Online Courses as Good as In-Person Classes

Fred Lokken disagrees with a recent “Views” contributor who wrote that online education isn’t working -- and provides data to prove his points.

August 2, 2017

I was surprised by the tone and conclusions of the recent opinion piece by Jing Liu, “It’s Time to Ask Why Online Learning Isn’t Working,” published in “Inside Digital Learning.” Perhaps online learning is struggling at major universities -- after all, there is an obsession to turn online learning into profit centers, right? Even the great MOOC movement -- born from our most significant universities -- was motivated in part by a search for a cost-efficient way to teach large numbers of first- and second-year students.

With hundreds and even thousands of students in an unsupervised, self-paced environment, many ultimately do vote with their feet and drop out. There is little social interaction and very little motivation to succeed. Some types of students can adapt to this, but many ultimately don’t.

Clayton Christensen of Harvard University has been on record for several years in predicting significant issues for universities; he recently reaffirmed that “as many as half of American universities would close or go bankrupt within 10 to 15 years.”

Community Colleges Embrace Online Learning

For community colleges, online education always has been about increasing access to higher education, especially for underrepresented students and active adult learners. And online programs have worked hard to address the challenges of accessibility compliance, quality course design, affordability (with the emergence of a strong OER movement to reduce or eliminate textbook costs), and appropriate training for faculty and students alike.

Transitioning to the virtual learning environment has fostered improved faculty training, student preparation and student analytics. Community colleges have crafted a virtual learning environment that is structured, positive and successful.

Community colleges have always been committed to keeping class enrollments smaller for both traditional and virtual classrooms, and students have benefited with meaningful engagement as well as the ability to foster a social environment with fellow students as well as with the faculty member. Most community college students blend online with traditional to maximize their class schedules as they balance education with full-time jobs and family commitments.

Online Learning Now Mainstream

Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Education has recognized that online learning, when used by itself, appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction (“Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning,” p. xviii). And the Instructional Technology Council’s Annual National eLearning Survey has for the past 13 years tracked the myriad improvements in online education; the most recent findings confirm that “Ninety-five percent of respondents described their online courses as either equivalent (87 percent) or superior (7 percent) to traditional courses” (2016 ITC Annual National eLearning Survey, p. 16).

With more than six million students now enrolled in online classes at our universities and community colleges, online education has emerged as an accepted modality of instruction.

Future Bright for Online Education

The arguments offered in Jing Liu’s essay run counter to the validation online programs receive from regional accreditation, the U.S. Department of Education and the success students experience as graduates. As someone who has taught online classes since 1999 and managed the online program administration at my campus for 16 years, I am personally aware of the progress we have made, the quality of instruction we do achieve, the access door we have opened wider and the difference we have made in the lives of our students.

Traditional and nontraditional students alike have demonstrated a remarkable success in online degree programs. An employer can be confident that graduates of an online program have the same knowledge, skills and abilities as a student in a traditional residential program.

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Fred Lokken is chair-elect of the Instructional Technology Council and professor of political science at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nev.


Fred Lokken

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