Online education isn't 'way of the future' just yet -

Online education isn’t ‘way of the future’ just yet

University experience shouldn’t be spent entirely in front of a computer screen


The increasing use of online education begs the question of whether the traditional lecture is relevant in a sea of digital content. If students could complete all of their university credits online from their homes, without ever stepping onto a campus or out of their sweatpants, why would they choose a traditional path to a university degree?

A student at Athabasca University, which heralds itself as a leader in online and distance education, recently expressed his enthusiasm for his online education experience in the Financial Post, calling it “the way of the future.”

“Athabasca doesn’t even use a fraction of the technology tools available to them. If the government would charter another modern online university, it would be an even more viable option for more students,” Ian Heikoop, a second year student in business management, wrote. He went on to explain that the flexibility of his online courses allows him to run his own business and be more heavily involved in his community.

“You can’t tell me that I’m not getting any experience or working on personal, teamwork, and leadership skills as I study online,” he wrote.

His experience may reflect a growing zeal for online education that doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down. A 2010 report  conducted by the Sloan Consortium found that the number of students taking at least one course online rose from 1.6 million in fall 2002 to 5.58 million in fall 2009, according to Inside Higher Education. A survey conducted by the WICHE Cooperative of Educational Technologies also found that 96 percent of the 183 colleges and universities surveyed expected the number of students enrolled in online courses at their institutions to increase in the next three years.

While the convenience of online courses may make educational content more accessible, there is a valuable argument that when students enroll in university, they aren’t paying solely for the content of their lectures, but for the university experience as well. Going to class may be a pain sometimes, but I don’t think sitting in front of a computer screen can compete with the experience of sitting in on a dynamic lecture. Online education also doesn’t give students the opportunity to meet students and instructors they can bounce ideas off of and who can feed their curiosity in a subject. Even if an online course comes equipped with a chat room, it would be hard to measure it up to the colloquial experience of a classroom.

When balanced with traditional forms of teaching, online education does give students a degree of flexibility in their education that past generations never had, as was the case with Heikoop’s experience. However, while some may proclaim that online education is the way of the future, I doubt that most students believe that their university experience would be better spent at home.


Online education isn’t ‘way of the future’ just yet

  1. I respect the point that there is value in the experience of a traditional university. University provides students fresh out of high school with a place to venture out on their own and find themselves.

    For those of us who AREN’T traditional university students, though, sitting in lecture halls full of chatty, disrespectful, distracting people much younger than ourselves is not at all an attractive idea. As a stay-at-home mom, traditional classes are not an option for me – but I do NOT feel that I’m missing out.

    I am an Athabasca University program student AND part of a comprehensive student community. I may never meet all of my classmates face to face, but many of us do get to know each other and regularly “bounce ideas” back and forth amongst ourselves. My professors know me by name and are willing to discuss my learning and concerns with me in depth and when it’s convenient for me.

    Traditional university definitely still has a place in the world – but not in my life, or the lives of my classmates. And many of us are better off for it.

  2. I hold two degrees. One is from a “traditional” university, and one is from Athabasca University. I would have to agree with Bethany regarding the amount and quality of interaction with faculty and students at AU compared to the traditional classroom. I think that the difference is more about the rate of success. It takes a lot of self-motivation to complete an online degree and I don’t think most students, especially the younger ones, have what it takes.

  3. If online courses cannot compete with “dynamic lectures”, then why don’t traditional universities have them. I think most of us can remember experiencing many boring lectures at university with only a few that one would characterise as “dynamic”. On the other hand, online courses are more and more incorporating video lectures from some of the most dynamic lecturers in the world. So, some would argue that sitting in front of the computer can in many cases compete with the classroom. Modern students are increasingly including a large percentage of online social networking (Facebook, Twitter) in their personal schedules. Many are interacting more online than face-to-face. These interactive tools are being incorporated into online courses. So, it is not correct to assume that they are not bouncing ideas off of fellow students and teachers.
    R. McGreal Assoc. VP Research, Athabasca University

  4. My undergraduate degree was from a traditional university, and I greatly enjoyed it – and got a lot out of the experience. I’m now completing my MA at Athabasca University. There’s no lack of dynamic learning. I have contact with my instructors and my supervisor by email and Twitter, as well as through the ‘traditional’ phone line. The traditional lecture has given way to discussion, blog responses and replies, and expository writing.

    Athabasca University has also brought ‘The Landing’ online, which creates an online community for staff, students (undergraduate and graduate), professors, and student groups. It’s still in the beta phase, but it has already begun to connect graduate students with research opportunities. I use it to interact with my professor – we’re working on the postmodern poetics of graphic novels at the moment, and planning a reading course on post-apocalyptic literature – but I can also read a fellow student’s research work on sex workers in Toronto, and read reflections from a student working on distance education theory while living and teaching English in China.

    It’s true that a ‘bricks and mortar’ environment gives students that ‘face to face’ experience. But Bethany lives in a remote region in Alberta and is raising her family, and I live and work full-time in Calgary. There’s no chance that we’d be able to attend a traditional program – not with our lifestyles. And yet, here we are: trading tweets with each other as she works on post-colonial literature and I read through my postmodernism theory…and often our professor joins in on the conversation. A few months ago, one of the librarians called me to talk to me about the new MLA guidelines and to give me some suggestions on a reading list I was trying to put together.

    How is this not dynamic?

  5. In Alberta, Athabasca University’s tuition fees are among the lowest of university education providers. In addition, the three campus-based universities (U. of Lethbridge, U. of Calgary, U. of Alberta) receive about 2 out of every 3 dollars of total revenue from government operating grants. Athabasca University receives about 1 out every 3 dollars from these grants. This difference in subsidy levels holds down campus-based tuition relative to AU, and artificially increases the demand for on-campus university education.

    Students’ preferences for campus-based education should be informed by knowledge of the full cost of their chosen educational programs. The most straight-forward method of enabling this would be for governements to fund universities on a per-student or full-time learning equivalent formula. Under this model, campus-based, classroom-focused universities would need to charge a tuition premium to pay for relatively greater staffing levels and physical infrastructure that this model requires compared to virtual universities. In the absence of any conclusive evidence that a campus-based learning experience provides a better education for students or that society inordinately benefits from this organizational form of higher education, both campus-based and online forms should be subsidized on the same basis.

  6. I recently graduated with a Master’s degree in Distance Education from Athabasca University and felt the experience was quite unique and worthwhile in its own right. It provided me with an opportunity to do an online e-portfolio and enabled me to follow my independent studies plan. It in no way can (or should) be compared to the student days of an undergrad on campus.

    I am really glad that the online learning experience as a grad student had been fundamentally different from the experience of living in a dorm as an undergrad taking first and second year courses. Both are valuable experiences. The experiences of going to classes, meeting up for study groups, hanging out till the wee hours studying in student lounges or in a cubicle at the library, all stirs up nostalgia for me. I would not have missed that, and, if given the choice, I would think most young peope might prefer that experience. But I am relieved that as a forty-something I don’t have to put aside the responsibilities of family and work to re-live that part of my life. I can experience an entirely different type of learning from a distance, at my convenience, and tailor my studies around my other priorities.

    The author wrote:
    “I don’t think sitting in front of a computer screen can compete with the experience of sitting in on a dynamic lecture.”

    How about: I don’t think sitting alone among dozens or hundreds of others in a lecture hall for a three hour lecture can compete with having the experience of sitting at home in one’s own office near a computer/laptop playing the recorded lecture, tweeting comments or blogging ideas, fortified with a full cup of hot coffee, surrounded by favourite books, cool music playing in the background, and one’s children and grandchildren running in and out excited to share their stories and laughter.

  7. And, to add to Glenn’s comment: I don’t think sitting in a lecture hall can compete with being able to come home from work, have dinner, and settle down with textbooks, research notes, and journal articles in pajamas and being able to turn off the computer and go to bed when it’s enough. Believe me…your perspective on lecture halls changes a lot after putting in a full day at work. And when you’re not twenty-one. I wouldn’t have been able to even do my MA part-time with a forty hour work week. Online courses gives me the flexibility I need to be able to continue my education.

  8. People have made some good points. I have just finished my first year of a Master’s at AU, while working at a professional job that takes more than 40 hours a week – the opportunity for my work and studies to inform each other in ways that are dynamic and colloquial has been more useful and interesting than my previous experience of a bricks and mortar university grad school, interacting with peers and professors who didn’t have much of a grasp of what was outside of academia. The AU professors have been, for the most part, better qualified and more interested; the student peers have been exceptional. One of the things that I really like is the lack of politicking and pretentiousness that I found at university. Perhaps it’s because, as someone already said, people in the AU classes have a different degree of maturity that allows them to follow-through more independently. I began with one class just to see what it was like – the instruction, the methodologies to involve students in critically thinking groups, the reading list and references and the uses of technology – were all way beyond my expectations, so I’ve continued on and have gone from interested but a little doubtful to thinking that, indeed, this may be the way that people should be educated in the future. I, too, enjoyed my college degree and then my first degrees and the people I met there… and this is different. Different in a good way.

  9. I have completed two undergrad degrees at face to face universities and am half way through a Master of Distance Education at AU. I have to agree with Rory that, in my experience, there is a dearth of ‘dynamic lectures’ at traditional universities.

    Being able to work full time while studying is the only way that I would be able to afford a Masters degree. Not only that but I find the the interaction that I have with my fellow students and profs is vastly superior in quality and in the depth of thought that goes into responses and discussions. Having time to formulate a cogent answer is absolutely preferable to watching a few loud and opinionated people dominate the discussion in a face to face classroom.

    I have found my courses at AU to be far richer in terms of interaction and depth of discussion (and therefore, quality) when compared to my f2f experiences.

  10. I am yet another AU student working on my MA which would not have been possible if not for it being online. Not only is it cost-effective (about half the cost of a traditional MA), I can continue working full-time, my employer partially subsidizes my tuition and I have the flexibility of taking group courses or individual study courses to fit my life schedule. The professors are knowledgeable in their fields, very approachable and enthusiastic about the courses. My classmates can be living anywhere in the world and quite often the professor is not based within the confines of a university building. All of this provides a vast range of experiences and perspectives which are regularly shared in our group discussions. Isn’t this what education is supposed to be about?

  11. I am a student at a traditional university but have taken advantage of some online courses offered by my university. Basically, the course materials are the same and the only benefit is skipping the lectures. After each lecture, the professors assign readings anyway. So, the 3 hour savings per week is worth it. Most of the courses in my BComm program at Ryerson are still in the traditional classroom format but I skip about 45% of lectures and do really well. As for interaction, the online courses that I took at Ryerson requires group work. Our group met online and also on campus.

    A 3rd year English major with little experience in distance learning is not qualified to make these statements. She is lacking research. Distance learning is growing at a fast rate every year.

  12. Wow, you would almost think the comments section had been stacked with AU staff or something. I’m a traditional university student but I’ve taken one or two courses online and did quite a bit of distance “learning” in high school. For me, I’d much, much rather have the traditional university experience, but I haven’t had a full range of experience with online learning. I agree with an above commenter that I think it’s more about the success rate and whether the student can motivate themselves–though I’d argue that to be successful at a traditional university you still have to be a self-starter. Nobody is babysitting you, although actually having to come face to face with the people you are supposed to be accountable to is more of a motivator.

    I guess I’m old hat, and a bit of a technophobe. Keeping in touch through email and Twitter (I can’t believe someone would contact a prof through Twitter…) will never replace daily face to face interactions with people for me. I wouldn’t trade my post-secondary experience for anything and I couldn’t imagine having come out of high school and bypassing it completely in order to sit in my bedroom or living room. To me online education is akin to that science-fiction concept of taking a pill that has all the nutrients of meal and makes you feel full, but isn’t really a meal. An online education may on paper have all the virtues of a traditional education but somehow just isn’t the same. I can really see the benefit of it for people who want or need to work full time while getting their education, and I can see where older students would be unmotivated to sit in a classroom–though, many of my classmates are in their mid to late 20s, and I know a few in their 30s, 40s, 50s as well–the landscape of university is changing and it’s less and less common for people to take the traditional route of leaving high school and going straight to college. But I would never want to be a full time student online–I would go absolutely stir crazy.

  13. I find all of the comments here very interesting indeed. I am a College Professor in accounting(face to face – F2F and distance education – DE) and I also am an Athabasca University student. I am at the end of my Master’s in Distance Education Degree; I am in the process of writing my thesis. I totally agree with the other comments about the Athabasca’s distance education programs – they are not lying about the enthusiasm, support and motivation you get.

    I want to make a comment about Drake’s comment that “A 3rd year English major with little experience in distance learning is not qualified to make these statements.” As a teacher, I walk into a F2F class consisting of 35 – 40 students each day to find that no more than 50% of them are ‘really’ paying attention to what I am discussing; are they hearing or are they listening?.

    The reason that distance education works well is that those who take this mode of education are independent learners (about 20% – 30%). In many cases they are older students with established full-time careers and families that rely on them for financial support. I would love to see some of the younger students hold down a full time job, have a growing family (2-3 children under 15 yrs. old), the commitments of a home and family events try to manage taking a F2F daytime course. You can work OR you can go to school; it is difficult to do both at the same time.

    Distance education (DE) is a blessing to those who have job and family commitments. How do you fit in life-long education? You have two choices: go to traditional night school courses or take a DE course. If your personal commitments are heavy, you take one DE course at a time; if not, you might take two courses at a time. In either case, the point is that DE provides the opportunity to be educated for those who cannot attend full-time day classes.

    All I can say is that with popularity of texting messages, rather than speaking directly F2F or on the phone, it is no wonder that online education is a very popular learning environment.

    So Drake, I want to agree with you about the lack of research on DE; believe me I have lots from my own research that states that DE and the ‘communities of inquire’ (R. Garrison, 2001, 2008, 2010) through online group interaction and communications provide a substantially better type of learning environment where research study after study have shown the knowledge retention is more superior via DE.

    As an added note, I would be very interested in knowing what your DE experience has been like so far. My thesis is looking at the justification of past research study results in regards to online group communications, specially “How does group work in adult distance education courses impact learning retention?” If you would like to share your experiences on this topic, please contact me.

  14. Again, of course it’s great for those who have family commitments, etc. Why wouldn’t you do it then? And if you already have a career and are looking to continue learning, for its own sake or to get further ahead, I see its value there too. But I don’t think it replaces that traditional university experience for young people who don’t have a family yet or haven’t spent a significant amount of time working full time. I’ll further explain my pill metaphor by saying that even though you may learn the material as well, or sometimes better, by doing it online misses the point to some extent. There’s more to it than that. There’s something you miss by not devoting your time, and essentially your life, to your education. Can I put my finger on what that is? No…But I don’t think it can be exactly replicated.

    Also, I notice that everyone who’s commented in favour and mentioned what they’re taking tends to be in career-oriented, means-to-an-end courses, BComm, Accounting, etc. I guess I’m not just looking to download some material into my head, get out as fast as I can to get a piece of paper and use it to go out and get a job; my liberal arts education is offering a different kind of experience for me. It’s open-ended and even though I do have plans to go to law school afterwards, and so will be taking a professional direction eventually, right now I just like the open-ended nature of simply becoming more educated and developing a range of knowledge, and being mentored by knowledgeable people. When I’m in class, or not in class, I’m not necessarily thinking about how to use the material in a given career; I’m just thinking about and trying to understand the material, period, for its own sake.

    I don’t have a family of my own, nor any desire for one, so it affords me the opportunity to have my education be the focal point of my life rather than having it take a backseat to fit in with other commitments. Frankly the idea that online education could become the mainstream is scary to me. I don’t need more excuses to sit on my computer all day.

  15. I think it’s really an apples/oranges issue. There’s different types of knowledge you gain from each type of schooling. I certainly don’t think traditional university is going to disappear any time soon, and it’s probably a great experience for many students fresh out of high school.

    In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, however, there’s also an increasing number of atypical students – students with jobs and families, those who don’t wish to leave their rural areas, mature students, etc. – who have a desire for knowledge, but not the traditional university experience. Distance education CAN provide a dynamic learning environment and is often ideal for non-traditional students.

    Also, just to address Mellina’s comment about most of the above comments being from those in career-oriented programs, at the very least, both Heather and I are working on the Master of Arts program, and I really can’t think of any program that would be less “means-to-an-end” – my education is not just a pill to swallow, and I don’t believe that I’ve missed the point by devoting my time to research and working one-on-one with my professors. It might not be the same as traditional university, but I don’t believe it’s a false fulfillment of my educational appetite.

  16. Yes – the MA isn’t a means to an end for me, either. I’m in the Master of Arts program with Bethany, working on cultural and literary studies. If there’s a market for postmodern poetics of post apocalyptic literature, zombies, and graphic novels, I’ve yet to discover it. I certainly haven’t been able to apply it to my career (though I’m reasonably certain I would have a leg up in a zombie apocalypse).

  17. Apparently you do not understand the reasons why people use technology to study online. I live in the US for work but I am still a Canadian citizen. Athabasca University is teaching me via the online program that doesn’t require me to sit in a classroom while I am working full time as a software consultant. I expect more honesty from a Canadian news source. Can we move forward instead of living in the dark era? I really don’t understand how learning in whichever way possible could be an issue.