Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Anxiety over online education

The NY Times offers an article that walks a fine line between exuberance and outright fear toward the prospect of online education. The article points out that 1 in 5 college students took a course online last fall. Traditional four-year private colleges, of course, don't really do online education. There is some fear that the surge in online education, spurred in part by Congress allowing colleges to qualify for financial aid even if less than half their courses are taught at actual campuses, will lead to more diploma mills. But most of the fear is about the loss of some kind of idyllic view of college life:
Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers wonders what will happen, should campuses go exuberantly online, to the intangibles — the late-night bull sessions, the serendipitous strolls with professors, the chance to feel one’s oats in student government? And what will one more switch to electronic conversation do to our need for intimate human connections, he asks?

I like face-to-face conversations as much as the next person, but I think there are other opportunities that online education allows that can be similar to the ones of a residential college. Why can't late-night bull sessions occur with your neighbors or spouse, for example? Or they might happen online in a chat room. Strolls with professors? Again, perhaps a virtual stroll in Second Life or maybe the prof pops his or her head into the chat room on occasion. What if taking classes online allows you to volunteer for your local political candidate or community organization? Who says that electronic conversation isn't intimate? I have more human connections online than I do in real life. Some might interpret that as a bad thing, and I think it would be if I didn't have any connections in real life. I feel the two "worlds" as it were are symbiotic. I need both.

Here's another point of resistance. The fact that in an online course, the possibility for students to learn as much from each other is increased:
They [students in an online class] point out that online postings are more reasoned and detailed than
off-the-cuff classroom observations. Students learn as much from one
another’s postings, informed by the real business world, as they do
from instructors, they say.
The dynamics are completely different in an online class. There's no professor standing at the front of the room. Just that alone is enough for many students to open up to the possibility that they have as much to offer as the professor.

I honestly don't know what the landscape is going to look like in ten years. Will schools like my slac move into online education at all? Will there be a backlash against technology that sends lots of students to colleges that focus on face to face education? If the costs of that education continue to rise at the rate they are now, I doubt this will happen. A lot of schools are pricing themselves out of range for many college students. Of course, I don't want online education to be delivered at a cost that prevents paying the faculty well or providing a good education otherwise. So there's still lots to work out in this area. But irrational fear about the loss of human contact is not going to help us wrestle with those issues.