What colleges have learned about distance education

Progress and problems revealed by survey often guidance for the future of online learning

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), 94 percent 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.

That’s correct. There are exceptions out there, of course, but for most institutions there is a gap of about 8 percent between online and face-to-face. I guarantee that every distance education administrator is looking at the issue to find the best practices and solutions to address it. If we can do it, online education could become the modality of the 21st century. 

How do you explain that gap?

We know that student preparedness is one of three reasons that we don’t see quite the success that we see in a face-to-face class. Students have been reared in a culture of face-to-face only. For all the talk about the current generation possessing a native knowledge of technology, we generally find that they do not. K12 doesn’t really teach technology or even role play technology. So students’ comfort level in learning in a technical environment is not what it could be. That’s part of the problem. 

Another problem is their ability to be mature and responsible enough to take the classes in the first place. The students have to be the initiators, they have to reach out and connect with the faculty member when there is a problem. That faculty member does not always see that there might be a problem as they would in a face-to-face setting. The third problem, as in a traditional setting, is students’ study skills and ability to handle the discipline these courses require. 

How can we reduce those problems?

Part of it is trying to triage the situation before it becomes a bigger problem. For instance, can we accurately assess a student without a mandatory orientation that introduces them to the platform that they’ll use and the success skills they’ll need? Honestly, it is not for everyone. If you are the kind of person who does better sitting in front of a faculty member and interacting physically, this is not going to be a very enjoyable experience for you. 

How do faculty figure in the survey?

There are faculty members who invariably want to do in the online class what they’ve done their entire career in the face-to-face context. No. It doesn’t work that way. You need to teach differently. 

One of the biggest revelations in our study was looking at the hours of training that we think are needed at most institutions to teach an online class. The study validates that 80 percent of all programs require faculty to go through mandatory training of at least an hour, and sometimes six to eight hours.

That’s a wonderful development nationally, and not something that we saw when we first began doing the study 11 years ago. The flip side of that is that 20 percent of faculty are not required to do any training. They just start teaching online. The faculty can be part of the problem in the way they approach learning and how engaging they make it—things that really draw the student in as opposed to pushing them away. 

Another reality in online education is that some classes are just not designed very well and some are very difficult to teach online. For example, math doesn’t go well online, hard sciences struggle and foreign languages can be a challenge. 

Every program is trying to work out that magic blend that offers a solid variety, meets degree requirements and recruits faculty who want to teach online. 

Do you see online education supplanting traditional learning?

We’ve been in the traditional class model since Socrates and Plato. We’ve had millennia to develop the education model we use in the traditional classroom. But online learning really just started growing in the 1990s, and by 2010 the U.S. Department of Education declared that it was equivalent to a face-to-face learning experience. That is a remarkable journey in 12 years to match what was going on in the traditional classroom since 600 B.C. 

There is a potential for online education to surpass the traditional classroom, because of its ability to engage the internet and use special online programs that aren’t as easily available in the classroom. 

But the real problem we have is that we are resource-poor. Community colleges do everything on a shoestring and the recession has been incredibly damaging to these schools, which are just not recovering very quickly. We don’t have the resources to fix everything tomorrow but we are certainly moving in the right direction. It’s a work in progress, but the good news is that the progress is being made. 

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