Can online classes take the place of traditional colleges?

On the Daily Show last week, Gov. Tim Pawlenty suggested that “iCollege” courses might replace conventional classrooms in 20 years. Today’s Question: Can online classes take the place of traditional colleges?

  • Reuben

    Simply put, A person who’s got a computer thru which it is connected to the web, is analogous, to someone who got on a plane which is still being built. You know it, and everyone knows it, if we are updating and patching all the time, and using passwords and user names, and more and more authentication devices, it means that we are all the time fixing this machine, instead of simply drive and get from one place to the other. We worry all the time if this gadget or that gadget is working or not, or get off, and fix something. How would you feel driving that way? But come to think of it, this is what we are concerned with, one way or the other. One tiny phish, is enough to makes us doubt and topple everything, in every move we make. Education? How would or could one concentrate on learning in this way? I know I can’t and I seriously don’t. I hope that makes some sense to you, or provides an answer of some sort.

  • Al

    It makes sense for some courses, but you can’t replace the experience of being there. College is, or at least can be, about much more than just the classes. Although I suspect that because of texting and other forms of constant connectivity that the experience is much different than it was for me just a dozen years ago.

  • Sue de Nim

    Supplement, not “take the place of”. it’s a good second best for students for whom it’s impractical to be there physically.

  • DMox

    Never. However, the cost of traditional college/university is such that there is no other alternative for many. They pay the price through life lessons & socialization deficiency, but I feel that the education, for some, is the same, if not better.

  • Joey

    College is about more than the acquisition of a standard knowledge base. It’s about living in a community of academics, forming meaningful relationships with professors, staff members, and classmates that transcend the classroom and permeate day-to-day living. This is more than just a venerated coming-of-age experience. The interpersonal skills and professional contacts students build as a result are vital to their successes in the workforce. Online courses cannot emulate this experience. They cannot build a complete college education.

  • Christin

    The personal experience I had attending college could never be replaced by taking online courses. As a young single mother, attending college was difficult (to say the least), but the individual relationships I was able to develop with professors encouraged and pushed me towards success. While I worried about putting food on the table, how to pay for child care while I was at work and in class, and when I was going to find time to study, my professors challenged me academically, going out of their way to insure that I was able to be involved. By the time I graduated, my son knew most of the professors and many of the students on campus. He even got to eat lunch with the Board of Regents and the President of the college at my graduation! My professors included community leaders who I am still in touch with today. I question if I would have been engaged academically or emotionally had I not experienced the sense of community a classroom provided.

  • Amy

    Online college courses could replace the tradition classroom, sure. But there is nothing that can replace the experience of going to college. I learned so much in my 4 years at UMD both in the classroom and out in the world. I made lifelong friends and was exposed to a whole different world then my suburban middle class upbringing could give me. It was invaluable and I wouldn’t trade those 4 years for anything

  • CJ

    Disclosure: I work as a secretary at a MN university and got my B.A. at another in the state. So you know I’m pro post-secondary out of the gate. In my 18 years working here, I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs and I’ve seen idiot administrators chase fads that dangle carrots for cost savings or improved enrollments. What ends up keeping this place going and doing what’s intended (education) is one basic thing: dedicated teachers. One could argue that a self-motivated, bright student can get educated by taking classes on-line but some areas of study are clearly more suited for that than others. And on-line chats for students in courses are just not the same thing as a classroom discussion. Students in web-based courses don’t get to know faculty like they do in the classroom, which reduces their chances of building relationships that lead to opportunities like involvement in research or campus events or presentations or all that other stuff that helps build skill sets and resume filler.

    That said, for some in various life situations, it’s on-line or out of education. Offering web-based courses for those students is a matter of providing needed services. It’s a far better use of resources that some of the other nonsense coming out of universities these days like quickly thrown together “green” degrees or hastily forged alliances with foreign universities that dump ill-prepared students on campuses that haven’t put together the proper infrastructure for those foreign students to succeed.

  • Eric

    Pawlenty’s comments once again show he is more interested in creating buzz than creating real educational excellence. It is impossible to get a true education through the web alone. The web has its place and can truly add to an educational experience but to eliminate the classroom will result in students that have a certain knowledge set that is relevant for specific job but no capacity to think and apply their knowledge to new situations.

  • Kris

    I have taught online courses at a Minnesota community college for ten years, and have taught at the college level for twenty years. In my opinion, most traditional aged college students do better in face to face classes, while students over 25 tend to do equally well in online or face to face classes. To succeed in online courses, students need to have good time management skills, good reading skills, good writing skills, and good study skills, and most students don’t show up for college with that skill set. The best way to learn how to be a good student is by interacting with other students in a classroom environment.

  • Charlotte Carey

    No, it must not. It can supplement some portions of a formal education but there is no substitute for the interaction, inspiration and challenge the student experiences in exchanges with a gifted teacher. I’d hate to think that my future MD received the majority of his/her education per their iphone!!! Consider the source of that brilliant suggestion and value it for what it is worth – political BS!!

  • Sarah

    I personally need the community of a classroom, with people in it. I also have a tendency to procrastinate, so if I am not physically required to be somewhere taking notes and engaging in discussion, I might have difficulty meeting deadlines, or even remembering my deadlines. So, online learning is not a workable solution. Although it is certainly a good alternative if certain restraints make it impossible to be in the classroom. I am also tempted to disagree with Pawlenty just because he is Pawlenty and I so much disagree with most of what he says.

  • Joanna

    This is not an either/or question (and that’s one reason why we want people to go to college, to learn how to go beyond facile answers!)

    If we are thinking of online learning as “distance learning” (ie: no direct teacher contact), who needs an app for that when you have the U.S. Mail? Plenty of instruction and learning can happen in this fashion and it works for some. Then again, some people can learn plenty just by checking books out of the library–so who needs school? But, as others have already said, a lot of what is being learned in a classroom is not “content” or data, but rather skills in learning, reading, writing, analysis, interaction, and collaboration. Much learning, like much of working, is not solitary but done with groups. A college education should also include opportunities outside the classroom for discussion, internships, research and informal learning.

    Equally important to recognize is the fact that developing a truly successfully and high quality online course, whether completely online or hybrid (some online, some classroom activities) is very labor intensive and costly. It is NOT a cheaper option than traditional classroom teaching, although, when done well, it can be used effectively to expand opportunities for research and interaction beyond the face-to-face meeting. MIT has created many free online courses, but has also invested considerable resources in creating them. If Pawlenty tries to tell us that higher education can be delivered online in order to save money, he’s ill-informed or cynical.

    I believe that those of us who teach at universities and colleges will be able to make the most effective use of new digital technologies when there is sufficient technical and intellectual support for the development, testing, and assessment of those courses, and this takes time and money (for support staff). Having done this kind of work for the last several years, I wish it were easier, but for every success there is a failure–that’s how we learn what works and what doesn’t.

  • Cynthia Infogirl

    claimer…I am a librarian at a MnSCU community college.

    Online learning has it’s place, as many have noted. One thing that is not often noted, however, is the challenge of maintaining academimc integrity. It can be diffucult for instructors to know who is doing the work … the person registered, or someone else?

    Testing is also a problem, and many instructors require that a student have all their tests proctored. At many smaller schools, campus proctoring services are often delegated to the library. Many libraries are short on staff already, and to have this responsibilty dumped on them is ridiculous.

    (I know of no librarian who went to graduate school to babysit test takers).

    I do hope that as online course opportunities are expanded, so are the support services neccesary for the online students.

  • Patty

    I teach on-line as a college professor, and the one thing missing from this discussion is that students need basic literacy skills before they should be allowed to take on-line classes. This is our major problem as college professors; students lacking basic skills like reading, writing, etc . . . Most students are not prepared for classroom instruction much less the more technologically sophisticated on-line interface. Also what about learning how to communicate face to face?

  • allen saless

    I wonder if Govener Tim has ever used a contact he made while in school, either in his career in law or politics?

    Meeting and learning from and about other people is realy in some ways the education you are not paying for.

    Goodnes knows we have enough people who never make it out of ther parents basement.

  • gdecker

    Can online classes take the place of traditional college? My take on this question is less about the quality of the online experience vs. the on-campus experience, but more about access to education. I paid for my own college education at the U of M Twin Cities Campus 30 years ago (when tuition was more affordable). I sometimes felt cheated or sad at not having time to participate in on-campus activities such as recreational sports or music because I had to work. On the other hand, I had a way to get a college education. I would like others to have that opportunity, too. If online classes and online degrees increase affordability, and therefore access, I support them as an option. For more and more people, though, the expense of the on-campus experience is prohibitive (however valuable it may be) and therefore no real option at all.

  • Shaun Jamison

    I’ve taught online for nearly 10 years and earned a degree online. It’s not a fad and it’s also not meant to completely replace face to face learning.

    All too often, we focus on method, rather than results. It’s not whether it’s online or off, it’s what people learn that matters. Students do learn online and succeed. Students also learn in hybrid on/offline classrooms and traditional classrooms. The question isn’t whether online learning will replace traditional learning, it’s: how do we best meet the needs of students and communities by continually improving education?

    A common misconception is that online learning is limited to the subject matter taught. People do learn to be part of a community and they do make friends online. Come to one of our graduations some time and you will see the sense of community and camaraderie.

    These are my personal comments and are not made on behalf or at the request of my employer.

  • Betty

    I agree with Kris’ comments. Maturity is a prerequisite for on-line learning. I recently graduated again after 30 years. I took a few on-line courses and could tell within the first week what the approximate age of my fellow students was.

  • Alan

    I finished my master’s degree in a 100% online program and I can’t see how I could have done it without a community… in this case my community of peers was scattered across the globe rather than across campus, but I still had a community. Having the community makes all the difference. Learning isn’t about filling a student up with learning, it’s about the connections you make– both with the content and with peers. Online learning only makes that community possible in a broader context, but it only works for some people. Brick & mortar will never go away; but how much of it a student experiences will change.

  • Sherrill

    About 15 years ago I inquired to the traditional college admission counselors regarding online or ITV classes. At that time they did not have an option in order to complete a degree. The alternative would have been to travel 70 miles one way for classes. (Remember how schedules work for classes?)

    I think it would be a great option for those who live outside of a college town, especially for those who are able to self motivate. I do believe can meet great contacts on a face to face basis, but there is no reason an occassional class meeting couldn’t be made to meet and greet.

    With the amount of fuel/gas used in the USA, and the tragedy in the gulf, we should be open to all options. People should be allowed to make decisions as to which of these options would work best for them.

  • Mary

    I think on-line should be one of many choices in our state’s education tool-kit. I also believe that all post-secondary students should have the opportunity to participate on a college campus. There is much to be said for being in a situation where you come face-to-face with experiences and people outside your comfort zone. I told my 3 children if they didn’t change their majors 4 times while in college I wouldn’t believe they had exposed themselves to enough options. A great portion of that exposure is meeting other people who are on other tracks and listening to their experiences. I am also concerned about the lack of interpersonal communication skills when only electronic options are used. It’s difficult to measure someone’s reaction in emoticons.

  • Shelley

    Having taken on-line classes in the process of earning my master’s degree, I agree that the convenience is wonderful. I also know that the experience is not perfect, and personally enjoy and appreciate the face-to-face classroom time more. I worry not only about the academic integrity of on-line classes, but also fear for the state of our society if real, not virtual, human interaction is not required in our educational institutions.

    I found it amusing, and sad, that Pawlenty used an economics class for his example in his interview on the Daily Show. It made it abundantly clear how he feels about understanding how the real world actually works. Without knowledge of “boring, dull economics” it is easy to pretend that on-line classes are so much cheaper to provide. Too bad he can’t be bothered to check out the facts.

  • Nancy Jo Hambleton

    I certainly do not believe online classes can “take the place” of a traditional college experience (to which some previous posts have alluded) nor do I believe on-line classes are an equal substitute for a face-to-face teaching-learning environment.

    I am a veteran faculty of Minnesota higher education, having taught Health, Wellness, and Teacher Education courses for over 28 years. I’ve taught in a four-year university setting as well as in two-year college settings. I’ve also had experience and licensure in K-12 Health Education.) As a student, I’ve experienced living on and off campuses and I’ve taken courses in face-to-face, interactive television (ITV), and on-line settings.

    I currently “deliver” courses in three different formats – face-to-face, interactive television (ITV), and on-line. (To use the word “teach” would be a stretch in the case of my on-line classes.) With the exception of the technological interface, on-line classes are not much different than old-fashioned correspondance courses. They just have a few more media bells and whistles and faster communication turnaround times.

    I agree that some subjects lend themselves better to on-line learning than others and do provide a convenient way for students who are place-bound, schedule-bound, or have other barriers which keep them from the classroom to take courses for credit. But I belive that the quality of teaching and learning has been sacrificed in the name of convenience.

    On-line learning (and to a lesser extent, ITV learning) is problematic on so many levels. (And the teaching side of it is even worse!)

    First, there is the issue of having access to the technological infrastructure that supports the class. What Pawlenty and many other policy-makers do not “get”, is that, – yes, still, in this day and age – not everyone can afford a personal computer, appropriate software, and on-going internet access. And financial aid does not consistently cover these expenses. On the teacher’s side, we are told that this will be a more convenient way to teach since we can do it from home. But my employer does not provide me with the required support at home – internet access, software, etc.. That comes out of my pocket. Plus, time spent at home working is difficult to “comp” in practice. I’m still expected to be on-campus and available to my on-campus students, to attend meetings, etc..

    Communications experts tell us that anywhere from 60-90% of communication is nonverbal. How much information is actually exchanged on-line when over have of the equation is left out? Then there is the issue of “real-time” communication interchange. While some on-line courses can set up chat rooms or web-cam sessions, it is rare that the whole class or even a small group can be present at the same time. After all, the big selling point of on-line classess is that you can do them on your own time. So while the possibility exists to have real-time group exchange, in actuality most communication is asynchronous. Students miss out on the powerful learning that happens from well-facilitated face-to-face discussions. Also, when students run into a problem, they may have to wait 24-48 hours before getting an answer back from the instructor via email. We know through research that this is simply not conducive to good learning.

    Then there are the issues of environment. Many students taking on-line courses do so from home. They are more likely subject to interruption by children/pets/spouses, distractions by phones/television/”other-things-to-do”. It takes a special kind of dedication – a special kind of student – to stay focused in an on-line class. Most do not have a private space dedicated soley to academic study, much less a classroom uniquely suited to the subject matter of particular course they may be taking. I was recently in our college bookstore in line behind two nursing students who were buying their supplies for an on-line “anatomy and physiology” class. When the big box containing their cat and dissection kit came out, they were a bit taken aback by the size of it all. I asked them where they were each planning to conduct their “lab” in their home. Each one looked at me with a look of surprise and confessed that they hadn’t even thought about that. I’ve heard students taking about dining room tables being used as lab benches for a semester. Where is the instructor when a student is unsure about what s/he is looking at in their fetal pig? Who is liable if a chemistry student gets injured when an at-home experiement goes bad? I spoke with a chemistry professor who decided that some of the experiements he would do in a face-to-face lab would not be done in his on-line lab because it would be too risky for them to be done without direct supervision. The upshot is that an on-line version of a face-to-face class is never as experientially rich. And it is focused, guided “hands-on” learning that research consistently shows cements learning.

    Another HUGE issue is cheating! There is a “culture of cheating” alive and well in both the K-12 and post-secondary settings. On-line courses make it easier than ever. Currently, there is no way to prove that the work submitted by an on-line student is theirs – that the person taking the test is really the student, or that the person participating in an on-line discussion is really the student. (When a student has been in the class for awhile, a savvy teacher can, of course, suspect when a test score or a paper doesn’t belong to that particular student but proof is nearly impossible to attain in an on-line situation.) Because quizzing/testing is asynchronous, the student who tests first has many ways of communicating information to students taking the test later – simply by talking to them about what’s on the test, capturing an image of the test on the computer screen with a cell-phone camera or screen capturing software tool, texting one another during testing, etc., etc. There are some precautions an instructor can take to prevent this but the remedies are costly and time-consuming. Administrators and politicians trying to save dimes are not interested in paying for extra software to prevent screen capture, arrange staffing for proctored testing sites (nor do students want to have to go to a proctored test site!), and so on. And the bottom line is, there are some things, like the use of cell phone cameras, for which there is no known fix. Students under pressure from parents, future colleges, and future employers to “perform”, care little about actually learning the course material and are more concerned about simply “getting the grade/credits”. Again, it’s not about quality of learning.

    On the teaching end, the time to “teach” an on-line class well is considerably more than to teach a face-to-face class well. Since the technology is more sophisticated, the prep time is more. Since the communication with students is asynchronous and often via email, it takes more time to disseminate and clarify instructions and information. Providing specific feedback generally takes more time since it has to be done technologically rather than verbally or with pen and paper. And while MNSCU administrators have taken the position that the same course in an on-line format is “the same” as a face-to-face class and therefore counts as the “same prep”, the truth is they are not the same prep. You have to make up two different sets of assignment instructions, two different grading spreadsheets, two different syllabi, two different sets of “presentation” methods (one in-person, the other digital), etc. etc.. It takes simple observation during a face-to-face class to see if there is cheating going on during testing but it takes hours of time sifting through “behind-the-scenes” log-in electronic page movement data to see if cheating is occurring in an on-line test. There’s been no compensated training or paid time for any of this. As more and more of our lives are consumed by an expanding amount of work time concentrated in front of our computer screens, my teaching colleagues and I are burning out. This does not bode well for “quality” teaching.

    I still hold to the notion that the primary, fundamental mission of our educational institutions are to facilitate learning for all for the betterment of society as a whole. Unfortunately, there are plenty of factors in education and society today that have compromised the quality of traditional face-to-face learning. But we know how learning works! We know that smaller class sizes, immediate feedback, experiential activities, and a whole host of well-researched pedogogical methods and strategies work! we just haven’t had the political and economic will as a state and nation to adopt those best practices.

    I’m keenly aware that many students, student groups, parents, and employers are pushing for more on-line education. I have to ask why? How does on-line education improve learning over what traditionally works? Where is the research – the overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence – to show that on-line classes produce learning that is superior(or at least equivalent) to well-done face-to-face learning? I suspect that the reason(s) for moving to on-line education have little to do with a desire for quality teaching-learning. It is more likely because of convenience in obtaining credits, or (like many students mistakenly think) because it’s “easier” than a face-to-face class, or because administrators see more revenue coming into their coffers – especially from those students who have to re-take the course bacause it wasn’t “easier” on-line, or because employers don’t want to invest in their employees by giving them time off to attend classes, or because our society is more concerned with the immediate gratification of “training” than with educational depth of learning, or because people in general have mistakenly bought into the myth that it is possible to successfully multi-task our way through life.

    As professional educators like myself are pressured by adminstrators and the public sector to put our courses on-line, I’d just like to ask Pawlenty these questions: “Would you want your children to be taught by a teacher who had only ever gone to school on-line or by one who had had some face-to-face college education?” “When you’re running for political office, would you want a speech-writer who got an on-line degree where no one hand-corrected his essays or one who got a degree in a traditional educational setting?” “Would you hire a lawyer who has had all of his/her education on-line over one who got his/her education ‘in-person’?” “When you have an emergency and need an EMT, do you want one who’s learned in a face-to-face setting or one who got certified on-line?” “When you need surgery, would you settle for the physician who learned his/her anatomy and physiology while dissecting a cat on his/her dining room table unsupervised or one who had a more traditional, face-to-face pre-med experience?” “When you are old and require a home health aid or nursing home, do you want the nurse who learned how to give shots on-line or the one who practiced in class?

    And if Pawlenty (and the MNSCU Board of Trustees, and other politicians) think on-line classes are the way to go, I’d like to ask, “Would you do all of your campaigning on-line by yourself with no support staff?” “Would you do your entire job on-line with no more time or compensation than you have now and without any support staff or computer training?” “Why or why not?

    We will live in a world with the graduates of our educational system. What kind of future do we want that to be?

  • Steve the Cynic

    Considering who made the suggestion and where he made it, why are we taking it seriously?

  • Christina

    Although not a fan of the Governor, I like the idea of college online. I have a degree from a traditional college and one from doing my studies online. I live in a rural community and the nearest college is 2 hours away. I couldn’t have gotten the second degree without online courses. I don’t believe that online is for everyone and I would be heart broken to see traditional college be a part of history; however online courses certainly have their benefits.

  • Roxanne Johnson

    Yes, online classes CAN take the place of traditional colleges. But WILL they?

    I graduated from Augsburg College this past May and I believe that despite the benefits of the internet, smart phones and other technology; there is still immeasurable value in face-to-face, in person contact with others. I think that especially for young college students (undergrads, attending school immediately or shortly after high school) it is very important to have face-to-face, on-campus classes. There is a socialization process that begins the first year of college and online classes would not provide that essential part of post-high school education. I also can’t imagine online college classes to have much influence on students’ “growing up” process of developing as a young adult.

    I think that for older students or those who are not part of the usual “norm” for young undergrads in the U.S. (such as students with children or other commitments) online classes offer a wonderful alternative.

    But with text messaging, emails and Facebook, children and young adults are losing/not learning basic social skills for face-to-face interaction at an alarming rate.

    There are benefits to online classes of course. But humans are social beings, and no matter what people try to tell you, a computer and keyboard do not and cannot offer the emotional support and social interaction that is a huge part of college. Without my family, friend and professors’ advice and support I would not have graduated, and that is a fact.