The Case for Online Learning

As universities are held to higher expectations for enrollment and completion, online learning may very well be an option they can’t live without.

by Kecia Ray / September 7, 2017 0

Online learning has been a part of higher education since the late 1990s. In fact, universities have utilized distance learning for decades, beginning with correspondence and then moving videoconferencing in the late 1980s. As the Internet improved, so did the opportunity to move from point-to-point video-conference delivery of instruction to asynchronous online learning. Now, online learning has become a required element in university program offerings. In fact, a recent survey of college and university deans reported that 90 percent of respondents indicated their campus would be increasing online offerings over the next decade (Sellingo & Chow, 2017). In 2016, more than 21 million people attended a U.S. college, and one-fourth of those were taking an online course (Clinefelter & Aslanian, 2017). The exponential growth in online learning could be attributed to the variety of online options students have today.

Online learning has become a widespread method for providing learning at different levels of education, allowing for more access to educational opportunities and providing flexibility in how people learn new information. Learning in an online environment facilitated by the instructor allows for varying degrees and types of interaction, which has been shown to have an effect on student learning and course completion rates (Atchley, Wingenbach, & Akers, 2013).

The online learning consortium identifies six course-level definitions and four-program level definitions to provide clarity to the field for types of courses and programs that can be defined as "online" (Coswatte, 2014). These definitions are related to the amount of online content delivery, and the programs' definitions vary based on the amount of time students have to spend on campus. For our purposes, the definitions of "traditional course," "Web-enhanced course," "hybrid course" and "online course" will be referenced.

Traditional Courses may have some elements of supporting technology, such as lab software or online syllabus and assignment collection, but the main instruction and interaction for the course occurs during the face-to-face meeting period. Typically, the instructor leading the face-to-face sessions will develop the online supplemental content. The online components are not complete courses, but rather a supplemental organizational method for disseminating information and collecting assignments.

The next level of distance delivery is the synchronous distributed course, which is supported by Web or video conferencing. This delivery method simply enables students not attending the face-to-face section to participate via watching through a camera so they feel like they are present in the classroom. These courses may be called distributed, video conference, or Web-conferencing courses and may have an online element to disseminate information and collect assignments, but the majority of instruction occurs through synchronous video conferencing.

A Web-enhanced course is a cross between traditional and hybrid. Students participating in a Web-enhanced course can access content online as well as participate in online activities, but they will also be attending face-to-face sessions in person. Web-enhanced courses are often developed by the teaching faculty with some assistance from an instructional design team.

Hybrid courses typically refer to courses offered on campus but including an online component. The term "blended" is interchangeably used with "hybrid," although the latter is the original term describing this format. Hybrid learning promotes learner-centered and highly active learning environments, providing students with a variety of options for receiving and demonstrating mastery of content. Since hybrid courses are offered on campus, the full-time faculty members are most often responsible for designing their course shells. Adjunct faculty are assigned to teach sections of courses that have already been developed either by an instructional designer with a full-time faculty assist or by the instructional design department in collaboration with the department chair or sometimes dean. Offering hybrid courses at minimum provides students receiving instruction from full-time or adjunct faculty to have a more common experience, since not only are the syllabi the same, but so are the master course shells used to replicate each course section.

Course design in hybrid courses is minimal compared to online courses. Hybrid courses will include syllabi, course discussion, assignments and grades as part of the course design. But interactive activities remain an in-person experience in class.

Online courses are predominantly delivered in an asynchronous online environment; however, some universities may choose to add residencies and other face-to-face experiences to the overall program (Coswatte, 2014). Fully online programs are designed with the intent for students to have no face-to-face interaction. Syllabus, course materials, activities and community forums are all contained within a learning management system that houses the courses offered in the programs. This system becomes the one-stop shop for registration, library, tutoring, fee payments and any other services a university may offer to an on-campus student.

Online courses are often designed to be part of an online program, but that may not prevent a traditional student from enrolling in an online course. Students who are in traditional programs but taking online courses may be referred to as blended. Blended students are increasing on most campuses because of the flexibility offered in scheduling and expediency in completing programs (Coswatte, 2014).

Although universities and colleges are quickly adopting online learning as a method of content and course delivery, that doesn’t necessarily mean these courses are interactive and engaging. With more than 6 million students enrolled in online courses, many universities are now faced with developing the most engaging and interactive courses. The Clinefelter and Aslanian (2017) study also reports some key findings related to the preferences of students who attend online courses. These findings include: 

  • They want to be part of a community. More than half of respondents say interaction with classmates and instructors is important to them, and about a quarter say online courses could be improved by more contact with their instructors and more engagement with classmates. Fifty-nine percent travel to campus between one and five times per year for reasons such as meeting with their instructor or a study group.
  • Students are expanding their search to more schools. While the majority of students continue to stay close to home, the number of schools students consider has expanded. More students contacted or requested information from three or more schools (52 percent), an increase from 2016 (29 percent). The number of students considering only one institution fell from 30 percent to 18 percent.
  • They experience buyer’s remorse. While online students tend to make their decisions quickly, 59 percent would change some part of their search for an online program if they had to do it over again. Twenty-three percent of current and past online college students wished they had contacted more schools during the selection process, whereas others wished they learned more about the tuition and fees (17 percent) or their financial aid package (16 percent).
  • They have high interest in competency-based education. Online students are increasingly aware of competency-based programs. The percentage of respondents who say they have not heard of competency-based education (CBE) has decreased, with 27 percent reporting no awareness of CBE in 2017, down from 35 percent in 2013 (Clinefelter & Aslanian, 2017, p.6-7).

A 2009 meta-analysis of online learning studies found that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction” (p. xiv) and that blended learning, combining online and face-to-face instruction, had a “larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction” (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, p.xv). Taking into account these findings, universities should consider competency-based formats with more interaction and community building as they add to or revise current programs of study offered online. As universities are held to higher expectations for enrollment and completion, online learning may very well be an option they can’t live without.