Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Online Classes: The Current Dichotomy

Enrollment in online classes is very healthy where I work. Enrollment in some of the traditional, on-campus classes is less so. I'm torn about this.

Not so long ago, I was a student trying to get through a master's program in a reasonable amount of time. From my student perspective, the available online courses were attractive because they offered convenience and flexibility. As a student, my priority was earning the degree rather than worrying about the quality of the courses. This was at least partially because I assumed it was the duty of the institution to ensure that the courses were meaningful regardless of format. Basically, I trusted Syracuse to take care of that side of things, and I was easily frustrated by anything I interpreted as an administrative hurdle. 

Now as someone who works for a college, I see other perspectives about online courses. Those concerned with enrollment numbers view online courses as a boon; those concerned with student retention view the high attrition rates in online courses with horror. Faculty perspectives range. Some faculty assume that teaching online is easier and see it as a chance to put their feet up at their desks and ignore students whom they no longer have to deal with face-to-face. Then there are other faculty who spend more time on their online courses than they would on their traditional in-person ones -- mostly to take full advantage of the platform and to digitize their class materials. You can't always tell which type of professor you're getting when you sign up to take a class.  At their best, online courses are more interactive, more immersive, and more comprehensive than traditional courses. At their worst, online courses permit more cheating, more laziness from both instructor and student, and more disengagement from the subject.  

MIT's open courses have been in the news lately (see this Commentary from the Chronicle about MITx), and the venture seems like a promising direction for online courses. Online courses can be of high quality. The hard part will be to make high quality the norm.

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