A President's Reflections

Still confusing traditional and online learning?

Posted on August 17, 2014

In getting feedback on the possible merger of SNHU and the New Hampshire Institute of Art, I have been struck by the reactions to our online programs among some critics. Among the misconceptions has been the idea that we would try to “impose” online learning on NHIA students.  Another, increasingly tired notion, is that online learning is of inherently poor quality and anyone offering it must be a degree mill.  Neither of those notions is accurate, but both point to a larger issue: the mistake of seeing all higher education questions through the lens of a traditional, campus-based experience.

Current debates over the nature and future of higher education often treat higher education  monolithically, as if there is one form of higher education that we all know and understand.  In fact, there are multiple higher educations at work in America.  There is the world of non-traditional age students who are often juggling work and family and trying to squeeze education into already too busy schedules.  There is a research higher education served by places like UNH and other research-centered institutions.  The vast community college world offers access and affordable pathways into education and often better work for a wide range of students, many of whom work while living at home and commuting to their campuses.

The higher education that tends to most shape our debates is the one of four-year, first-time, full-time students going right from high school to college – the college most often depicted in movies and television and novels and cherished by most who had the privilege of being educated that way.  That higher education is about getting a degree and an education and it is about coming of age.  Coming of age means having the time and the safety net, both in terms of mental and physical space, to explore, grow, discover, and make mistakes along the way.  It requires a lot of interaction with full-time faculty and staff who can be mentors, who can challenge, who recognize the “teachable moments” and know how to engage young people.  While technology can help improve the educational experience, it does little to augment or certainly replace the magic and messiness of human relationships in this context.  That form of education is also increasingly expensive and parents with young children worry that they might not be able provide that opportunity when their children leave high school.  And these students now make up less than 20% of all college students in America.

That is the education we offer on our main campus and that NHIA offers at its downtown locations.  It is a pretty special experience and it is well crafted for the young students who mostly populate our campuses.

 Online programs, in contrast, mostly serve working adults who have had all the coming of age they need.  They often come back to school because life is telling them they need a degree, so they try and make it work amidst lives of work schedules, school meetings, dance recitals and soccer practices, military deployments, and more.  For this population, the four C’s that shape adult students needs are credential (getting the right degree that advances their work and careers), completion (getting it as fast as possible while maintaining quality), cost (a major issue for much of this population), and convenience (having delivery methods that work for them).  They want quality, of course, and they’d love more time for long, exploratory conversations.  But those desires are trumped by the four primary drivers of choosing a program.

Most adult learners are working all day, rushing to class, maybe grabbing a drive-thru dinner on the way, and then leaving class the minute it is done in the hopes of getting home before their kids are in bed.  There is little time for long leisurely chats, no sitting under leafy trees debating the meaning of life, and certainly little time for the kinds of organizations and activities we make available to traditional students.  Worse, we often impose policies and thinking designed for traditional age students on adults, often making their return to college more difficult than it needs to be.  That’s why online learning has become so dominant for this student market.  It offers a far more convenient approach to education at a lower cost.  Admittedly, fifteen or so years ago it was less clear that it could be as of high quality and we asked ourselves, “How do we make an online class as good as a face-to-face class?” 

Today, that question is reversed.  The best designed online courses are quite often superior to traditional courses, allowing much better optics into the actual teaching and learning that is underway, being more student-centered, and every bit as rigorous.  Indeed, a lot of traditional age students struggle in these classes since they require more self-discipline, there is no place to hide in the back of a large lecture hall, and the pace is often challenging and less leisurely.  So adult students by the millions have voted with their feet and decided that online programs work better for them.  The bad players in the for-profit education world sullied the reputation of online learning in ways that linger (and, in truth, it wasn’t as good ten or fifteen years ago), but for those who actually know this world and work in it and study it (and study in it), the arguments that online learning is somehow lesser seem increasingly out of touch and ill-informed.

I would invite skeptics at NHIA to come to the mill yard location of our online programs and see for themselves the ways we address quality, support students, and monitor and measure the learning that occurs.  I’d go further, I’d challenge them to show me commensurate measures in their work with NHIA students.  Of course, that’s the beauty of very small, mentor-based education environments –one instead relies on the judgement of the faculty member and does not need to do all that we do in online education to ensure student learning outcomes and support.  But that doesn’t mean the traditional model is superior; it is just different and appropriate for the student population and the mode of educational delivery needed.  Unfortunately, some critics don’t see the differences, undertanding neither adult learners and what they need to be successful or the ways online learning has developed a robust and high quality response to those needs.  In the end, it feels a bit self-valorizing.

Online learning may help traditional higher education, but it certainly can’t and shouldn’t displace the important coming of age experience of young adults.  At my own institution, we have become a national leader in online education, but we have also expanded our traditional campus, growing 50% over the last four years, adding full-time faculty, and keeping a commitment that our on-campus students will have 66% of their courses with full-time faculty.  We have just completed a state-of-the-art library and learning commons, and expanded opportunities for our young students in everything from study abroad to internships.  Online learning may become an increasing part of what they do within that traditional context, but it can’t provide the physical and human context 17-year-olds need to realize their potential and become fully mature adults.

So when critics rail against online education and worry that it will ruin the coming of age experience of young adults, they are committing the common mistake of confusing forms of higher education and who they serve and what those distinct populations seek and need in their educational experience.  In the process, they often reveal their ignorance about online education and how far it has come.  Are there bad online classes and programs?  Certainly, just as any traditional student can warn you away from ineffective faculty on their campuses.  But online education is daily transforming the lives of the 37m to 40m adults who have some credits and no degrees (and the millions more that have no credits at all) at a time when 70% of all new jobs require a two-year degree or at least its equivalent.  These are students who might wish they had spent time on a campus, chatting with an inspirational faculty member over an espresso, working in a studio late into the night, but life didn’t work out that way for them and online education means a second chance at the degree that can change the trajectory of their lives and the lives of their family.


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