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Future of Online Education, Part Two

I teach at a small regional and it is making some positive moves to foster online and traditional courses that are compelling for students. We know we have to compete or we will slowly fade.

Continuing from my previous post, the challenge facing regional institutions serving the mid-tier student population: what makes your online program special? Or, what makes your on campus programs distinctly "tech enabled" for the future?

To thrive online, and on campus, regional institutions must embrace faculty training, cutting edge technology, and an entrepreneurial attitude that embraces quick revision to degree programs. We can survive, and even thrive, but we cannot do so without substantial investments — especially if online education is going to be part of our degree programs.

The for-profit Big Box Retailers of higher education are a real and substantial threat to the regional campuses that dot our map. Hundreds, if not thousands, of regional institutions are struggling to maintain enrollment and attract new students. Some of these institutions have started to embrace online education as a way to maintain or expand enrollments, but is that wise?

Understand that I do support online education, especially for students with special needs. But, what if we don't do online as well as we can? What if we deliver a product that is not significantly superior to the product of Big Box for-profit institutions? Being great online is not easy. I expect most institutions to provide an okay online experience, but is that enough to counter the challenges we face?

Faculty training is priority one. It should probably be priority two, three, and four as well. Online education requires different skills than teaching in a classroom. While I can watch students' faces in a class, online I have to parse their words to identify confusion or frustration. Online requires developing a way of teaching that might not be for everyone.

I love teaching online, but I also know that an online course requires substantially more time to prepare and deliver than my traditional courses on campus.

I'm not going to suggest all traditional instruction is good — it isn't. Many instructors lecture for entire class sessions, never engaging students in dialogue. Other instructors simply do not take teaching as seriously as they do research and publishing. But, most of my colleagues are good in the classroom and many are outstanding. They know how to read a classroom and how to engage students in active discourse.

Taking those great dialogues online is difficult. It is a challenge for the instructor and the students. Therefore, faculty need as much mentoring as possible to help them foster active academic discourse in the online setting. If online is often "equivalent" to on campus, it is because instructors adopt the lecture approach, instead of the dialogic approach.

Technology affects our pedagogical choices, placing limitations on instructors or offering new potentials. Again, investment is required for an institution to excel and differentiate itself. For some smaller institutions, that will not be easy, but it is possible.

I use a lot of software to create content for my courses. These applications require some investment financially and in the time required to master them. Universities cannot simply tell instructors about open source software for podcasting or screencasting and hope for the best.

Some suggest universities should rely on content editor and production specialists, but most of our regional institutions are too small to have a team of multimedia experts. I would rather have each school or department sponsor a faculty mentor who would be both a content expert and an online producer. Offer this person one or two course reductions, making him or her available to help other faculty members create online content for courses.

Not all faculty members at any institution will embrace hours and hours of training. The training has to be compensated, fairly, and mentors have to receive phenomenal supports. In the current economic context, such investments might be difficult, but they are essential. Businesses know that you sometimes must invest in a down economy, especially if the investments improve long-term efficiency.

What I fear, and I have seen this at many institutions, is the deployment of course and learning management systems (CMS/LMS) without sufficient faculty training. At one extreme, minimal efforts are made to unify course designs, while at the other extreme faculty are "trapped" into a pedagogical framework that doesn't respect varied teaching styles. There is no one "right" way to teach online, but there are many "wrong" ways to support education with technology.

Blackboard is Blackboard. Moodle is Moodle. The CMS/LMS choice can be frustrating for faculty, but most of these platforms can be extended and customized. (I am openly an advocate for Moodle, which I do prefer. That has nothing to do with the price: I happen to like the models it supports for my teaching.) Again, the platform is less important than the support and training of faculty.

What we must do is ensure our courses, especially our online courses, are superior to the online offerings of the Big Box Retailers of Education. I was asked by a colleague why I focus on the Big Box for-profit universities as a threat to the regionals. The simple answer: they are targeting our students.

The elites are a non-issue when considering the mid-tier. As I mentioned last time, the elite universities are not going to lose students to some "affordable" online degree program. The degree programs and courses these institutions do offer online are currently marketed to exclusive groups (executive MBA programs, for example). Any "free" course materials offered online are meant to foster an image; these are brand awareness campaigns as much as anything.

Of course, we could also offer "free" content online. Why not? We need to market ourselves as great institutions of learning and being included on iTunes U or other free platforms is a wonderful way to do that. We can learn from the elites, while competing against the for-profits.

Comments

  1. The biggest advantage of synchronous method of online education is that it allows instant feedback for the student's performance and allows active interaction among the students and teachers. Online learning has become more popular because of its potential for providing flexible access to content and instruction at any time from any place.Thanks for sharing........



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    1. Online degree are a good choice in planning to take up a course that will open many doors of employment opportunities for you in the future, for more information visit our website for more details.

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