Current structure of online courses needs improvement
Online courses may offer students convenience, but in their current structure at the UA, they sacrifice course quality.
According to a report by the Pew Research Center, “The Digital Revolution and Higher Education,” 23 percent of college students have reported taking an online course. That number doubles as students who have graduated in the last 10 years are included in the sample.
The Arizona Board of Regents 2020 Vision asks for a 60 percent increase in enrollment between the three public universities by 2020. To do this, there will be a “creation of new educational platforms and campuses, [and] the expansion of on-line and distance education programs.”
There is no doubt that online classes will play an increasingly significant role in public higher education, but the current lack of quality will prove harmful to students.
In the same Pew Research Center report, when college presidents were asked if online courses “[provide] an equal educational value to [ones] taken in a classroom,” 51 percent responded positively. When students were asked the same question, only 29 percent responded yes.
Sue Howell, professor of practice for Online Instruction, has been involved in online programs for the UA since 2000. She said online courses offer instructors “more time available — more opportunities — to work one on one with students because they have a virtual connection with students.”
Howell also said online courses offer students increased flexibility, which is one of the biggest benefits. But how valuable is flexibility alone? Students attend the UA not for convenience’s sake, but to engage in a world-class learning environment.
Without investment in the newest technologies and the creation of a more engaging online environment, online courses at the UA will not be a sound investment for students.
Last year, a focus group of undergraduate UA students discussed the effectiveness of online courses. There were 10 participants and six had taken online courses. The participants all agreed that online courses were convenient for students with busy schedules, but also said the quality of courses offered online were not comparable to those offered in person.
If online learning is the future for higher education, then the UA needs to seriously invest in technology to make the online environment just as, if not more, engaging than the classroom.
The UA must move beyond the formulaic structure provided by D2L — where students complete weekly quizzes and discussion posts, take a midterm and final and write a paper — to truly harness this potential. Our university should be on the cutting edge, working with leaders in technology to revolutionize online learning on our campus.
Associate professor of chemisty Katrina Miranda was recently offered a $50,000 grant to design a massive open online course for Google, which would be offered tuition free and not for credit. This sort of investment should be pursued not just for MOOCs, but also in for-credit online courses.
“Online learning is relatively new,” Howell said. “It is more in the infant stage of development. What’s going on today is far and above better than, say, five years ago.”
Here is real potential to make online learning a powerful educational tool, which will help achieve the goals of the 2020 vision. But if the UA can’t create a solid model to truly enhance the classes, it will continue to short-change its students.
Anthony Carli is a senior studying political science. Follow him on Twitter.com/@acarli10.