In today’s world, pretty much every student ends up taking online courses. According to Allen and Seaman (2011), there are over six millions online students (that is, taking at least one online course) in the United States. So how are we catering to these students’ needs? What is the broad picture out there?
I stongly believe that dual-mode universities (institutions offering both on-campus and online courses) are guilty of making things way too complicated. Years ago, they adopted the industrial model (Peter and Keegan, 1994) of online universities such as Open University, where creating huge online courses could take a year or two, involve a number of professional teams and cost up to a million dollars. Dual-mode universities applied the same known processes but the truth of the matter is that they simply do not have the resources to take that route. How can they justify the resource allocation while being cash-strapped and underfunded?
We all know the level of frustration often associated with online learning and its high drop-out rates. Flipping virtual pages on your own and listening to recorded lectures will never be efficient stand-alone learning methods and technology advances allow for much richer experiences. Research results have highlighted over and again the need for sustaining learning communities (Larramendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006) and constructivist teaching practices in higher education (Bangert, 2010). The crucial role of faculty as facilitators of a rich dialogue is now well documented (Benbunan-Fich & Arbaugh, 2006; Stodel, Thompson & MacDonald, 2006). While this dialogue, and more importantly the reflection behind it, may very well happen in asynchronous mode through group discussions, synchronous (real time) online learning provides students with immediate feedback, contributing to their engagement, leading to greater satisfaction (Russo & Benson, 2005) and mediating the effects of transactional distance (Stewart, 2008).
Now, why can’t universities look at their own strengths and think outside the box? There is no reason why their course offering cannot include online learning in real time, which contributes to alleviate feelings of isolation (Tolu, 2010) and allows for much needed dialogue and “just-in-time” adjustments (Power and Gould-Morven, 2011). There is no reason why their regular course offering cannot include a Web 2.0 component to enrich the learning experience and provide students with increased access and interaction. There is no reason why they don’t have competent and knowledgeable coordinators who would keep students informed, address administrative issues, organize workshops, foster a sense of belonging, etc., whether students are online or on-campus. Let’s recognize it, faculty members simply are not willing to assume this important role.
Research results show that they (faculty members) still use traditional, teacher-centered styles despite a paradigm shift to learner-centered ones almost two decades ago. With my ten-year background in distance education, having never set foot in a classroom during my three graduate degrees, I am convinced that today’s mainstream online learning system has a bleak future. A much brighter future resides in the seamless integration of distance students in the university’s regular activities. There is no need whatsoever for extensive online course development and huge developer teams comprised of dozens of specialists. Dual mode universities cannot afford that and will never achieve a return on investment, be it because one cannot expect any online course to meet the needs of online students ten years down the road.
I firmly believe that now is the time for universities to open up to the world, reach out, foster new connections between students and researchers and depart from all these pre-canned courses that serve the need of a minority (and rightly so) but should not be mainstream in any way. That’s what I had in mind when I registered for my own Ph.D. My program was not offered at a distance and I had no intention of moving 1000 kilometers from here. Thanks to my main supervisor’s support, I was able to complete all my program’s requirements at a distance. I attended excellent online courses in synchronous mode that were simply part of the regular curriculum; excellent courses taught by very competent and knowledgeable faculty members. I met interesting peers in my cohort and some of them became good friends.
I started in the Educational Technology program less than four years ago. My dissertation is now submitted and I’m hoping to defend within the next couple of weeks. Upon graduation, I will be very proud to have attended a regular program from a reputable institution, knowing that I will not face credibility issues. I have proven that this can be done, with minimal impacts either for the graduate student or the university, and I am deeply convinced that this is the way of the future for efficiency, quality and affordability reasons, let alone increased access and reaching out.
And guess what the driving force behind these much needed changes can be? Students’ voices. Students need to take ownership of their learning. If your physics professor doesn’t have a clue about efficient teaching methods, you will be the one assuming the consequences and they can be costly. If your sociology professor still uses old photocopies from the 1980’s, that’s not a good thing. If your English professor lectures online but there is no interaction whatsoever in the online class, you’re missing out. If your future institution is not willing to accommodate your personal circumstances by offering a wide variety of regular curriculum course formats, you may want to review your options. Dear Student, please know what is best for you and take ownership of your learning.
As for you, Dear Faculty Members, from a lifelong learning perspective, please do not hesitate to consult knowledgeable teaching and learning specialists.
I am always available for further discussion!