In a recent consultant’s report, in a section where the discussion focused on online degree programs, the report noted that 34% of the master’s degrees in education are earned through online education. I’m not surprised and I fully expect that this number will exceed 50% within the next five years. What is surprising to me is that there is still so much resistance to this inevitable trend. More than a decade ago, I began regularly talking about the need for part-time graduate programs to move into a distance learning mode. There was not surprisingly substantial resistance. The key to this resistance is the legitimate fear that you lose the personal interaction so important to gaining the maximum educational benefit.
Fast forward to today and it is clear that there is a new legitimate fear, namely losing students from in-person programs to online programs. And if you don’t have the students, you also don’t have the ability to deliver a personal experience. The interim period of time has however demonstrated that the personal element is alive and well in online education. If you measure a personal experience by student faculty contact, there is more contact as well as more frequent contact in distance learning via distance learning. Students no longer come, in large numbers, to faculty open office hours. Even in the past these hours had their limitations: the hours were often scheduled (certainly not intentionally) during the times that students had other classes, or were off campus or were working. Now the ability to communicate through email or through a learning platform encourages on-going interaction and often at those times that are most helpful to students and their learning. I am not suggesting that emails sent to faculty in the middle of the night or at other inconvenient or inappropriate times, should be answered at those times. I am suggesting that if a student has a question on a Friday, there is no longer the need to wait until the following Tuesday to take advantage of available office hours.
For much of private higher education, there is the additional concern regarding the cost difference between online programs at public institutions and online programs at private institutions. Can private institutions compete when there are lower cost public alternatives? The answer is a clear yes in my opinion. We compete effectively with substantially smaller classes, more interaction with students, more support for students, and the use of faculty rather than teaching assistants. We stress an overall more personal experience. These same advantages carry over to online education and the same ability to compete is present even if the learning platform has changed.
In a world where our students—especially our graduate students—are carrying out multiple responsibilities and where time is a scarce commodity, it makes tremendous sense for these students to take advantage of the benefits of online learning. Leaving an office early, coming home late, and commuting are not irresistible nor are they part of the learning process. There are many more good learning options available than there were when many of us went to school. We should do all we can so that students can take advantage of them.