Online education enhances traditional college experience, no replacement
The increased popularity of online courses challenges traditional institutions of higher education and has provoked faculty at Elon University to revise its relationship to online education.
Elon University’s Office of Academic Affairs appointed a committee in 2011 to review the university’s current online course offering and challenge the decision of a 2003 committee. The 2003 committee concluded Elon University can only offer online courses during the summer semester.
Nevertheless, Connie Book, associate provost and one of the two administrative leaders of the committee, determined the existing policy restricting. They published the report in spring of 2012.
“We’re creating a home for online education where we can develop our faculty and integrate it into our curriculum,” Book said. “Our hands were tied with the 2003 decision and we decided to come back to the faculty and ask for more flexibility.”
While Book does not propose online education effectively replaces face-to-face learning, she recognizes a trajectory of growth toward Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC).
Dianne Ford, serial and documentation librarian at Elon, speaks positively about online education. While working toward her master’s degree 10 years ago, she completed a number of her courses online.
“I loved working at my own convenience,” said Ford, who worked a full-time job while going to school. Nevertheless, she had previously attended classes on-site and was already familiar with the faculty and some other students.
Although she has since earned the degree, Ford continues taking classes online to advance her foreign language skills.
We’re creating a home for online education where we can develop our faculty and integrate it into our curriculum – Connie Book, associate provost.
“I expect to continue taking online courses my entire life,” she said.
Book has also experimented with online courses and has enrolled in a class in Coursera, a for-profit business that allows established institutions to offer courses online. Her experience on the online forum demonstrates shared attractions between traditional college and online higher education.
She identified three reasons individuals typically attend college, and online education advances one of the motives.
“The second one is to preserve our democracy, and I think that’s why Coursera is of value because it brings great thinking to the table,” Book said. “It takes the ivory tower and makes it more accessible.”
Junior Jeff Stern’s enrollment in the MOOC supports that of Book.
“Coursera is an incredible accomplishment in the way they have allowed technology to facilitate education on a global scale,” he said.
Stern has participated in Google hangouts, which allow him to interact with his virtual classmates and share ideas with students throughout the world.
Furthermore, the program allows him to take classes that do not fit into his schedule at Elon.
“It is definitely a great compliment to my education,” Stern said.
But, even within a traditional college environment, one Elon professor found an avenue to integrate online forums and into the traditional college experience.
Kenn Gaither, associate dean of the School of Communications and associate professor, teaches Public Opinion through Media and meets in Second Life for one class period each semester.
The class explores to what extent public opinion forms as a result of social media, which allows discussion to cross geographic boundaries.
“What better way to see how that works that to do that in a virtual environment,” Gaither said.
The online interaction enhances the students’ study, but does not serve as a substitute for face-to-face interaction.
“It is very difficult to suggest it is the same experience you get in the classroom because there is a certain climate that cannot be recreated,” Gaither said.
Gaither’s opinion is in accordance with the Elon committee recommendation, which advocates for a hybrid of online education and face-to-face interaction during the traditional academic year.
Although the recommendation argued online education is not less engaging, Stern cautioned want of face-to-face interaction has the potential to decrease students’ motivation. With respect to Coursera, students do not receive a grade or pay for the class.
Senior Natalie Allison recognized the same obstacle.
“Since I’ve technically been enrolled in Coursera classes during the academic year, I haven’t been able to set aside much time for the classes, which seems natural sine there isn’t anything at stake,” Allison said. “It’s free, I wouldn’t be getting real college credit for tem and there’s not a professor I have to face.”
Still, she agrees it is a positive supplement to traditional higher education. The committee recommendation aligns with this theory and purposes Elon reverse the 2003 decision and instead embrace a blended model.
“We’re trying to remove the barriers for good ideas to be tested and piloted,” Book said.