Learning swerve – UMC institutions enter online education world

Online education is rocking the world of higher ed, and that includes many United Methodist-affiliated colleges and universities.

The Internet is opening doors to a giant pool of students—while bringing new worlds to students on campus as well. Many institutions, like Texas Wesleyan, now offer online programs where students take courses and earn degrees, often without ever setting foot on campus. A few, like Duke University, are experimenting with free, non-credit courses offered online to tens of thousands of students around the world.

And even schools like Hendrix College—which emphasizes students’ on-campus experiences—are turning to the Internet to expand their range of courses and open up new experiences for residential students.

With the cost of traditional colleges skyrocketing—at the same time that jobs for new grads are scarcer than ever—college administrators are feeling pressure to serve more students at less cost. They’re looking to the power of technology and, at the same time, rethinking the value proposition of traditional education.

“Online education is leading liberal arts schools to articulate, ‘What’s the value of what we offer, compared to the plethora of what’s out there?’” said David Hinson, Hendrix’s executive vice president and chief information officer.

United Methodist-affiliated colleges and universities are entering the growing market for “online learning.” About 6 million students are enrolled in at least one online course in the United States. PHOTO COURTESY OF BAKER UNIVERSITY

Exactly how online learning fits into the big picture of higher education remains a big question, one virtually every college and university is wrestling with now.

“It’s a really changing environment out there,” said Joey King, executive director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), which is headquartered at UM-affiliated Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.

Distance learning

According to the Sloan Consortium, about one-third of the country’s 4,500 universities offer online degrees.

Online programs allow schools to tap into a huge educational market. Nationally, the number of students enrolled in at least one “fully online” course (with at least 80 percent of the course delivered online) has expanded to more than 6 million in 2010, an increase of 560,000 students over the previous year, according to a Babson Survey Research Group and College Board study. That’s about a third of the entire higher education student population.

For a school like United Methodist-affiliated Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., online “distance learning” is a way to serve non-traditional students who have jobs and families, or can’t afford full-time schooling.

Baker now offers six online degree programs, most of them business-oriented, with the M.B.A. program being most popular. Baker has 900 undergraduates on campus, and more than 1,200 online (about 550 of whom are enrolled in degree programs.)

“Baker was a relatively early adopter,” said Brian Posler, executive vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. The school has offered fully online degree programs since 2004.

He noted that because Baker is known regionally, most of its online students live in Kansas and surrounding states. Even though they’re not on campus for classes, “we have a high percentage of students who come to commencement,” said Dr. Posler. “We try our best to involve our online students in the Baker culture.”

Online students, for example, receive emails from Baker’s chaplain about events at the school’s chapel. “That helps to connect them to the Baker family,” he said.

Similarly, Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, Texas, offers a doctorate of nurse anesthesia practice program entirely online, as well as other programs that involve some online coursework. The doctoral program allows nurse anesthetists to learn management skills on a part-time basis while working.

“This is a way for us to meet the needs of the growing mass of students who need to be gainfully employed while they’re going to school,” said Marcel Kerr, interim dean for the School of Natural and Social Sciences at Texas Wesleyan.

“I don’t think that many schools can survive without offering some online learning,” Dr. Kerr added. “The demand is that high, and it’s a wonderful alternative for adult learners.”

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that students can save an average of $10,000 annually by attending college online. But for those students who simply want to learn about a particular subject or master a skill, there’s a rapidly growing array of options that are totally free.

Last fall, two Stanford University computer science professors helped create an online course-hosting platform that initially offered a few of Stanford’s classes at no cost. Anyone, anywhere in the world, with an Internet connection and a desire to learn could take the classes. Hundreds of thousands of students took advantage.

Duke’s MOOCs

That led to Coursera, a startup that The Atlantic magazine dubbed “The Single Most Important Experiment in Higher Education.” Coursera makes interactive college courses available to the public free on the web. A dozen top universities have signed on to add their own offerings to Coursera’s portfolio of “massively-open online courses” (MOOCs). Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and several other top schools are participating, with about 120 courses currently offered in subjects like computer science, business and literature.

With Ivy League schools participating, Coursera could mark a watershed moment in online education. “Where the elite colleges go, so goes the rest of academia,” Jordan Weissman wrote in The Atlantic.

Students in MOOCs don’t earn college credit, but in some cases can earn certificates for completion. They watch lectures, and in some courses, take automated quizzes. Typically, there’s no grading and little or no opportunity to interact with instructors.

UM-affiliated Duke University recently signed on with 10 courses, a move that administrators emphasize is an experiment.

“Duke is kind of entrepreneurial. We like to try new things and see how they turn out,” said Lynne O’Brien, director of academic technology and instructional services at Duke’s Perkins Library.

Not all Duke faculty members were enthusiastic about the experiment.

“Duke is proud of its campus-based experience, with low student/faculty ratios, and some worried the online courses could affect that,” Dr. O’Brien said. But those professors who did choose to teach via Coursera saw a chance to engage an audience of thousands from around the world, and to test the waters in online teaching.

One course, “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue,” will be taught this fall by Duke philosophy professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, along with Ram Neta, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By mid-September, the course already had 67,000 students signed up—55 percent of them from outside of the U.S.

Duke retains the rights to its work on Coursera, so it’s a risk-free way for the university to try online education without creating an expensive technology infrastructure.

Blended learning

A September 2010 meta-analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Education surveyed research from 1996 through 2008 and found that, on average, students in online learning situations performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.

Data like that is leading liberal arts schools, even those committed to face-to-face education, to rethink the “sage on the stage” model of college teaching, Dr. King said. That approach—a professor standing at the front of the room and lecturing—originated at a time “when there was only one copy of the book, and the only person who had it was the professor,” according to Coursera’s co-founder, Daphne Koller.

So some schools are bringing online learning to campus. A few professors at Baker, for example, who teach traditional students on campus are experimenting with “flipping the classroom”—an approach in which students watch lectures online, then bring their questions and complete their individual work (formerly known as “homework”) in the classroom.

Similarly, Internet-enabled technology has opened new worlds to Hendrix students. In September, politics professor Jay Barth taught his class remotely from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Dr. Barth, a delegate to the convention, was leading a course in American Parties & Elections. Similarly, some Hendrix students are sharing a web-enabled “classroom” with students in China. Religious studies professor Jay McDaniel is teaching two courses that feature online sessions using the College’s new high definition (HD) video conferencing capabilities. One course, for example, called Journeys East and West, links students at Heilongjiang University in Harbin, China, with first-year students at Hendrix.

Expect more online innovations to change the way college students learn, administrators say, but don’t expect online learning to ever replace the face-to-face “college experience.”

“Families will always need some place where they can launch their young adult children,” Dr. Kerr said. “Going to college is about learning who you are. An online platform is not going to provide that. It’s never going to replace that experience.”

mjacobs@umr.org

Mary Jacobs

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