Online Universities: The realities, both good and bad

Introduction

Online education has become well established in the current world education systems. Lowe et al (85) argue that online education is well established and growing fast. In their article posted in Science magazine journal, Lowe et al posited that online education in general has created new opportunities for faculty, students, education regulators, and institutions. They argue that online education today has enhanced access to education, and will still remain beneficial to many others in future. Lowe et al (88) argued that millions of students are taking online college courses everyday throughout the world. There are a lot of virtual classrooms which have replaced the real traditional classrooms, providing both challenges and opportunities for students and institutions.

This research paper will provide a thoroughly researched analysis of online university education. It will highlight the opportunities and challenges that online education has offered to students and other key players in the education sector. The research paper will also explain some of the developments of online university education e.g. free online education. Furthermore, the research paper will offer comparison between online and traditional universities in terms of advantages and disadvantages. Although online education occurs from pre-school through primary and secondary schools to colleges and universities, the main focus of this discussion lies on accredited universities offering degrees and diplomas.

Online University Education Today

Online education is learning and teaching approach which uses internet technologies to enhance communication and collaboration in the education sector. Due to the rise of the internet, online education in universities today has posed a real threat to traditional academic institutions. As students connect through the new ways, the old ways are disconnected. The internet has brought new ways for university students to follow. As a result, such students are disconnected from traditional school system. Online learning has become a key element in university education today. There are blended courses which include both the real and virtual classroom learning.

Online learning entails taking short training modules which cover only specific topics such as strategic management, corporate sustainability, financial decision making, etc. These specific topics are provided as self-study units through the internet and the intranet. As a result, education system in this sense involves an efficient distribution mechanism. Institutions of higher learning also blend traditional and online education by offering courses in some kinds of cohorts which begin and end on specified days. Through such cohorts, students are engaged in discussions and exchanges of ideas led by faculty members (Wiley 77). Through this mechanism, students who live in distant places may seek clarification on specific issues or help on a specific problem from each other. As a result, a network of online student-to-student and student-to-faculty interaction is formed. This system is characterized by instant information access and efficient distribution of class materials through the internet. All aspects of online university learning – homework assignments, reading materials, video lectures, examinations, results and certificates are distributed through the internet.

In order to engage in university education successfully, students are required to have any type of computer and a connection to the internet. Always, it is common for online university students to use personal computers and broadband internet connection. As opposed to the traditional schooling system whereby the faculty and the student meet in a real classroom, online course management system involves the use of course management software in which classes are conducted asynchronously. University faculty and students do not meet because the synchronous software is used to conduct voice and text discussions. Online discussions in an online education system are usually an optional class activity.

By 2008, 3.94 million students across the world enrolled for online courses. Between 2002 and 2008, increase in enrollment to online education increased at the rate of 20% per year. Currently, about 25% of US university students enroll for at least one online class. Most online learners are off-campus students with varying ages, work experience, and family backgrounds. About 50% of students from traditional university classes also enroll in at least one online course. In this case, students supplement their courses with web-based tools in order to make their education convenient. Most US public universities, state colleges and community colleges offer at least one course online. Some of these institutions record large enrollments. Community colleges enroll about 505 of the 3.94 students enrolled in online courses.

Private Universities offer online courses on low-scale basis compared to public institutions. Only about half of the traditional private institutions provide any type of for-credit online course. Stanford and Johns Hopkins offer some courses and degree courses entirely online. Some private universities such as Harvard and University of California offer courses online through extension units but no online degree courses (Lowe et al 87). Other elite schools such as MIT, Yale and Princeton do not offer any online courses or degree programs for credit. By 2009, enrollment of students to online units in University of Massachusetts exceeded 35,000. Rio Salado Community College similarly recorded high number of student enrollment for online education. This shows that enrollment of students in online courses and degree programs vary in community, public and private universities. In any of the cases, stakeholders such as governments and accreditors are now overwhelmed with online educational activity which is significantly different from traditional classroom settings.

There are various factors that make online learning effective. Bonvillian and Singer (23) carried out an exploratory study to establish the factors that enhance effective online learning. The results of this study indicated that course structure, human factors (instructor), and student affective domain contribute to the effectiveness of online learning. If instructors provide proper feedback, consistent grading and interacts with students; then online learning will be effective. In terms of design factors, online students prefer clear assignment rubrics and guidelines (Bonvillian and Singer 120).

Free online universities

Net News posted an article in Science Magazine on March 24, 2000 concerning the issue of free online education which was started by a software entrepreneur. The entrepreneur, Michael Saylor, who was the CEO of MicroStrategy in Vienna pledged $100 million to launch an online university which would be ran by great thinkers in order to enable anyone to attend the university for free (Cusumano 25). The entrepreneur wanted to compile various lectures videotaped by educators with great experience and skills in teaching university students. Through the online University, students would also ask questions online and receive answers from lecturers and tutors, all for free. Saylor argued that some cyber courses would replace traditional universities while others would be supplements. Saylor’s main argument for this free online education is that it would make education available for people who have not been lucky to attend traditional universities or for-credit online universities.

Online education has been going on for decades. University faculties have been mailing videotaped lectures to distant learners and now offered entirely online courses. However, a new twist is now seen in the sector of online education. In 2008, Saylor managed to establish his dream free online education through the Saylor Academy (Cusumano 24). He showed his intention to use the power of the internet to drive the cost of education to zero and increase access to quality education using open educational resources. Saylor foundation has so far built more than 300 free, self-spaced online courses. Saylor foundation focuses on undergraduate university courses. It does not offer degrees, but provides knowledge that is equivalent to college majors.

The aspect of offering free online education is becoming common and intriguing comments and questions have been raised by observers and commentators. For instance, Brian L. Hawkins of EDUCAUSE has raised the question on whether lecturers will be willing to give out their course material for free when they can in fact sell them to online education companies and institutions (Cusumano 26). EDUCAUSE is a nonprofit organisation that helps universities to use technologies.

Cusumano also wrote about the issue of free online education. His article seemed to criticize free online education. Cusumano argues that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are disrupting the higher education marketplace in the same way that free and open software interfered with proprietary software world 20 years ago. However, disruption of higher education is different from the disruption caused by the free source software because it is expected to happen twice faster and it will spark a fiercer competition (Cusumano 24). Faculties and administrators in top American universities are engaging in serious debate due to the emergence of MOOCs. Faculties argue that there are intimacies in traditional universities which may be replaced by online courses which involve a “superstar lecturer teaching through the net and all others become glorified teaching assistants” (Cusumano 24). On the other hand, administrators consider MOOCs as good ways of reducing costs and achieving efficiencies.

Cusumano (26) argues that there are benefits of offering free online education. Those who offer free online education are not in the business of selling education. Instead, they are identifying and nurturing talent. These free online educators then expect payback from contributions to their endowments. For instance, Harvard had endowments of $30 billion in 2012 and earned investment income of $1.5 million from such investments (Cusumano 26). Student tuition fees make up only $264 million which represents 6.5% of the total income of the institution.

University endowments may also be raised through alumni donations. For instance, alumni of Harvard University contributed $29 million to be used for recurrent expenditure and $361 million for endowment in 2012. Therefore, it is necessary to have increasing competition in higher education to identify and nurture talent, and then build loyalty. Cusumano (25) argues that if talent can be identified from anywhere, then online education can be used as a channel to identify and nurture talent across the world. Furthermore, free courses in universities can provide the universities with self-identifying funnels. Free online universities develop self-identifying funnels by offering free courses, tests, and certifications. In turn, this system identifies the best talents and brightest minds of the world. Therefore, universities can make money out of something free – free online education.

Benefits of online university education

Academic and professional organisations and scholars suggest that online learning environments have significant benefits to both the learner and the learning institution. A Study from Cornell University has shown that the internet has enabled new functionality in the transmission of information to students and has provided forums for academic exchanges (Hamdan 330). It is revolutionizing education system and increasing opportunities for learners to get alternative formats of information. Burns (23) also sought to determine the perception of students on online education and found out that students taking online courses perceive their experiences with online education as positive experiences.

One of the advantages is that online education enhances student-to-student and faculty-to-student communication (Glova et al 203). Online education in universities enables class members to communicate with each other and the faculty. Some of the online communication channels involved in higher education include chats, emails and discussion boards. These features of online education increases student motivation and participation in class activities. Due to the anonymity associated with online tools which serves as a motivator, students are more willing to participate in online classes than traditional classes. As students express their ideas online, they do so in a more daring and confrontational manner because their anonymity is assured.

As a way of learning, online studies encourage students to share different perspectives (Wiley 77). Online forums including discussion boards and chats have public places that students can post information. Students can post their perspectives and understanding of learning materials, and other students view the post and respond to their colleague’s post using their own perspectives. Students may also ask questions in such forums and other students as well as the faculty can answer them. Through these exchanges, students can integrate the opinions of others with their own. As a result, this develops a solid foundation for learning. As students use the forums to understand variations in interpretation and construction of meaning, they learn to construct their own individual meaning and understanding.

Through online learning, university students also experience a sense of equality (Wiley 78). Each online university student gets an equal opportunity to provide their views and opinions by posting on online forums without physical distractions which are always common in traditional schools such as seating arrangements, noise, and gender biases. Furthermore, shy and anxious students get an opportunity to give their opinions by positing on online forums. Such students are able to back up their ideas with facts when posting online as compared to speaking in a traditional lecture room (Wiley 78). Online discussions among students also cause direct and confrontational communications among students; hence making the discussions more meaningful.

Online education also leads to easy access of instructors (Lowe et al 88). In traditional universities, instructors are always accessed on specific consultation days of the week. In this case, students may never get to meet their instructors if their time schedules are inconvenient. Students who can interact with instructors through online tools do not have to worry if they cannot make to meet their lecturers during regular office hours. Online education allows students to communicate with their instructors through chats, discussion boards, and emails. This is not only convenient for the students, but also for the instructor who responds to the students’ questions at any time of the week that is convenient to them without necessarily waiting for specific days. Online education also allows students to raise an issue that may arise at the spur of the moment (Hamdan, 329). For instance, if a student goes through her course materials and comes across a question that he/she is not able to tackle, he can email the question to the lecturer. The lecturer may then see the question on Monday morning and raise it in the Monday afternoon class. As a result, the question will benefit all other students in the class. However, if the student had waited until consultation hours on Wednesday, the issue could not have been raised in class and other students would not have benefited. Furthermore, if the student had raised the question in class on Monday afternoon, the instructor may not have had enough time to frame the question appropriately and respond to it correctly.

Online universities also enhance student-centered teaching mechanisms (Wiley 78). Traditional classroom settings may not be appropriate for students who have different learning styles, which is usually the case in all universities. Some students learn better through visuals while others learn better by doing. Online education allows instructors or tutors to develop a single course and implement various resources that will enable each student to choose the best materials that can work best for them (Hamdan, 333). For instance, lecturers may post different learning materials online including audio clips, video clips, handouts, java applets, lecture notes and readings. Students will then be able to use whichever class of materials that will enhance their understanding of the coursework. Through this mechanism, students can access course materials and access them at their own pace. This also reduces the burden of lecturers of having to respond to various issues that students face.

Instructors in online universities present learning materials in many different formats in order to meet the needs of different students. This will benefit students with different learning styles (Lowe et al 85). For instance, if the instructor posts lecture notes and slides online, both auditory and visual students will benefit.

Online universities also enable students to access external links in order to provide them to explore learning opportunities on the web. For example, an instructor may post learning materials and links to related websites where students may visit to acquire relevant knowledge for the course (Cusumano 26). Usually, lecturers reference their materials and include websites in their references. These websites then act as reinforcements for the students because they will learn how their coursework can be utilized in the real world.

Online universities are also beneficial to students because they provide 24/7 access to learning materials (Hamdan 320). This ensures that part time and fulltime students get access to education. Simply, online universities provide flexibility in learning. Students who have their own jobs and would like to earn their degrees while working are able to attend online classes and access course materials from the internet during evening hours or weekends. Furthermore, fulltime students have different learning schedules. Some students learn best in the morning while others learn best in the evening. Therefore, online education offers the opportunity to study at their convenient times because online course materials are available at any time, and they can chat with their classmates with the same time schedule. Students are also able to schedule their time for homework and group projects at their own conveniences depending on the job, course, and personal responsibilities of each student (Hamdan, 315).

In online universities, course content and activities are always provided online. In this regard, students do not have to worry about how they can access course materials. In traditional schools, students have to attend classes in order to access course materials. If they do not attend the classes for valid reasons, they will face difficulties in trying to follow up with the lecturer in order to get the learning materials (Evans et al 12). In online learning, access to learning materials is just a click away. Students can plan for their convenient time to access such learning materials, whether in the morning, afternoon, evening, midnight or during the weekend.

Students who work to raise money for their educational needs also benefit from online university education because it allows them to download materials and practice exams at their own conveniences (Bonvillian and Susan, 23). Students with families can also be able to balance between family and education by using the flexible online learning which enables to schedule their classes and tests in their most convenient times when they are not attending to their families, e.g. at night when the children are asleep. Continual access to course materials allows busy students to obtain materials at any time; hence reducing the chances of frustrations, stress and confusion. In traditional education system, it is common to hear students saying, “The library is closed”, “the lecturer is not in his office”, or “the course materials given in class were insufficient so I missed a copy”. Through online learning, such problems are solved by providing a continuous access to course materials.

Online universities also allow students from different physical locations to participate in group projects; hence it is no longer necessary to rely on physical attendance for group activities. Online education has encouraged the use of collaborative tools which bring together students from different geographical locations (Carr 102). In traditional schools, students working on group projects have to coordinate their schedules physically. This is not possible in long distance learning; hence students are forced to work independently. In online education, the geographical barriers are broken by web-based collaborative tools, and the problem of coordination is not a bother to online university students working on group projects. These tools enable students to conduct asynchronous discussions, and upload and access files; hence they can work in groups without being affected by the physical constraint of meeting at a certain place and at a certain time.

Online universities also assess their learners effectively through online. Tests and surveys are always necessary for tutors and lecturers to know whether course structures and teaching methods are successful in educating students. These assessment tools are difficult to implement in traditional school system. However, online tools enable instructors to build, distribute and compile information about students’ learning process quickly and easily (Lowe et al 87). For instance, the instructor may provide an online survey engine for students to fill during their homework activities. The results of the survey will then be available for the instructor to review in good time before the next class.

Online universities can also encourage continuous self-assessment among students in order to provide concept reinforcement and motivation (Evans et al 12). For instance, instructors in online universities may simply post practice exams and end-of-chapter reviews. Students can then access them at any time, even from their homes. Grading is then computerized and students receive immediate feedback. This process is fast, accurate, efficient, and effective compared to traditional school system whose assessment system may take time and may be inaccurate, inefficient and ineffective.

Online education also leads to efficient utilization of time and resources. Online universities provide learning materials in soft copies for students to save and print when they are needed. This reduces the expenses of the institutions in terms of money and time used to copy, collate and distribute materials. Transfer of materials online also reduces paper waste (Lowe et al 87). This enhances a sustainable environment. Waste of time can also be minimized in online learning because the time used in traditional classes to distribute resources before starting the class is avoided in online learning. Online education also reduces the workload of the faculty. Evans et al (12) suggest that inter-professional education for fulltime online learners overcomes the logistical barriers that are associated with face-to-face learning.

Challenges of Online Universities

Burns (22) carried out a study to determine the perception of students on online education. The results showed that face-to-face students had misgivings about online education. They think that learning is a social activity, but online education does not provide any social interaction among learners.

One of the challenges facing online universities is that it does not provide the faculty with enough supervision mechanisms to ensure that students do what they are required to do. In traditional schools, instructors set class times and assign classrooms to the students. This ensures that the students are in the right place at the right time. In online universities, this is not possible. Instructors schedule discussions, online assignments, and online classes but he does not follow up with the student to ensure that he does what is required. In this case, students who are not disciplined and do not manage their time effectively may not be able to cope and catch up with others in the coursework (Glova et al 203).

Assessing students’ level of understanding is also difficult in online universities (Wiley 78). In order for an instructor to know whether the student has understood the coursework, he looks for facial expressions such as blank looks and furrowed brows. These are the signs which show that the student is troubled. If the course is carried out online, it is not possible for the lecturer to find such signs. Therefore, it is difficult to determine the level of understanding among students.

Another challenge of online education is also that it does not encourage direct contact between the lecturer and the student (Glova et al 204). This approach causes the student not to understand the lecturer’s lessons. For instance, some students need to combine the audio and visual modes of teaching in order to understand what the lecturer is teaching. In online education, you can only have these elements one a time. Therefore, learning becomes difficult. For example, things that need to be demonstrated including physics and chemistry practical require lecturers to demonstrate physically, otherwise the students will not understand. In this case, online education will not contribute to the required level of understanding among the students.

Conclusion

This research has shown that university education has contributed positively and negatively on the learning process of university students. Online universities have increased significantly over the past decade up to the point of introducing free online education. Free online education has enabled students without financial resources and other types of resources to acquire education absolutely free by receiving lecture notes from experienced lecturers online. University education in general has contributed positively by reducing costs of universities in terms of time and money. It has also allowed students to collaborate and across the world and overcome the barrier of geographical locations. Through online education, students are also able to access coursework materials continuously at any time of the day. This has led to flexibility in education, allowing people with family and work commitments to acquire education at their convenient time. However, online education has also posed challenges. Some students may not understand the course materials well if they depend on visual aspects and demonstrations of the lecturer. Lack of direct contact between the student and the lecturer may also lead to poor understanding of concepts.

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