Magazine article University Business

What We've Learned about Distance Education: Progress and Problems Revealed by Survey Offer Guidance for the Future of Online Learning

Magazine article University Business

What We've Learned about Distance Education: Progress and Problems Revealed by Survey Offer Guidance for the Future of Online Learning

Article excerpt

The world of online learning has significantly changed the landscape of higher education over the last decade. In a survey by the Instructional Technology Council (ITC), 94percent of student respondents said their online courses were equivalent or superior to traditional courses, indicating improvements in both online pedagogy and delivery methods. Fred Lokken, a member of the council's board of directors and a professor of political science at Truckee Meadows Community College in Nevada, says the 2015 ITC National eLearning Survey targeted predominantly two-year institutions, because that's where the action is.

"From the inception of online learning, the community college movement embraced the value of online education to the fullest," says Lokken, who led a Special Interest Group at last month's UBTech conference in Las Vegas. Still, an analysis of best practices should be valuable to any institution interested in adopting and expanding online courses, programs and degrees.

The Instructional Technology Council focuses on community colleges, but your UBTech Special Interest Groups on distance learning have drawn a steadily growing university crowd.

This is a topic that ironically connects better with universities. We see it with the ITC. We have a number of universities that have joined what is predominantly a community college organization, and the reason they do is that community colleges are the success story in online education.

If you want to see how to offer classes or full degrees, or how to identify the services you'll need, community colleges are leading that charge. Universities, on the other hand, have been initially skeptical of online learning and they have downplayed the quality and the experience of the education. In almost every university, online learning has been pushed to the side, but it is completely mainstream in community colleges.

How is it that community colleges have taken the lead?

When online education came along, community colleges recognized that it gave access. We could do a better job of reaching out and connecting with students who historically have wanted to go to college but couldn't. That's why the for-profit industry caught on so quickly. There was an unmet desire, and suddenly a modality of delivery comes along that gave students a more effective way to connect and learn.

How did online learning change the nature of community colleges?

The community college drop rate is higher than at universities. Part of the reason is that students sign up, but then a work conflict or personal life issue would interrupt and they drop the class.

When online learning came along, we were like moths to the flame. We saw it as a way of helping address those problems.

For example, one year I got an email from one of my students. She said she tried to take my class five previous times. She was the manager at a warehouse with 125 employees. Invariably, every time she started a semester, something would come up six to eight weeks in that consumed her for a couple of weeks. Then she would feel way behind and would drop the class.

But she finally took the class online and she completed it. The work crisis still happened, but the flexibility of online learning and its 24/7 nature, plus the ability of faculty to help a student who falls behind--those things worked for her and she was able to complete the course.

We started to notice the success of online after 9/11. There were thousands of students across the country--active duty and national guard--who were suddenly called into service and sent overseas. They were signing up for online classes. In fact, most community colleges found they had active duty military taking classes. It was a lifeline to sanity and some sense that there would still be a normal life afterward.

The survey notes the distance learning retention rate is improving, but it still isn't the same as traditional. …

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