A President's Reflections

Higher Ed Myths

Posted on December 2, 2008

Myths and misunderstandings about higher education abound.  The desire, indeed need, for a college education in our increasingly competitive and globally connected (and anxious) age has never been greater.  Parents make great sacrifices to pay the increasingly higher cost of college.  Students suffer through the stress of the application process.  Policy makers debate one “reform” idea after another.

This is the first in a series of related “myth versus reality” postings I’ll offer up from time to time.

Today, I take up the widely held notion that traditional face-to-face learning provides students a better experience than online learning.

In the early days of online learning, say 1995, the driving question was “How can we make our online class experience the equal of traditional face-to-face classrooms?”  In keeping with the disruptive technology model described by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen (a member of the SNHU Board of Trustees), the traditional classroom learning model has improved and changed  very slowly while the online class design improved along a much steeper curve.

By 2005 the best online classes were the equal of the best f2f classes.  Indeed, the original question has become reversed.  We now ask “What can we learn from online classes that might improve our traditional classes?”

The most recent National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) found that online students reported more “active and collaborative learning”  than did students in traditional classes.  Online students spend as much time as their on-campus peers preparing for class and reported higher levels of participation in discussions about important topics, intellectually challenging course activities, and learning about different cultures.  They also believed that the online academic environment provided the kind of support they needed to succeed at rates slightly higher than the traditional campus respondents,  See the November 14th Chronicle of Higher Education for a related story (Page A30).

While online learning first took hold among those who could not otherwise access college classes, it is now widespread and serves all student types.  In the next five years the number of students enrolled in distance-based courses is expected to exceed 18 million (Education Center Online).  Whereas students originally turned to online programs as a means of access and then convenience, they now see well-designed online learning as a rich and rewarding educational experience.  Many prefer it.

SNHU has become recognized as a leader in online education.  Our course design model, with its emphasis on learning outcomes, media rich resources, frequent interaction, and student-centered learning, distinguishes us from the “course in a  box” programs and “talking head” video-based courses that still unfortunately exist out there.

For our evening and weekend students I think we will see fewer traditionally offered f2f courses and more hybrid (combing f2f with online) and fully online courses.  Our traditional age undergraduates are enrolling in online courses in ever greater numbers and I wonder what would happen if we gave them unfettered access to our online courses.  Might we see students living on campus, working part-time during the day, and taking courses online?

We are seeing the first generation of students “born digital,” living with no memory of a world without technology.  We can now offer them an education fully online.  What we need to think about is what would be lost and gained in such a change in the undergraduate experience.

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