The Myths of Online Learning
Author: John Ebersole
More than one-third – six million – of all students in higher education took at least one online course in the fall of 2011. Yet despite its growing popularity, online learning continues to be seen in a negative light by politicians, regulators, and some members of the academic community, especially faculty.
There are six commonly heard myths that are often used to denigrate this form of instruction.
- Myth #1: Online learning will reduce the need for faculty. Nothing could be further from the truth. From surveys and interviews, we have come to know that the number one reason for student success, in a classroom or online, is a caring instructor. Also, online institutions are much more strict about limiting class size than traditional schools, usually setting a maximum of 20 to 25 per section. Thus, there is the need for more, not fewer, qualified instructors. Faculty are also in demand to build new courses, revise old ones, and create the learning assessments for which there is growing need. Not surprisingly, a recent InsideHigherEd/Babson survey reveals that faculty at institutions with more extensive online offerings are more positive about online learning than those who have little or no such involvement.
- Myth # 2: All online courses are the same. Again, not true. Those institutions with restricted budgets may use formats that are little more than text-heavy electronic correspondence courses. However, on the other end of the spectrum are courses that rival a Hollywood production in their use of color, graphics, animation and simulations. Capstone assessments can test a student’s ability to apply concepts and make decisions based on their learning. These are not cheap, but they are engaging, effective, and growing in use.
- Myth # 3: The quality of outcomes is less for an online student than for one who has received the same instruction in a classroom. Research over many decades has shown that the outcomes for those studying at a distance do not differ from those in a classroom. As much as our egos might wish otherwise, students don’t have to sit at our feet to learn. In fact, there has been such consistency of finding in this regard that the phrase “no significant difference” has become the expected hypothesis in making comparisons.
- Myth # 4: “Online” instruction is synonymous with “for profit” institutions. While it is true that many proprietary colleges and universities use online methods to deliver instruction, not all do. It is equally the case that a majority of nonprofit academic institutions are also delivering instruction online, including entire degrees. This myth has been perpetuated, undoubtedly, by the much greater publicity and advertising conducted by for-profit institutions.
- Myth #5: Credentials earned online are not accepted by employers. Over the past several years, Excelsior College and the Zogby organization have conducted nationwide surveys of employers and hiring officials to determine their perceptions of online certificates and degrees. The results of the survey in 2011 revealed that nearly two-thirds of those familiar with online education believe that a degree earned online is a credible as one earned through a traditional campus-based program. Respondents stated the most important factors in determining the credibility of an online degree were the accreditation of the institution awarding the degree and the quality of its graduates.
- Myth #6: You don’t know if the person doing the work is the person receiving the credit. As pointed out by WCET, a partner to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education,student authentication is a complex and frequently misrepresented issue and one that is not unique to online education providers.
An entire industry has now emerged to deal with this concern. At some institutions, face-to-face or “secure” testing is required for online students. Others use 3600 cameras mounted at the student’s exam site and employ third party monitors who observe the entire exam process. Most popular is the use of challenge questions to validate the exam taker’s identity. Drawing from public records (i.e., tax, motor vehicle and property), questions that have answers unique to the registered student can be randomly asked during an examination. The answers are such that they are likely only known to the enrolled student. New forms of student verification are being developed and include such things as retinal scanning, electronic fingerprinting, and key stroke analysis. Suspiciously improved writing is a very common “red flag” and submissions can be automatically checked for plagiarism through one of several detection software products.
In this era of post-traditional higher education faculty, libraries and students can be virtually anywhere in the world. Will there ever be a time when the physical college campus becomes obsolete? I doubt it and certainly hope not. What online learning does is bring knowledge to the student. How we harness the power of online learning to advance our society is where we need to focus our efforts and not on the perpetuation of myths that will hold us back.