Online On Course

As online education changes, its strong commitment to students stays the same

GUEST COLUMN | by Paula Bramante

US Dept of Ed onlinelearning reportAs technology continues to change rapidly, online learning is evolving alongside it, cultivating a new generation of learners and exciting new options for postsecondary education. These changes are shaping not only the way we view our classrooms, but also the way we view our students. In today’s mobile world, the online “classroom” is wherever students want it to be. Online students, more than ever before, are enjoying an educational experience where they can control the location of their “classroom” through eLearning technology that supports multiple learning styles. Perhaps this flexibility explains why online learning is enjoying such rapid growth. More than 6.7 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2011 term, an increase of 570,000 students compared to 2010, according to a study released in January by the Sloan Consortium. As these numbers continue to rise, critics may worry the quality of online education will suffer; however, as enrollment rises and technology increases, the quality will only continue to grow and develop.

One of the changes occurring within the online education industry is the new approaches and services offered through state-of-the-art online technologies. For example, virtual learning platforms encourage the formation of online learning communities both inside and outside of the course content. These learning communities allow students to access a network of peers and faculty members who can help them along each step of their education. Expanding on traditional discussion board and email technologies, new web conferencing tools allow students to virtually meet to discuss video lectures and course content, or to participate in group projects using the latest group collaboration tools. Online students are no longer starved of the social interactions they experienced at their traditional institutions. They just experience these interactions in an innovative, modern way. Students also have the chance to utilize services they would find at traditional institutions, including alumni and career services, library and research skills workshops, and tutoring. These services are available anywhere and anytime, emphasizing the flexibility of the online learning approach, which is not confined to a specific location, or the office hours of traditional institutions.

Non-traditional students are finding that online learning offers new opportunities to pursue a postsecondary education and makes education accessible to people regardless of age or income. This is especially true for working adults, who may want to advance their career, but cannot take time off from work to pursue classes at traditional institutions. Online education allows them to tailor their education to their schedules, ensuring they are not sacrificing the needs of their families or bosses in order to pursue their educational goals. Online degree programs also offer affordable payment options so that students can focus on their studies, not their debt. At New England College of Business and Finance (NECB), we enhance the affordability of our courses by developing corporate partnerships. Through these partnerships, companies can extend discounted educational benefits to their employees and their immediate family members at no additional cost.

As appealing as these benefits of online education may seem, critics may be quick to point out problems associated with online education, worrying online learning lacks the personalized approach of traditional learning. However, this point of view fails to recognize that online education revolves around the needs of its students. In a sense, students have the chance to create their own roadmap for educational success, as online tools make it easier for them to adjust the pace and style of their learning, while at the same time, expanding their 21st century skills. In fact, a study conducted for the Department of Education found students who completed some or all course work online, on average, outperformed those who were educated solely in the traditional classroom setting.

Despite the positive results of studies like these, perceptions are still adjusting to online education. Given the rapid pace of its growth, this is understandable. The ability of online learning to reshape traditional educational practices and redefine who can pursue a postsecondary education has helped drive the higher education sector forward, and more changes are in store that will make online education even more mainstream. The rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) will aid in this process by offering education options for lifelong learning. Experts cited in a Pew Internet/Elon University survey also expect that hybrid courses, which combine classroom learning with online coursework, will continue to rise in popularity.

Having more traditional institutions adopt MOOCs and hybrid learning options will ensure that a spirit of innovation continues to permeate the online learning field. However, no matter how many changes occur, one thing about online education will remain the same—its commitment to each of its students. The needs of these students will change as technology changes, but the importance of maximizing the online student experience is something that online education providers should never forget.

Paula Bramante is Senior Vice President of Student Services at New England College of Business and Finance. Write to: paula.bramante@necb.edu  

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