Fran McCall didn’t want to talk to anyone. When she started her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at the University of the District of Columbia at 44, she had no patience for the less-than-brilliant comments of her fellow students during class discussions. So after eight semesters–over the course of four years–she finally gave up and transferred to the University of Maryland-University College, where she hoped to learn from her professors without the distraction of empty-headed remarks.
But instead of less conversation, she got more. And while the students at UMUC do like to talk, their comments on academic subjects such as business ethics are as thought provoking as those of her instructors, says McCall, now 52 and a program officer at the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit education organization that administers the Fulbright Scholarship program. And perhaps the biggest surprise is that it all happens online: McCall enrolled in the school’s Web-based division. It’s the typing, she says, that often forces mature discussions. “When people write their comments, they pay more attention to detail and get to the meat of the subject,” she adds. “It’s even honed my ability to agree to disagree.”
Students like McCall are driving the phenomenal growth of online education. Enrollment has shot up by almost 20 percent this year; 11 percent of postsecondary students will take at least one course online. And those students have plenty of classes to choose from: Over 90 percent of public colleges offer at least one online course. By 2005, the E-learning market will top $4 billion, predicts Eduventures, a Boston-based educational research firm. With Congress considering removing the last obstacle preventing online students from qualifying for the same federal financial aid dollars as students at traditional universities, the boom in E-learning is likely to continue.
Indeed, almost a third of all academic leaders polled believe that online education will be more effective than traditional classes in three years, according to a survey released last month by the Sloan Consortium, a group of colleges from Johns Hopkins University to San Diego State dedicated to improving the quality of online education. But online student dropout rates are still higher than those for the classroom set. Which leads to the question: What, exactly, works online?
In the beginning–a mere decade ago–early adopters made wide-eyed proclamations about how the Internet would change the nature of education as we know it. Universities and new for-profit schools would rake in millions of dollars by having megastar lecturers create techno-lessons that would reach thousands of tuition-paying students and render the lumpen professoriate obsolete.
It didn’t work.
Instead of downloading cash, respected schools pulled the shutters on their E-learning shops, while new online schools went bankrupt. The now defunct Fathom.com, Columbia University’s for-profit arm, struggled to attract students to courses created by its own professors as well as experts from the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics and Political Science. The fantasy of instructor-less education soon faded as courses with little or no personal interaction–sometimes just the contents of books plunked onto Web sites–posted dropout rates as high as 60 percent.
The survivors have begun to realize that what works online isn’t very different from what works in a traditional classroom. Students need to be actively involved, says Charles Dziuban, director of the Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Central Florida. “It’s true in traditional classes, and it’s more true online because you don’t have face-to-face time.” Dziuban found higher pass rates and satisfaction levels in online classes that had more engaging and accessible professors.
While interactive teaching dates back at least as far as Socrates, schools still struggle over the best way to transfer it to the computer screen. “Simply replicating an existing classroom course in an online format isn’t effective,” says John Sener, an E-learning consultant. “It’s roughly the equivalent of taking a VHS tape and making several copies, each losing something in fidelity.” Without a professor to explain the finer points or classmates to add a sense of community, students might as well just read a textbook. “Highly disciplined and motivated learners can succeed on their own in any format,” says Sener, “but many learners cannot.”
Group work. To be sure, creating discussion-heavy, seminarlike courses online isn’t as easy as arranging a few virtual chairs into a circle. Schools such as Baker College in Michigan lowered their online class size to 12, while others like the University of Phoenix and Capella University emphasize collaboration by having small groups of students do research projects and presentations together. University of Maryland-University College requires all professors to complete five weeks of training showing them how to teach online.
Other schools try to make sure there’s always someone online for students to talk to. New York-based Mercy College recently instituted a virtual tutor program called Wizards. Former students who have aced the course are paid to post to class discussion boards, answer E-mails, and tutor students. “Both students and faculty long for closer contact, and this is one way to achieve it,” says Boria Sax, director of online academic services. In a study of the program, students in a Wizard-assisted class received more than half a letter grade higher than students in a class without one.
Of course, not everyone believes that virtual learning is an adequate substitute for the real thing. “Online students may have an experience that feels like bonding, but it won’t approach what happens in a classroom,” says Carole Fungaroli Sargent, an English professor at Georgetown University and author of Traditional Degrees for Nontraditional Students. “It’s the difference between making friends by going to a pub versus making friends by talking to strangers on the phone.”
Flexibility. Still, there are some educational goals that might be met more easily online. For example, Virginia Tech math professors wanted to teach introductory courses like linear algebra, precalculus, and life sciences calculus in ways that best suited their students’ different learning styles. They created a program that allows students to choose a format–videos of the lectures, interactive tutorials, hyperlinked textbooks, or face-to-face group sessions–that works best for them. Periodic quizzes ensure that they’re learning the material. On-campus students, the vast majority, can also drop by for in-person tutoring sessions if they’re stuck on a problem. After five years, the results are positive: Final exam scores as well as longitudinal follow-up studies show comparable results among the different types of instruction.
In general, however, E-learning’s successes stem mostly from the fundamentals. For one thing, online class participation requires students to write extensively and develop their thoughts. “You reflect on what you are writing, before you post it,” says Karen Swan, an educational technology professor at Kent State University. “Reflecting really is what learning’s all about.”
And schools are learning that students want professorial attention. “I need to develop personal relationships, especially if I’m encountering any problems,” says Lia Wright, 26, an M.B.A. student at Baker College. She dropped out of another online program where she felt no rapport with her professors or fellow students. But things are different for her at Baker. When Wright didn’t log on to class for two days last spring because her family was visiting, a professor called her at home to see if she was sick. She wasn’t. In fact, she felt great. “It was awesome,” says Wright. “I never knew that a professor would ever call you just to see if you were sick.” And that is perhaps E-learning’s biggest irony: Even with the best technology, it will always need the human touch to be effective.