The controversy surrounding online universities has always centered on the benefit of classroom interaction, and whether or not distance learners are missing out on something vital. I may seem biased since I’m writing for Strayer University, but I really think that whatever disadvantages online courses had compared to traditional instruction have been swept away by better technology.
Strayer offers both online options and on-campus classes, and there are distinct advantages to both. Still, I think online classes come out on par, if not on top of traditional courses. Some of the differences are worth examining.
Adapting to Time-Shifted Learning
Time-shifted classes change the way that students interact with one another and with their instructors. As long as there’s steady communication between teachers and students who need help, the fact that interactions aren’t face-to-face doesn’t change the quality of instruction. In fact, I’d argue that it allows students to get more personalized and considered feedback, to get more considered answers to their questions backed up with Web resources.
Of course, the time flexibility of online course offerings is a point in their favor; students are looking for courses that can adapt to their schedules and let them take advantage of every minute to study from anywhere.
Technological Literacy Issues
Until the last few years, I do think the technical aptitude was a barrier to less tech-savvy learners. But we’ve reached a critical point in our cultural adoption of technology, such that the portion of the population who would struggle with online learning tools is a rapidly shrinking minority.
The programs that have been used for online learning have evolved a lot recently, too, and the power of devices we use to access those programs have grown more powerful. The learning portals used by accredited online universities are much more reliable, intuitive and robust than even just four or five years back. So both the quality of the technology used by online courses, and the ability of students to use it, simply isn’t a barrier for online education to see wide adoption.
Also, the ease-of-use for online learning systems like Strayer Mobile makes accessing course materials from anywhere a reality.
Time-shifted Courses Are Not as Immediate
When everyone is in class, asking questions, and the teacher is there to give an immediate answer, everyone gets to absorb that experience at the same time. Of course, there are drawbacks to that experience, too. Students are limited to a few hours a week of contact with the instructor, and maybe a little back and forth between teacher and student in between classes.
In online classes, students are able to shift the way they consume course materials and benefit from discussions and interactions recorded in class forums and discussion boards. While that doesn’t have the spontaneity of live class sessions, it does enable more interaction on individual student terms, letting them ask questions when they actually occur to them.
I think the flexibility that online courses offer, both in scheduling and in communication through online tools outweighs the drawbacks of less classroom time. What really matters is that students are self-motivated and ready to take advantage of the convenience and portability of online course materials and learning options.
The Future of Education
As the world of online education continues to evolve, I don’t doubt that more interactive tools will make their way into the online courses, and the line between the physical classroom and virtual spaces will continue to blur.
We’re really reaching a watershed moment in the transformation of the education industry. And I think the benefits of online learning are going to be critical, not just in the way that students think about higher education, but in how we deliver knowledge to students of all ages, and even how we consume knowledge throughout our careers.