Online courses, virtually unheard-of a few years ago, are now part of the higher education mainstream. This year, the number of students taking at least one online course increased by over 570,000 to a new total of 6.7 million students enrolled in at least one online course. A recent study by The College Board states that 69.1% of chief academic leaders at higher education institutions believe that online learning is critical to their long-term strategy, compared to less than 50% in 2002. Indeed, these controversial classrooms will continue to become even more prevalent in the future. But is this the best learning environment for students?

Forty-four per cent of academic leaders believe it takes more faculty time and effort to teach online courses. Nevertheless, academic leaders at institutions offering online courses rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face learning environments. But, critics of the programs staunchly disagree. One main argument against online courses is that students are short changed, eliminating the personal relationships that encourage learning. Many educators believe that in a learning environment where students and instructors interact and dialogue, where students test innovative ideas, where exercises and experiences are used to reinforce facts and theory, students grow more. Opponents maintain that such learning cannot effectively take place in online classrooms. Others argue that universities are replacing faculty with cheap online education. Some also believe that institutions are looking at how online courses can help their fiscal bottom-line, before considering what is best for the student, and the effectiveness of the new form of learning.

A recent study by the Sloan Consortium found that 62.4% of the reporting colleges offered degrees that could be obtained entirely online. Perhaps the most surprising finding, however, was that though online enrolment has rapidly increased, chief academic officers reported that more and more of their faculty do not accept the value and legitimacy of online education. Whether an accurate belief or a groundless misconception, it can present concern to prospective employers upon a student’s graduation. The Academic Director of Online Degrees in Business at CUNY SPS says, “Employers care more about what potential employees bring to the table than how they acquire that knowledge.” Students in online degree programs undoubtedly hope that to be true.

Certainly, arguments can be made about the value of classroom learning over online delivery. One such argument looks probingly at the online degree programs at “ for-profit” universities, and their business, academic, and student welfare practices. A Senate report found that though these schools receive $32 billion federal student aid, their tuitions are still relatively high, and they spend less of those dollars on student instruction. Alarming still, is that the graduation rates and student loan default of students at these institutions are extremely high.

Time will tell whether the benefits of such controversial classrooms will outweigh the concerns that continue to plague the learning environment discussion.

Randel Goad – Mandt Faculty