Date published: 7 August 2012
University students studying online, rather than on campus, don't experience "a genuine intellectual community", according to a recent article in the New York Times by Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia.
Professor Edmundson's claim is an easy one to make. And for those who have experienced a traditional university education, these are claims with which it is easy to identify. For many of those who warm to the assumption that online university education is inferior to on-campus learning, the experience of an "intellectual community" came through being physically in the same (usually small) class, with other middle-class people of the same age who looked and sounded just like them. It can be hard to imagine recreating this experience through technology.
Yet, in the higher education sector now, hundreds of thousands of students across the world choose to study university courses completely online. They make this choice for a number of reasons, which include convenience, cost-effectiveness, flexibility and the ability to manage their study as part of a full and complex life.
Online university students have the same range of experiences that on-campus students have. They come to know some teachers as knowledgeable, passionate, empathic communicators and other teachers as disengaged and dreadful. Some units of study are engaging and inspiring, others are mind-numbingly boring. Some are taught using innovative learner-centred methods, others are based on the assumption that if the teacher says it, or it's in the textbook, it has been learnt.
In some units, there is valuable and edifying discussion between students, skilfully moderated by tutors; in others, interaction is perfunctory or non-existent. Some online classes have a sense of intellectual community and some do not - just as on campus.
Online university students are taught and learn the same curriculum, undertake identical assessment tasks, and are awarded exactly the same degree as students who choose to attend university on physical campuses.
Despite the similarities in the range of learning experiences and outcomes that online and traditional university students have, there are widely held assumptions that online education is a poor second cousin to a "real" university education. This thinking is simplistic and limiting. Fortunately, students' thinking is more advanced and they vote with their feet (and fingers), enrolling in online courses at rates that are sometimes difficult for individual universities to keep up with. But keep up they must, or a student will simply go elsewhere.
Through my employer, Open Universities Australia, with a network of universities across the country, many students enrol in units without prerequisites and study units from a number of universities. These students have some control over the structure and content of their program of study. Their degrees, if they decide to progress to graduation, are awarded by reputable, leading universities. After studying entirely online, they are awarded the same degree as a student studying on campus.
So far, the world hasn't come to an end. Nor has civilisation as we know it collapsed. What has happened, though, is that a lot of people who wouldn't otherwise have had the opportunity have undertaken and completed university study. Some of these students are of high school age (see talentsearch.ted.com/video/Boushra-and-Line-Dalile-Our-hom for an example), recent high school graduates, parents with caring responsibilities, busy professionals, those living in rural and remote areas, and those in later life with time to spare.
It's time to explode the myth that online university education is second-class - and move on. Online university education may be threatening to those who are not familiar with it, or who don't understand it, but it is not inferior to the old ways of doing things.
Our colleague Professor Edmundson asks "Can online education ever be education of the very best sort?" In many ways - and not only in terms of providing greater access and being more student-centred - it already is. And soon it may be considered superior.
Marcia Devlin is a senior executive at Open Universities Australia.
Date: 7 August 2012
Publication: The Age
Title: Why the net effect shows the way ahead