high number of graduates. Third, such universities cannot prove that the student actually learned what was necessary to graduate, since many of them never verify that the student was the one who actually did the coursework or took the tests.
However, by offering a hybrid conventional-online model, universities can minimize all of these drawbacks. A conventional university opting to use online formats are free to maintain their normal admissions standards. Additionally, whereas the course materials and lectures are published online, universities are free to require that students take tests in-person.
Instead of creating a hybrid conventional-online model, MIT is going in another direction with its online education. For some time, the university has been publishing its course materials and lectures online for free. In the beginning, these were for reference only: viewing the courses online did not give anyone MIT credit. In late 2011 and early 2012, though, MIT began to initiate a program that is being called MITx. MITx offers online students from all over the world the ability to take online courses published by MIT and receive credentials for them without ever setting foot on the MIT campus. In offering these courses and credentials, MIT protects the value of its conventional programs by making the online MITx credentials separate and distinct.
The more conservative approach is to use online platforms as tools to supplement conventional classroom-based courses rather than as replacements. For instance, companies like Pearson Education offer universities the ability to outsource quizzes and grading through an online platform. This cuts costs usually associated with grading assignments while simultaneously providing practice quizzes – which students may take multiple times – as study aids. Universities that use such services may still hold normal classes in physical classrooms while taking advantage of the streamlined course management that only an online, computer-based solution can provide.
The concerns about lower quality levels resulting from the online education craze are sound ones. However, they should not completely halt the progression toward pedagogical models that utilize online tools. Rather, they should serve to inform and guide this progression. Whether through completely or partially Internet-based models, universities must accept the fact that a paradigm shift toward virtual classrooms may be a very good thing.
Estelle Shumann discusses the evolving nature of education and the expansion of reputable online education programs. Shumann is a contributor at http://www.onlineschools.org, which serves as a resource for people interested in finding legitimate online programs of study and other important information related to online schooling.