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According to Anita Crawley (2012), online education is on the rise. During the fall 2009 semester, 29 percent of all students enrolled in colleges and universities nationwide took at least one course online, an increase of 21 percent over the previous year. The vast majority of students taking online courses do so within the context of large universities and colleges. Small institutions enrolled just 2 percent of students in online courses. Green Mountain College is clearly an anomaly, with a total enrollment between 600–700 undergraduates. Community colleges have similar growth numbers, writes Crawley, with a 22 percent growth in online enrollment from 2008 to 2009, a trend confirmed by a survey of community college presidents, 87 percent of whom reported gains in online enrollment.

The reasons for the unprecedented growth in online education begin with the cost of higher education. Eliminating overhead, institutions can offer accredited online courses at a much lower cost than classroom-based instruction. Access to higher education for those who work and/or are raising a family helps keep admission numbers healthy. Unexpectedly, one of the reasons for the growth and popularity of online courses is the perceived lack of value inherent in traditional educational models.

Marc Parry, writing in 2010 for the Chronicle of Higher Education, quoted a student as saying, “If you want to encounter distance education, sit in the back of a 500-seat lecture.” Time magazine (Ripley, 2012) cited Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011), when stating that, after three semesters in colleges and universities, most people experience a “‘barely noticeable’ impact on critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills.” A poll sponsored by Time and Carnegie Corporation reported that “80 percent of the 1,000 U.S. adults surveyed said that at many colleges, the education students receive is not worth what they pay for it. And 41 percent of the 540 college presidents and senior administrators surveyed agreed with them.”

Clearly there is room for improvement in both traditional educational models and burgeoning online offerings. Traditional colleges and universities need to seriously address the shortcomings of overcrowded classrooms, overpopulated courses, rising tuition, and watered-down grading strategies. Online course developers and teachers need to be cognizant of the public perception of online coursework as less rigorous than their classroom counterparts and work to develop a learning atmosphere that doesn’t feel passive to the students. Passive contexts breed passive students. Inclusion of strategies to encourage student involvement and interaction are key, I think, for the success and evolution of online courses in the humanities and social sciences.

Steve Kolowich (2012) reported that some colleges, even notable liberal arts schools such as Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University, have adopted “blended learning” — incorporating online learning strategies within a traditional classroom framework. A slight majority of liberal arts professors, according to a survey by Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group, thought that blended learning was as good or better than traditional classroom-only models.

The field of education is also facing a revolutionary educational model known as the Massive Open Online Class (MOOC). Clay Shirky (2012), writing for the Guardian this past December, likens this form of education to the MP3 in the music industry — less quality, low cost, available to mass numbers of people, and compromising the very medium that spawned it. Last year, he wrote, a Stanford course in artificial intelligence enrolled 160,000 students, though only 23,000 finished the course. Sebastian Thrun, one of two professors for the class, quit Stanford University and started Udacity, an institution designed to offer nothing but massive open online classes. Learning within the framework of a MOOC does not result in a degree, wrote Shirky, just as songs now can be sold separately from CDs.

The MOOC is quite controversial academically, since it represents a “mass consumption” model of education, casting a negative light on both online learning programs as a whole and the institutions that host such courses. The growth of MOOCs and more rigorous online programs is putting pressure on traditional educational institutions. Changes are afoot, and many of those changes are infused by the fear that online education may one day render traditional institutions irrelevant, or perhaps worse, as the realm only of a moneyed elite. The growth and evolution of online education are serving to push two agendas — the vitality and value of online learning models and the pedagogical strategies of traditional colleges and universities.

Clearly online education is not a monolithic whole. My own experience reveals a clear contrast between the large undergraduate introductory class context and the robust small class graduate offerings. I am currently teaching in a physical classroom at the University of Oregon with equal numbers of graduate and undergraduate students. I am simultaneously preparing to teach three online graduate courses through Green Mountain College. Both frameworks have the potential to inform each other if I am open-minded and imaginative enough to allow such cross-fertilization. Like so many things, there are multiple conditions that determine the success or failure, the value or lack thereof, of a particular teaching strategy and educational setting. What is inarguable is that online courses are here to stay, though what is less obvious are the long-term effects on traditional educational models and what evolutionary manifestations of distance learning will arise.


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