Of Myths and Mirth: Providing Online Education

Jack W. Brown, Ph.D. Dean of Criminal Justice at Beckfield College (2008)


     Faculty everywhere are in an uproar. Online education has arrived in the world of higher education; it has moved in, and it has begun to evict anyone and anything attempting to live in what it perceives to be its home, the brick and mortar institution. Its birth was a quaint event. Like all toddlers, it crawled and then learned to stand on its own. It began to walk, slowly venturing out into unconquered territory. The teenage years were full of trials and tribulations (WebCT vs. Blackboard). Today, it finds itself a young adult, full of angst. It is not happy, and we the faculty must take it evermore.
Like any adult who is forced to do something, rebellion, specifically intellectual rebellion, is the immediate result. Unfortunately, when pressure is omnipresent, rebellion quickly turns to resentment, which gives way to anger, long the mother of hostility. It is the state of hostility that presently consumes a large portion of college faculty as regards the reality of online education. Unfortunately, dedicated, articulate faculty are so enraged at the prospect of being forced to create and deliver online courses that when they are asked to detail why they feel the way they do, when they are provided the opportunity to support their beliefs, they throw their hands up, shake their heads profusely and often only say, “I’m just not going to do it.”

Only recently did I realize I fall into the category of faculty who do not believe “teaching” online courses is all it is championed to be. I found this an odd realization, for I often serve as de facto webmaster for one reason or another, and I previously taught a course in cybercrime. I get along with technology better than most of my peers, both in and out of the classroom, or so I’m told. With this new-found reality came a driving interest in discovering the answer to the question that seems to leave my fellow faculty members tongue-tied: “Why don’t you like online education?” It was then I realized the proverbial fly in the ointment. The question simply needs to be posed a different way. The existing question immediately places the person asking it and the person responding to it in offensive and defensive postures, often simultaneously. Absolutely nothing productive can come out of a discussion that begins in this manner. Therefore, a neutral inquiry, such as, “What is your view regarding online education as compared to traditional, classroom-centered education?” might produce a more productive discussion.
The majority of articles published during the past few years have heaped praise on the benefits, to the institution and the student, of online education. Articles downplaying the necessity of online education are simply not what we want to read. Articles submitted for publication sometimes rail against the uselessness of online education, displaying an obvious hostile bias for reasons never fully explained. Unless a philosophical examination of the difference between online and traditional higher education is presented in a non-hostile manner, the academic world will continue to cover its ears.  It is such an examination that is herein proffered for the reader.

To reiterate, although I do not loudly champion online education (I do, in fact, champion it at the graduate level compared to the undergraduate level, the latter being the primary focus of this article), I do enjoy designing and delivering the occasional online undergraduate course. I see its benefits as well as its necessity, especially to institutions in danger of faltering financially. However, whenever I reflect upon the articles, discussions, and dogma regarding online education I can’t help but get a sense that someone is attempting, with extreme vigilance, to sell me educational snake oil. I also cringe when I see articles or comments written regarding the value of online education, and then see the author’s position listed not as a professor, but as a person of finance. Let’s examine ten key points (in random order) of online education, and explore the reality of their educational underpinnings.

1. Cost-effective for students:  A college education is expensive. It always has been and it always will be. Yet, the costs inherent in attending college are relative. It was just as expensive to the college student of yesteryear as it is to the student of today. Furthermore, what one student finds costly, another may find affordable. The reality is that the tuition and fees associated with an online course are typically no different than those associated with a traditional lecture course. Online tuition and fees only seem more expensive because the student has to produce the monies fast, because the typical online degree program is extremely truncated compared to a traditional, classroom-centered degree program. With the advent of online education has come a rise in the price of required textbooks due to publishers packing their texts with online accessible content, including CDs, whether the professor or student chooses to utilize the text or chooses to totally disregard it. Consequently, “fees” associated with traditional courses have increased greatly in the past few years.

2. Students graduate faster:  In sports, the mantra “speed kills” is often heard. The online education mantra seems to be, “speed thrills.” As time, literally, goes by, the information available and necessary for students to digest regarding their chosen discipline increases. Today, it is quite common for undergraduate students to need five academic years, and take as many as six, to complete a traditional four-year education. Thus, two questions necessarily arise, “Are we, as educators, doing our students a disservice by allowing them to “speed-read” their way through a five-year education in merely three (and sometimes two) years?” As well, “Is society being done a disservice by institutions of higher education producing graduates holding degrees that proclaim one thing, yet reveal another?” By championing the speed of online education we come perilously close to focusing on what our undergraduate students want, not what they need- time to develop academically and intellectually.3

3 . Non-traditional students:
 Non-traditional students can only go to college online? When did this happen? Traditional students, so the theory holds, have benefited from years of formal, classroom-style education thus allowing them to make the transition (if they choose) to an online course relatively easily. Non-traditional students, conversely, often suffer from gaps in their study skills that are honed through in-class contacts formed with other students and through interaction during on-campus advising with primary and secondary professors. A non-traditional student who visits only the online educational world may indeed become more learned in their chosen discipline, but learning is the means to the end, the end being education. Without consistent face-to-face interaction with other students and with faculty members, non-traditional students are not presented sufficient opportunity to close the true gap in their education, namely the lack of depth that exists in their knowledge of the interrelatedness of college courses, especially within their chosen major.

4. Students perform better online:  Here we need to examine the difference between “work” and “performance.” If the goal is merely to get students to “work,” then routine homework assignments via online courses will suffice. However, if the goal is to provide them with an education, then there must be not one, but multiple methods to gauge their “performance” as they rise through the ranks of undergraduate education. It is extremely difficult to gauge an online student’s performance, for the email attachments replete with answered canned or crafted questions suffer from suspect veracity, a truism that simply will not go quietly into that goodnight.

5. Saves salary costs: 
Although true, it is only to a degree (pardon the pun). If the goal is to provide students with course content and a minimal amount of explanation and exploration, then online education serves the economic master. However, if the goal of an institution of higher education is to deliver unto society educated graduates, they must provide students with guides (professors) who can “talk the talk” and who have “walked the walk.” Hiring two adjuncts to create and deliver online education may be cheaper than paying one tenure-track faculty member to teach a full-load. Yet, the question remains: “Is a cheaper education a better education?” I’ll go out on a limb and say, “No.” If an institution finds itself in a battle between financial philosophy and educational philosophy, yielding to the gods of finance will be akin to cutting off its nose to spite its face. What’s next, an undergraduate GED?

6. Fiscally challenged institutions will thrive:
  Online education is not the saving grace of small colleges. Online education may assist in an institution’s survival, but it will not save the day. First, although the number of students enrolled in online courses, online-only programs, and holding online degrees is rising rapidly, there has not been a mass exodus from brick-and-mortar institutions. Second, it is not only faculty who do not enjoy online education; many a learned student will entertain when asked with stories of drudgery, confusion, and frustration found in the realm of online education. Third, faculty members, whether hired-in specifically to deliver online courses or currently in a tenure-track position, aren’t perfect. The same faults and failures found in the traditional classroom delivery methods of faculty will often, unfortunately, find their way into the faculty members’ online format.

7. More professional development time:  Development, delivery, communication, maintenance, modification, problem resolution, and peculiarities specific to a particular online course are omni-present realities for “the online faculty member.” As well, online enrollments are (unwisely) traditionally larger than the typical lecture-based course. This calls for longer office hours, whether they be spent face-to-face or in front of the computer answering a plethora of emails. To many a faculty member’s amazement, students do not like to email professors. This often leaves students on the outside looking in regarding exactly what a particular professor expects out of them regarding course performance (there’s that pesky word again). Furthermore, email communication is a hindrance to an essential element of the higher education process: faculty-student bonding. Make no mistake, for all the freedom typical undergraduates want, need, and demand, there is one thing a living, breathing, obviously educationally-concerned faculty member provides them that should never be taken for granted: intellectual security. It is the undergraduate student’s comfort level, both in class and out of class, to display their intellectual curiosity alongside their faculty member of choice, without fear of disdain or ridicule, which is one of the cornerstones of a valuable undergraduate education. As a result, more professional development time is often not the reality of “the online faculty member.”

8. Modality doesn’t matter:  If this was the case faculty would not exist- only libraries. Of all the concerns, points, and issues regarding online education, this one seems the least understood and the most undervalued. When delivering course content via lecture, a professor receives immediate feedback, which she or he assesses and adjusts for instantaneously. Therefore, the inherent quality of the content delivered is malleable, relying on each specific class, and sometimes on a specific student to determine the path of explanation that allows for the determination of the quality of student performance that satisfies the professor’s professional design for the course. Therefore, it is through professor-student classroom interaction that the quality of a student’s performance can most pointedly be gauged. The frustrated look, the “a-ha” nod of the head, the look of studious attention to a well-crafted lecture. It is through these professional assessments of professional observations, which often occur in the literal blink of an eye, that a student’s (and a class’s) performance is best assisted, and gauged.

Through online education design and delivery professors can tell students what they want them to know. It is through classroom lecture that an audience of students paying undivided attention can be taught the underlying, interactive realities that make up the content of a course. Thirty students enrolled in an online course are qualitatively different than thirty students enrolled and attending a traditional lecture course. Students sitting in a classroom learn more than merely course content. They learn the ideas, falsehoods, truisms, beliefs, fears, perceptions, misperceptions and realities of their classmates, the course under study, and even their professor throughout the course of the semester. A question posed to thirty students in a classroom will dictate a different discussion than the same question posed to thirty students online. One might ask, “What about real-time online chat?” Not the same thing. First, the thirty online students are typically in thirty different places with innumerous realities facing them as they try to pay attention and keep pace with the discussion. Second, thirty students in a traditional classroom setting are, most often, paying undivided attention to the content of the lecture during the duration of the discussion (and if they are not, a professor can quickly correct the issue). Third, in the midst of an online discussion a professor cannot stop on a dime and review an issue that he or she sees has been misunderstood by nearly everyone (because this-seeing the students- is a literal impossibility, with the exception of webcam usage, which, although becoming more prevalent, may not be exactly practical, especially for small colleges, in regards to online delivery methods- see paragraph 9 below).

Students, whether online or in an actual classroom, are notorious for being afraid to ask to have something explained to them again for fear of ridicule. If, however, the thirty students can be seen by the professor during delivery of course content, the professor’s professional experience can come into play and by simple deduction the professor can literally see by the blank looks being proffered that the content needs delivered again, or in another manner. The same cannot be said for content delivered online (for the reason mentioned above). Modality and quality may not be, as others claim, directly related, but kissing cousins they are indeed.

9. Computers make online education “easy”:
  Mom always warned me about four-letter words. It was only after several semesters of delivering online education that I realized the fallacy in this “easy” point-of-view. Delivery of online course content involves, typically, a school’s IT department, a designated faculty online “guru,” the representative of the company who provides the online “platform,” the faculty member, the student, the school’s ISP, the faculty member’s personal ISP, the student’s ISP, the faculty member’s work computer, the faculty member’s home computer, and typically one or more computers utilized by the student, which can (and have) included computers and challenging technology in other countries. If one can follow this reality without having said, “What?” congratulations, you are on your way to seeing the reality of online education. If you completely recognize and understand the underlying technological realities and terminology just proffered, you may need to get out more often.

It is online education’s raison d’etre (consistent and reliable access) that poses its most challenging, time-consuming, and frustrating reality: computers are often inconsistent and unreliable. After pausing to allow IT directors everywhere to throw darts at my photo, I continue. Although, admittedly, a majority of the time online education delivery systems (hosts, platforms, ISPs, IT offices, specific computers) work seamlessly, quickly, and well, they do, more often than most will admit, go awry. “Bugs” in the course content platform, ISP “outages” (whether for routine maintenance, power surges, or unknown causes), and system “crashes” are all too-common refrains from faculty, students, and IT professionals alike in explaining why online courses are “experiencing technical difficulties.” An example might best elucidate this point:

In a traditional classroom setting a faculty member issues a homework assignment. It is due in two days. Two days later the faculty member collects the homework and notices that one student did not hand in the assignment. After class, the faculty member asks the student the reason for missing the assignment, and the student says, “My daughter got hold of it and got jelly all over it. I didn’t think you’d want it.” The faculty member decries this as entertaining, but unlikely, and politely informs the student that credit for the assignment will not be awarded.
In an online setting, a faculty member issues a homework assignment. It is due in two days. Two days later the faculty member checks their “Assignments” inbox and notices that two students did not complete the assignment. The faculty member emails each student inquiring as to the delay. The first student replies: “I couldn’t get the system to accept the attachment.” The second student replies: “I couldn’t access the system. I guess it was down.” Both statements warrant further inquiry. Let’s start with the first student.

The first student is claiming a problem, specifically, with the online course “platform.” Now, the faculty member, having received numerous hours of training from the platform provider, the IT director, and the campus faculty online “guru,” understands this problem. The faculty member also understands that it is possible and plausible that the software that the school is using to deliver the online course content was, on that specific day, at that specific time, “buggy.” Therefore, the faculty member has no choice but to issue the first student an “extension.” For, unless the faculty member was sitting adjacent to the student at the very moment s/he attempted to attach the homework document and send it in, the faculty member cannot prove the student did not do the work and attempt to send it in.
The second student is claiming a problem with the institution’s ISP, his or her personal ISP, the ISP or server of the platform provider, and/or the ISP of the friend or relative’s computer they were trying to use to complete their homework assignment. The faculty member, once this claim is made, typically has one of two choices: accept that ISP’s have service interruptions and issue an extension, or ask for the name of the ISP the computer the student was using uses to gain access to the web and then contact that ISP to verify there was a problem with their services that directly affected the specific area the student was in at the time the student stated s/he was attempting to log on to the Internet. Choosing the second course of action will, more than likely, endear you to the student for semesters to come, take several phone calls, and get final resolution in the form of a response from “tech support” noting, “anything’s possible.”

Watching my colleagues wrestle with these realities, coupled with conversations with several students, allowed me to internalize that these technological realities lie at the heart of the most important factor in delivering and exacting high-quality, successful education via the online format: students must have, and maintain, consistent access to reliable computing technology. More specifically, students must use the same computer, which accesses the same ISP, every time they attempt to log on to enter the online environment. If a student makes a practice of utilizing the school’s library computer, his or her home computer, a friend’s computer, or a relative’s computer, all in subsequent attempts to access the online course, problems, in the form of “I couldn’t get on,” “The system was down,” “It wouldn’t let me attach anything,” “I could read the assignment but I couldn’t type a response,” will inevitably result.

10. Everyone’s doing it:  How’s that saying go…something about a bridge?
Being cognizant of the fears and cries of academics everywhere, any contributor to ideas regarding the state of online education must, I believe, address the issue of academic integrity. If a student sits through two weeks of lecture in a class, then takes a quiz in class, the professor has direct evidence of that student's level of knowledge at that point. On the other hand, if a professor receives assignments via email attachments/web postings from a student who, due to being in an online course, never attends a traditional class for two weeks, all that is arguably known is that the student's course email account was used. The professor has no way of knowing that the actual student actually did the work. Following this same logic, if two more weeks pass, and the student in the traditional lecture class is presented a test and takes it, again the professor has direct evidence of that student's knowledge at that point.

Now, the student in the online course, after four weeks, can be required to come to campus at a pre-arranged time and take a proctored exam (which somewhat defeats the ideological foundation of the course being delivered online). The professor can verify through simple identification that the student enrolled in the course is indeed the person taking the exam; however, regardless of the score on the exam, this does not mean that direct evidence of that person's knowledge at that point has been gleaned. For, it is possible that the individual simply "crammed" the night before they were required to come to campus to actually sit for the exam. After leaving, the situation returns to an "unknown friend" doing the work. Although this idea of "cramming" before the test can obviously be said of the traditional lecture class student, it is simple fact that we know the individual is learning something, for they are sitting in front of us every day for a month. The same cannot be said of the online student.

I know this concept smacks of distrust and conspiracy; however, to dismiss this reality out-of-hand is a demonstration of gross naiveté. A college degree must be quality before speed and ease. Unless solid controls are in place to reduce the possibility of online students' work being done by others, degrees granted with courses completed online, in whole or in part, will be suspect, thus detracting from the quality of the degree earned by college students past, present, and especially, future. Hundreds of professors, including myself, accept the reality of online education. I understand colleges, especially small ones, need it for a plethora of valid reasons. Yet without academic integrity, a college degree isn't worth the paper it is printed on.

The agreed academic reality is that online education is here to stay. There are benefits and there are drawbacks. The fact that online education is progressing via the “bandwagon” affect is not surprising. What is surprising, however, is the “saving grace” mentality that fiscally challenged institutions adopt that has the potential to lead them, possibly, into an online abyss. As a supplementary tool, online education is ideal, for academics and financiers alike. However, for an institution, a student, or society to view online education as equal to a traditional, faculty-driven college education is akin to crossing a freeway in Los Angeles blindfolded with earplugs- one can do it, but the result will probably be somewhat messy.