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Online vies with on-campus learning

Jim Willis Modified: September 28, 2013 at 3:45 pm •  Published: August 29, 2013

I heard a somewhat disturbing talk this morning by an editor with The Chronicle of Higher Education, the weekly newspaper focused on college and university issues. The disturbance was that only 1 in 5 students who take college courses, start and end their college career on the same traditional residential campus.

Jeffrey Selingo, author of College Unbound, sees this as telling, and one thing it tells us is online education is the wave of the future. Higher education doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone anymore.

One late student, right, runs to join the freshmen class at Vanderbilt University as they spell out 2017, their graduation year, for a photo on the campus on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn. Classes begin Wednesday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
One late student, right, runs to join the freshmen class at Vanderbilt University as they spell out 2017, their graduation year, for a photo on the campus on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn. Classes begin Wednesday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

“Drifters”

To be clear, not all of those 80 percent who choose not to stick with  the same university for four years, take their courses online. A good chunk of these college “drifters,” as Selingo put it, transfer from campus to campus, take a course now and then, here or there. But a significant portion of that 80 percent have chosen to go online for their college education.

This is not news for those of in higher ed, but the percentages of residential campus students are lower than we thought. As one who has taught on university campuses since 1978, I’ve seen the trend line first hand. In my career I have also developed an online course called Mass Media and Cultures for the University of Tennessee Regents Online Degree Program (RODP) and have taught it over the past decade, seeing the number of students rise each year.

Online expansion

The RODP, by the way, is a program developed by the UT Board of Regents that allows students to take any or all of their degrees in an online setting, seldom needing to set foot on an actual college campus. Also, the university I’ve been with full-time since 2003, Azusa Pacific University, started its own sister online university a couple years ago, APU Online. Many other schools have done the same thing, or are in the process of doing it.

And, of course, the University of Phoenix has become much more well known for its national online program than for its residential campus in Tempe.

No disappearing act

I am not one who believes the traditional residential campus is going to disappear, as some predict, to be replaced by online schools. I believe residential programs are here to stay for a number of reasons:

* Most parents I know who want their kids to go to college, want them to do it at a university with a real campus. Whether it’s memories of their own college days or the reality that students learn a lot about life, outside the classroom in association with other students, that’s what they want for their kids.

* Four or five years of college serves as a buffer for a young person between the teenage years and adulthood. Learning to survive on your own and to mingle with students from divergent backgrounds are great life lessons that are not learned in a virtual world of online classes.

* On many campuses, like mine for example, students still have a chance to get to know their professors and to receive some mentoring from them, both in and out of class. That is easier, and usually more meaningful, face to face, than in text or Skype exchanges online.

* The branding and promotional campaigns at colleges and universities is still too strong a lure for families with teens contemplating college. Kids get excited about college because of the lure of the campus and the activities, and the chance to strike out on their own. They don’t get excited about starting the semester in their bedroom at home, staring into their laptop screen.

* Many in the world of business, the professions, and education itself still don’t quite know what to make of an online university grad, in comparison to a grad from an established residential college or university. Skepticism abounds among many who do their hiring, especially if the name of the graduate’s school doesn’t ring a bell. Unfortunately, the existence of diploma mills has not helped the cause of online colleges.

* Name me an online university with a football or basketball team and all the school spirit that goes with them.

A MacBook Air from Apple, bottom center, a Vaio Pro 13 from Sony, top left, an Aspire S7 from Acer, center, and an XPS 12 from Dell, right, are displayed for a photograph, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, in New York. Each notebooks has a microprocessors that belongs to a new family of Intel chips called Haswell.  (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
A MacBook Air from Apple, bottom center, a Vaio Pro 13 from Sony, top left, an Aspire S7 from Acer, center, and an XPS 12 from Dell, right, are displayed for a photograph, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, in New York. Each notebooks has a microprocessors that belongs to a new family of Intel chips called Haswell. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Online plusses

Having said all this, I also know that online courses have advantages, both from an instructor’s and student’s point of view. For the instructor, securing interaction among students in a class is often easier online than in person. Students in a real classroom are always wondering how their comments might be perceived by others, and they are wary of non-verbal reactions from others in the room. By and large, things are different online. No non-verbal cues there, so students in my classes have often seemed more eager about jumping into an online chat.

The convenience factor

For the student, there is the convenience factor of showing up for a course without leaving home or work. Just log onto the computer, and you’re there. No freeway commute, no gas expense, no muss, no fuss. And, if the class is “asynchronous,” there are no set class times and students complete the modules at their own pace, as long as they meet the deadlines.

For the university, the online class is cheaper to field than the on-campus class. No room required, no lights or electricity, heat or air needed. And, in many cases, online professors are adjuncts and not full-time. So the university doesn’t have to pay benefits to them. Bottom line: I’ve heard the expression “cash cow” applied on several campuses  to online classes and online programs.

Total online colleges

With the popularity of online degree programs have come colleges that are completely online, devoid of a physical campus. For example, Kaplan University boasts 180 different degree programs, and Walden University offers degrees from the bachelor’s through the doctorate.

Western Governors University is “an online university driven by a mission to expand access to higher education through online, competency-based degree programs. WGU has flourished into a national university, serving more than 38,000 students from all 50 states,” according to its web site. The State of Indiana, which contracted with WGU a couple years ago, offers it alongside its traditional state campuses of Indiana University, Purdue, and Ball State. Such is the case with the other states that have adopted it.

Something for all

Like everything else that technology is touching, the future shape of higher education remains uncertain. Most likely, residential campuses and online schools will continue to co-exist for some time to come. And, given the varying needs of students attending college, that seems like a good thing.

 

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