Among the first universities to offer an MBA online, Bellevue University has won multiple awards from the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) for its leadership in online learning. The university began offering online degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels more than 15 years ago. In 2006, Karla Carter, currently Associate Professor, College of Information Technology at Bellevue University, became involved in online learning. Here, Karla offers up her thoughts about the fast-growing area, some of the reasons behind online learning and what her take is on the future of online learning in this informative discussion.
Victor: What is it about online learning that makes it such a rapid-growth sector?
Karla: Many students have found online degree programs to be the perfect solution for advancing their careers and completing a degree in a way that best fits into their life. Online learning is flexible and convenient. Students find times to join the classroom throughout the week, when it works with their schedule. They post assignments and share their thoughts and opinions about what they’ve learned with each other and their professor, who helps enrich the learning experience.
Victor: Any challenges in the area?
Karla: One of the biggest challenges of teaching online is determining how to balance the limitations of technology (bandwidth, mobile technology) with the need to provide a rich, multi-media experience for students. We cannot require students to have a certain level of technology. We have to find out what the lowest common denominator is from a technology standpoint, so we can still be effective, yet accessible to all students. Believe it or not, there are still students who do not have access to a high speed Internet connection —students in rural communities, for example, or even more extreme, military service members who have alternatively deployed. Or, many students are beginning to access their online courses via their mobile phones, yet not all phones have the applications necessary to view certain content.
Victor: Considerations before taking a course online?
Karla: It is important for students to be realistic about what they are getting in an online course. Most courses consist of reading the content and being able to write a response back. It is not likely that courses will have multi-media videos, nor will you turn your computer on and see your professor delivering a lecture.
For some students, online classes can be very isolating because they don’t feel like they are part of a larger group. A good instructor needs to draw the students into the experience to create a good, social environment.
When enrolled in an online class, the student has the responsibility to “own” their own schedule. They should expect to spend as much time on an online class as they do in a face-to-face class. Any expectations a student has for a face-to-face class should apply to the online class, i.e., accessibility of the instructor.
A student in an online class should embrace technology and be disciplined to complete the work. Keys to a successful online experience are having the ability to read or scan the information quickly and have good written communication skills to be able to respond in a timely fashion.
Students should have access to 24/7 support services to aid in their learning. At Bellevue University, for example, we provide 24/7 tech email support, 12-hour day voice assistance and all of the administrative and advising support students need. Students also have a complete, 24/7 access to extensive research materials in the University’s library and can contact a librarian online, in real-time, for help referencing the material. Students can receive support from services like the writing center and study center.
Victor: Could you provide any hard evidence, any interesting statistics about online learning?
Karla: In the 2009-10 academic year, 83 percent of Bellevue University undergraduate cohort program students and 91 percent of graduate cohort program students chose to earn their degrees online. In the 2009-10 academic year, 67 percent of Bellevue University term-based undergraduate students took their classes online versus 51 percent in 2008-09. Seventy-one percent of Bellevue University term-based graduate students took their classes online in 2009-10—an increase of nearly 15 percent over the previous year.
Victor: What is a “cohort”?
Karla: When you enroll, you’re assigned to a “cohort”—a group of your peers. You go through your entire degree program, class-by-class lockstep with these people, learning from your shared experiences, and perspectives. The cohort model is common within accelerated programs.
Term-based students follow the more traditional path of enrolling course by course, and advance at a self-designated pace. Such students would not complete courses with the same peer group.
Victor: Alright, looking ahead, what do you see?
Karla: The future of online courses will be dependent on compromising between having the appropriate technology for a richer, more varied learning experience, and still making the courses accessible to all students. We must find a way to “up” the technology so that professors can direct the curriculum and content for the course without having the technology get in the way of learning.
Other issues looming for the future of online courses is online security—ensuring that the enrolled student is really the one doing the work; student privacy issues; and professors copyrighting ideas taught during the course. Also, for international students, there are certain student visa restrictions that require residential vs. online classes.
Victor: These days, a lot has changed, and a lot is changing. For example, software that is up and running is probably obsolete. By the time you finish college, your courses may be irrelevant. Many jobs of the future haven’t yet been named. Why pursue a degree?
Karla: Here are some statistics that might help convince non-traditional learners to take advantage of an online program to earn their degree:
- In a single generation, the U.S. has fallen from first place to 12th in global graduation rates for young adults, and the country needs to produce 8 million more college graduates over the next decade in order to compete globally and keep up with other countries that are developing high-tech, high-skill jobs.
- The unemployment rate for people who have never gone to college is more than double (10 percent) what it is for those who have gone to college (4.5 percent). And, during the next 10 years, nearly eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education.
- The recession has led to steep job losses across the U.S. work force, but less-educated people have been hit harder than most. Last year, the pay gap between college graduates and non-graduates reached a record high—four-year-college graduates made 54 percent more, on average, than people who attended college, but did not graduate.
Victor: Final thoughts?
Karla: Overall, the most important thing in any learning environment is helping students expand their knowledge. Education is intended to be a life-improving process, rather than simply getting a degree.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com