Monday, March 27, 2006

Online Education Booms.....elsewhere. 

Online education is booming. The number of students taking an online class jumped almost 50% from 2002 to 2004, to about 2.4 million. At the same time in Minnesota we are looking at decreasing enrollments of traditional students, so the increase nationwide is really significant.

For-profit colleges and universities are benefitting the most from that increase. Two weeks ago the Star Tribune published an article (no longer available, cached version here) where they documented increases of 1,000% in online classes at Walden in the last two years, and increases of over 100% at Capella since 2002.

But there are numerous people who suggest we should examine online education carefully before jumping wholesale into the practice. The 3/27 edition of the Chronice of Higher Education online contained an article (subscribers only) detailing the efforts of a Congressman from Michigan (a former face-to-face professor at a small private college) to learn more about online studies.

It is difficult to know whether the position he espoused is valid or not. The Chronicle cites him as talking about an unnamed study of online education that was deeply flawed, but used by supporters of online education to support their views. Since the citation wasn't given, we aren't able to identify the study. It might be instructive to speculate, however, why an academic wouldn't have conducted his own search for what he might consider to be a valid study. There are literally thousands of studies of distance education and hundreds of studies of online education...and metaanalyses of those studies. If he hasn't looked, he's probably biased. If he's looked, it wasn't mentioned in the article.

That kind of attitude prevails here at SCSU as well. Continuing Studies (CS) indicates that 70% of students taking CS's online classes are on-campus students. This statistic probably best illuminates our students' desire for the kind of flexibility afforded by online classes and a lack of marketing by MnVU (MnSCU's online arm) to other students (the latter is just a guess on my part).

For many here (and elsewhere) the evidence of demand for online classes for on-campus students and the explosion of online classes at high-priced for-profits don't set off any bells. They don't believe that online pedagody can't provide a quality education and that the problems of teaching online (cheating, plagiarism, etc.) aren't solvable. The interim Dean of the college of business seems to agree with that position, and seems very concerned that faculty are making too much money teaching online classes (?!?!?!?!?).

Facts don't seem to have a place in this debate.

In the meantime, online education grows by leaps and bounds....elsewhere.