Online Learning | Feature

Going the Distance

As demand rises--and technology and course design improve--distance-learning programs are taking off at traditional brick-and-mortar schools.


Illustration by Jon Reinfurt

Whoever said "Distance education begins in the 10th row" was taking a jab at the comatose kids at the back of his classroom, but the comment also taps into the old image of distance learners as disengaged themselves. That was then. Today, distance-learning programs are booming, in part due to demographic realities but also because recent advances in online technologies have markedly improved the distance-learning experience. What once was the province of isolated students in far-off outposts has morphed into learning systems that are increasingly seen not only as a rival to face-to-face instruction but also as a valuable complement.

Indeed, the time has probably come to retire the term "distance learning." Today, online courses are, in some cases, as relevant to students living on campus as they are to learners in remote locations. And for those students not on campus, the appeal of online learning has as much to do with scheduling as it does with distance. The majority of online learners today are not traditional college-age students--they work, have families--and flexibility is of paramount importance.

Not surprisingly then, many new online programs are focusing on postgraduate studies. What is different, though, is that many of these new entrants are brand-name, brick-and-mortar universities that are prepared to stake their reputations on their programs. Certainly, it's not a decision to be taken lightly. After all, criticism about the academic value of for-profit online degrees has generated big headlines in the past couple of years. However, the new entrants believe that if they maintain the same instructional quality online as they do on campus, prospective students will discern and appreciate the difference.

"We, or any university, cannot risk putting something out that would damage or cheapen our brand," explains Don Chaney, assistant dean for distance education and outreach in the College of Health and Human Performance at the University of Florida. "Our online programs at UF have exactly the same entrance requirements, internship rules, et cetera, as our on-campus programs. Our online students do not cut any corners. They just take their courses from a different location."

Technology Improvements
So what has given these universities the belief that they can deliver an online product that is as effective as their on-campus instructional programs? For starters, the technology has--at last--caught up with the vision.

"In these online programs, you might not meet with other students or go for coffee with the professors afterward--which, let's face it, doesn't happen that often anyway--but you have a richer experience in some ways," notes Susan Metros, associate vice provost and associate CIO for technology-enhanced learning at the University of Southern California. "These are sophisticated platforms."

Metros cites the prevalence today of broadband networks, videoconferencing systems, webcasts, and live-chat applications, all of which are designed to increase interaction and collegiality--an aspect on which USC places a great deal of emphasis. "A lot of our courses are designed for cohorts, so you might go through the entire program with the same group of people," she explains. "I've heard from students and faculty who say that this creates a closer bond among students than they experience in the classroom."

"We get that kind of feedback fairly often," adds Michael Eddy, assistant dean for administration and planning at Purdue University's (IN) Extended Campus. "In fact, we're trying to create courses where that kind of interaction is built in, where students have lots of opportunities to interact with each other online, and to get more virtual face time with their professors."

Face time does not mean spending hours watching a lecturer on screen, however. Such sleep-inducing approaches are what gave online learning a bad name in the first place, and they are rapidly being phased out. "We're trying to get away from the talking-head approach, where you film a lecture and make it available online," explains Eddy. "We're trying to get much more interactive. That's the new model of online education."

As in the classroom, however, the online technology is only as good as the instructor and the course design. "It's definitely a better experience for the students and the professors, thanks to the tech," says James Eddy, professor of public health education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "But the real advance is the ability of teachers to use the technology effectively. Distance learning is getting better because people are weaving in the instructional-design piece."

Eddy (no relation to Purdue's Michael Eddy) directs the school's Office of Academic Outreach and has been involved with distance learning since 1976. "Back then, distance learning was about driving 35 miles to Altoona," he jokes.

In "The Context of Distance Learning Programs in Higher Education: Five Enabling Assumptions," a paper penned in 2010 with Don and Elizabeth Chaney, Eddy wrote: "The technology exists to communicate with students in myriad ways. The challenge for the distance-learning program planner is not to infuse the course of study with all the latest and most sophisticated technology, but rather to select the technology that best meets the unique needs and interests of the learners and the instructors…."

Course Design Is Key
In the past, too many faculty assumed that whatever worked in the classroom would work online, usually with poor results. However, schools are now realizing that effective online courses require specialized approaches and knowledge, whether it comes from the institution's instructional design group or an outside vendor.

In 2010, for example, USC partnered with two online integrators, 2tor and EmbanetCompass, to produce a new master's curriculum. The school launched six programs based on that collaboration in 2010, and plans to launch another five by 2013.

One of its first degree programs was the Master of Arts in Teaching. From an initial class of 80 students, it has grown to more than 1,200 students today. "There are more students in the online version than in the entire School of Education," notes Metros. In total, some 3,000 students are currently enrolled in USC's online professional master's programs, and all graduates receive degree certificates no different from those awarded to students studying on campus.

Indeed, as an indicator of USC's confidence in the quality of its online content, some learning modules are poised to migrate to its on-campus programs. "We negotiated with the third-party vendors so that the materials they developed for our online programs--the learning modules--could be used in residential courses," says Metros.

Like USC, Purdue is determined that its online programs should be worthy of the school name. To that end, the school decided to focus on postgraduate studies because it's extremely difficult to build an effective online undergraduate program. A typical undergraduate program consists of about 120 hours of courses, including electives, while a typical master's degree consists of 30 hours of "very lock-step" courses, in which everyone proceeds in a cohort, taking the same courses at the same time. Simply put, online graduate programs are much easier to develop and administer.

But online programs may also be better suited to older, more mature students. "It's a very different type of student," says Mary Sadowski, dean of Purdue's Extended Campus. "There's a level of maturity and discipline that's required to take classes where you don't have to appear in front of a professor at a specific time on specific days every week."

Maturity aside, there's an equally compelling business reason for pursuing the postgraduate market: a big pool of potential students who can't attend classes on campus for whatever reason--work, family, or location. With their ability to offer these prospective students a name-brand degree online, traditional universities may have a competitive advantage over online-only and for-profit schools. And they can potentially generate large amounts of revenue with minimal operational costs.

That's certainly how Purdue views the opportunity. According to Michael Eddy, Purdue intends to "increase its participation at the graduate level" by recruiting adults who are working full time and need a master's degree to advance their careers. "We're bringing in new students--students with a different profile--who would probably never come to campus, who will be pursing their degrees as they work. We think we can grow that business in a significant way."

Purdue now offers several executive master's programs completely online. Additionally, the school runs distance graduate-degree programs for the employees of the Rolls-Royce facility in Indianapolis and Cummins Engine, also in Indiana.

But can these schools use their online programs to secure a new segment of students without also stealing students who might otherwise have attended in person? "That was, in fact, one of the concerns of our faculty," recalls Metros. "Would we be cannibalizing our own residential programs? But it has been almost the opposite. If anything, the residential programs have grown, because now they're more visible."

Purdue is not taking any chances, though. Its online programs accept only students who can demonstrate that they can't attend classes on campus. "We're not cannibalizing the base here at all," claims Eddy, "but bringing in a different kind of student and actually expanding the pool of potential students."

He cites the example of Purdue students serving in the National Guard whose academic careers were interrupted when they were called up to serve in the Iraq war. "They patrolled the streets of Baghdad by day and took their Purdue courses online at night," he recalls. "It allowed them to continue to progress toward their degrees, and maybe not feel so disconnected from their lives back here in the States."

Undergraduate Potential
When it comes to undergraduate online degrees, schools probably face a greater danger of cannibalizing their residential programs. But many university administrators also believe that online-only programs are not the correct educational approach for dealing with young adults.

"USC staunchly believes that the undergraduates' curriculum should be a residential curriculum," notes Metros. "We want you to come here. We have so many international students, the cultural diversity is phenomenal--more so than at any other school in the US. Plus, when you're an undergrad you have a lot of learning to do outside the classroom: doing your laundry, learning to study, making all the good and bad decisions you need to make between ages 18 and 24. Our administration believes that undergraduates should have that experience."

That's not to say that online learning won't play a significant role in undergraduate studies. Indeed, the concept of blended learning--a mix of in-person and online learning--is gaining traction fast among both undergraduate and graduate programs.

Both the USC and Purdue distance-learning programs offer opportunities for face-to-face interactions. A USC student in the online Master of Arts in Teaching program, for example, must meet with his teacher adviser in the same school where he will complete his student teaching--one of 2,700 K-12 schools around the world. In fact, administrators at each university expect online-only programs to evolve over time into something closer to blended programs.

"We're a real bricks-and-mortar kind of campus," says Purdue's Sadowski, "and we think students get a lot out of working together and getting to know each other in the real world. We think the combination of online courses and face-to-face interactions--whether students are coming to our campus or meeting somewhere else--is what really works best."

UF's Chaney agrees. "Traditional education is definitely undergoing a shift to the blended model," he notes. "The shift enables us to reach our students outside the traditional classroom. Students are becoming more and more reliant on technology, and we can't continue to have them 'power down' when they walk into a classroom. Our educational system must evolve into more online and mobile environments."

And in this era of budget constraints, the move toward blended learning on campuses may make more than just pedagogical sense. It also comes down to dollars and cents--for schools and students alike.

"Whenever you have an economic downturn, budgets at colleges and universities are cut, and they have fewer professors teaching fewer courses," explains Chaney. "What they often give up is the second, third, and fourth sections of a course. It's those sections that provide the flexibility students need to build a schedule."

Without that flexibility, students who have to work a job or have scheduling conflicts are more likely to drop out or take longer to graduate. "But if that course is offered asynchronously through a distance-learning program," continues Chaney, "it shortens the time to the degree and allows students to carry a full load."

Given that universities typically charge the same tuition for online courses as for on-campus equivalents, it's fair to ask whether online degrees--even from traditional universities--will carry the same status in the wider world.

"In 13 years of being involved in distance-education programs, I have never had a student come back to me and state that he didn't get a job because of taking online courses," says Chaney. "I look at it as a strong suit that these students are learning how to use multiple technologies in addition to the programmatic content. There will always be a segment of the population that cannot go back to a college campus, and online programs are the only way those students are going to be able to further their education."

As far as Metros is concerned, there is no distinction in quality between online and on-campus learning. "At the end of the day, it's a USC degree, and it doesn't say on your diploma that it's an online degree," she says. "You're alumni of USC. You're a member of the Trojan family."

Competing for a Slice of the Pie
Forget the old image of distance learning as the domain of isolated, bored students. Competition is heating up in this space, and the learning experience is becoming richer and more interactive.

Indeed, recent surveys indicate that students like the online classes currently being delivered by traditional colleges and universities. For the 2011 National Online Learners Priorities Report, consulting firm Noel-Levitz asked 99,040 students from 108 institutions about their online experiences from the fall of 2008 through the spring of 2011. A quarter of those students reported that their experience met expectations, while 63 percent felt that it exceeded them. Overall, 73 percent of online learners surveyed were satisfied or very satisfied with their experience, and 76 percent indicated that they would probably or definitely reenroll in the program if they had to do it over again.

Given such high levels of satisfaction, it's no surprise that online enrollments are up. When the nonprofit Sloan Consortium conducted its first survey back in 2002, researchers found that 1.6 million college students were taking at least one online course. By 2009, that number had grown to 5.6 million. In "Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011," the Babson Survey Research Group, which took over the Sloan Consortium survey, found that online enrollment increased by nearly a million students between 2008 and 2009 alone.

It must be noted, however, that many of these gains have been achieved at online-only and for-profit schools. Indeed, so meteoric has been the rise of these schools that it has prompted speculation that traditional brick-and-mortar colleges are ultimately doomed.

Not so fast, says Michael Eddy, assistant dean for administration and planning at Purdue University's (IN) Extended Campus. "There's been so much talk about whether the traditional universities are going to be able to survive the onslaught from the Phoenixes and the Capellas and all these online institutions," he notes. "Purdue has 150 years or so of experience developing brand recognition. As the traditional institutions gear up to do this online thing, we're going to be very competitive. We can compete on a cost basis, but also with brand-name firepower and the expertise of our faculty. That seems to us like a winning combination in the long term."

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