As college students change, so must instruction. But is the answer online classes?

Ruth Watkins is the senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah. She wrote an interesting piece about the changing face of higher education.

By Ruth Watkins

The 18-year-old college freshman is an endangered species.

BarryMaguire.NewsArtToday, three in four undergrads are considered “non-traditional” students. They may work while taking classes. They may have started families or served in the military. Or, as is often the case at my institution, the University of Utah, they may have done missionary work for as long as two years after high school.

The on-campus model doesn’t work for this growing group of students. They can’t raise families in dorms. And morning classes aren’t compatible with full-time jobs.

Some new entrants to the college marketplace believe they can deliver an education entirely online. But the evidence suggests otherwise.

Colleges must forge a middle path between these two extremes. A blended model, combining online and on-campus education, may be the best way to ensure that students graduate on time — and on budget.

The number of full-time college students is dwindling. About 40 percent of students attend school part-time.

The ever-rising cost of tuition has made work necessary for many students. In the past 30 years, the cost of an undergraduate degree has increased over 250 percent.

According to a recent Census report, over 70 percent of undergrads work. One in five of those students is at his or her job at least 35 hours per week. Of those that don’t work full-time, more than half work over 20 hours a week.

But as students log more time on the job, they spend less time at school. So they’re taking longer to graduate. Only 22 percent of part-time students at four-year schools graduate within six years. More than 67 percent of part-time students end up dropping out.

In other words, two-thirds of part-time students pay tuition for years — yet fail to emerge with a diploma.

A new crop of online colleges hopes to solve this problem by meeting non-traditional students where they are. After all, it’s tough to “drop out” if going to college is as simple as logging onto the Internet.

About 1 million U.S. students opt for fully online education each year. Thirty-eight percent of them work full-time. Another fifth works part-time.

But online-only education hasn’t boosted graduation rates. According to a study from the Education Trust, the graduation rate at some online-only schools runs as low as 5 percent.

Some traditional colleges are tiptoeing online by launching free MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses. Anyone can enroll. In some cases, students can pay for a certificate that they’ve completed the course.

MOOCs were supposed to allow students anywhere to get an elite education and make paying for college a thing of the past.

But these courses aren’t replacing on-campus instruction. They’re supplementing it. Only 7 to 9 percent of students who sign up for a MOOC complete it. Eighty percent of enrollees in MOOCs offered by the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania from 2012 to 2013 already had a degree.

So how can colleges effectively educate both traditional and non-traditional students? They must enhance their on-campus offerings with the tools an online approach affords.

To start, colleges could move lectures online and reserve campus time for small-group instruction. At the University of Utah, for instance, we’re working to become a “hybrid university” by putting courses with high enrollment demand and those that are repeated often online. About 25 percent of our students take at least one class online, in conjunction with face-to-face coursework.

Such an approach allows on-campus students to tailor their course load to their learning style. And it grants them scheduling flexibility, which they may need if they’re working.

Non-traditional students like veterans and parents, meanwhile, may find that a blended model provides access to high-quality classes and programs they might otherwise not be able to take advantage of.

Institutes of higher learning could also invest in programs that empower folks with some college to complete their degrees online. At Utah, we’re launching programs in high-demand fields like business and nursing to do just that.

Most teachers prefer blended models. Ninety-three percent of college faculty consider meaningful instructor-student relationships necessary for a high-quality online course.

Evangelists for online education agree. As Piotr Mitros, chief scientist at edX — one of the largest providers of MOOCs — explains, “Closeness to teachers really does help student outcomes . . . Machines are never going to replace the need for the human connection.”

Blended-learning options can deliver the high-quality education that both traditional and non-traditional students need — on a timetable that works for their budget.

Reader Comments 0

45 comments
Carlos_Castillo
Carlos_Castillo

In antediluvian generations past, parents and school administrations worked pretty hard to remove the possibility of college students being distracted from college work.  No living off campus.  Dorms segregated by sex, campus regulations governing visits between members of opposite sexes to each other's sex-segregated dormitories and rooms. The school acted "in loco parentis" or 'in place of the parents."  The one common denominator was the presence of fraternities and sororities, but in comparison to today, they were outfitted with bridles, bits, saddles and stirrups.


Maybe that's why graduation rates were better.  But they such stupid sods back then, weren't they?


The other thing missing was federal regulation of education.  Imagine, full time teachers and lower tuition rates on account of less need for compliance officers masquerading as administrators.


Things are so much better now.



atln8tiv
atln8tiv

One more point worth mentioning: the push toward online classes is not entirely (if at all) out of what's best for students. As Georgia pushes educators to graduate more students more quickly, online is seen as a way to do this since there are only so many hours in a day and so many seats available that can be physically devoted to class time, and part-time adjuncts are cheaper than full-time staff. Sadly, not all adjuncts are as invested in the programs they teach as the full-time staff since many of them must work part-time jobs at several different institutions to cobble together a decent income (and still without benefits).

popacorn
popacorn

Mature students with solid computer skills? What employer would want that? 

atln8tiv
atln8tiv

@popacorn Of course, most employers do want these skills. Unfortunately, many students lacking in these areas are being pushed into online courses where they fail.

RealLurker
RealLurker

This reads more like an advertisement for the University of Utah than a news/blog article.  It provides some data about college students, of which some I would dispute.  It then states that the University of Utah is a great place for non-traditional students to attend because of all the things they do to help non-traditional students.

atln8tiv
atln8tiv

I teach blended/hybrid courses where content is provided both online and in the classroom. Many of the courses I teach can't really be offered completely online without compromising much of the content. Students would also have to invest in expensive software and equipment to go completely online. 

Online courses can work where the subject matter allows for it and the students are self-motivated, organized and engaged. However, completely online classes run the risk of not teaching adequate soft skills that employers seek in their employees. I'm not saying these skills can't be taught in an online environment, but doing so requires some adjustments and extra attention to ensure they are addressed. And as hard as it is to keep students engaged face-to-face, it's even more challenging online.

I have found that, generally speaking, mature students tend to perform better in online classes, assuming they have solid computer skills. Students who had difficulty succeeding in K-12 typically do not do well in online classes. And by 'mature', I don't necessarily mean age; rather, those students who make a practice of the behaviors and habits of successful students in traditional classrooms tend to do better online as well.

atln8tiv
atln8tiv

Another consideration of online learning is which LMS (Learning Management System/Software) is being used. If a school has issues with their LMS and wishes to switch to another when the contract is up, it may require instructors to 'rebuild' their online courses (as I will soon be required to do), which is time-consuming and uses time that would otherwise be spent working directly with students or developing additional content.

atln8tiv
atln8tiv

@redweather @atln8tiv Yes, and I think many schools see online classes as a way to increase revenue by packing online classes, without regard to what's best academically for the student. Online instructors may not even be in the same city, state, time zone or country, which of course can pose problems. And for those adjuncts juggling multiple students in multiple courses and institutions, the workload may simply be greater than what they can reasonably accommodate. 'Do more with less.' Same mantra for online education as for traditional education.

redweather
redweather

@atln8tiv Many students report the same issues related to online classes that you cover in your post.  But there is so much pressure to increase access that a lot of people dismiss the pitfalls of online learning.  I am always surprised by how easily stymied my supposedly tech-savvy students are when sitting in front of a computer.  Many of them don't know the first thing about Microsoft Word, which I find astounding at the college level.  What have they been using to create documents?  And one of the most frequently cited problems with online classes concerns how slow some faculty are to respond to student requests for assistance.  As I counsel students all the time, online classes can be more difficult simply because so much depends on the student.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

I retired just before my University began offering "hybrid" courses that combine online instruction with traditional classroom instruction. But I do have some observations.


Online K-12 classes are not at all the same as online college classes. The students are quite different; the materials to be covered are quite different; and the general classroom experiences of each are quite different. I don't think that experience in the one area translates to experience in the other area.

Former colleagues have told me that online college teaching is quite different from traditional classroom teaching, and requires a different set of pedagogical skills. It is not just a matter of the teacher sitting in front of the teleconference camera and lecturing as usual. And the question of how to handle the testing must be settled differently too. Then there is the obvious problem of the teacher being able to establish that the registered student is the one actually doing the online work.

MOOCs bring their own set of logistical problems.  Usually, colleges limit the number of MOOCs taken by a student that are accepted for college credit. There also is the problem that they may replace regular faculty since they're taught by national super-stars, thus contributing to the growing number of adjunct instructors in our colleges.



MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

The point of my previous post was to demonstrate that any rigid formula for instruction, that does not allow for variances in instructional design, may well deprive students of the particular assets of given teachers.  I gave my particular lecture mode as an example of what I had excelled within. Another teacher, however, may be a master of the nurturing required in small-group interaction and not be a very effective lecturer. Teachers, like students, have different talents and styles.

MiltonMan
MiltonMan

@popacorn


It was and all of the blogs from Mary are just that along with a moronic incessant droning for the democratic party.

popacorn
popacorn

@MiltonMan

For many, online education is an epiphany; a ray of hope beaming through the dysfunctional, darkened dungeon of today's public schooling. No amount of propaganda will slow its growth, as many realize that having no teacher at all is better than..., well, you know. 

Quidocetdiscit
Quidocetdiscit

@popacorn @MiltonMan


How many online courses have you actually taken?


I have taken several, and none of them were as enjoyable to me as a well run traditional classroom course.  They were better than my worst college classes, but fell far short of my better ones. I especially missed the immediacy of class discussion and  professor's  responses to questions as they arose.  Clarification was not immediate, question/answer type feedback was often lacking, and I did not get to interact with other students as much as I would like - thus I missed the benefit of additional insight and experience brought by others. 


I think it interesting that some of the same people who decry teachers getting their "online degrees" seem fine with online learning when it does not involve educators getting advanced degrees.


Hmmmm.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Quidocetdiscit 


As I was reading your comments, Quido, I remembered that sometimes in classroom discussions, as you described above so well, there is a rhythm in the way the mental energy moves in a classroom.  I do not believe that that degree of "rhythm" would happen with an online course. 


Analogy:  Watching a live stage performance versus watching a motion picture performance. The audience (students) in the live stage performance are part of the intellectual synergy present in the live performance (actual, physical classroom), as opposed to the audiences impact upon the movie (or the virtual classroom in which little occurs spontaneously).

popacorn
popacorn

This new-fangled technology stuff is here to say, and online education will continue its explosion. Of course horse and buggy educators object, as it must be deflating to realize that many, many students/parents run like the wind to escape the oppressive atmosphere of classroom chaos and self-deluded teachers. As students roll their eyes, the dinosaurs bark about, if they remember correctly, the good old days and what great teachers they are. Sadly, parents/kids don't agree, and reach the 'anything but this' mode. Online education is here to stay, is growing exponentially, and should be embraced as one of the many needed solutions to today's circus and its freak sideshows. 

MiltonMan
MiltonMan

@popacorn 


Yep nothing like good 'ole competition to shake-up those well established teachers who are nothing more than democratic drones.  My kids learned more from Khan Academy online tutorials than most of their ill-equipped "professional" teachers.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@popacorn Interesting that you don't mention anything about efficacy. Look up Colorado's experiment with online high school classes. 

Also, look at Georgia's history of investing in unproductive technology. The state wasted millions -- one estimate given to me was $100 million -- on school technology that either didn't work or couldn't be used during Linda Schrenko's reign.

Isn't the key making sure something works before scaling it? 

That said, I just paid $500 for my math and science kid to take a course this summer via the Ga Virtual School, which is the state-run online program.

Curious to see how that goes this summer. 

popacorn
popacorn

@MaureenDowney

Do you mean Colorado's exploding K-12 schools? It is not an experiment anymore, Maureen. They are growing like crazy. And Georgia, well, its Georgia. I am sure you will bring up some educators objections/research/babbling etc. No matter, these schools are here to stay. How about suggestions on how to make them better? Good that you will actually have experience this summer. Glad educators were not in charge of the space program. We would have quit when the first rocket went sideways. 

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@popacorn @OriginalProf @MaureenDowney 

I'm not complaining about folks staying on-topic, but about the irrelevance of speculating about K-12 online education when the subject at hand is online college education. They're really different, and the students are really different. You, for example, who have several posts about the value of online K-12 education. What do you know about online college/university education?

popacorn
popacorn

@OriginalProf @popacorn @MaureenDowney

I know that an online course is capable of kicking your butt like nobody's business, and that many, if not most, college students will tell you online courses generally require more work than classroom courses. Ironically, no place to hide in online courses. You gotta put everything out for all to see. Goes without saying I hope, the instructor/moderator is key. Real time interaction is possible, and if you want, you can even see faces, though I wouldn't want to. Just not hard for some to envision a computer screen replacing and improving upon a soon to be archaic traditional classroom. Hold on!

Now don't go all 'Perry Mason' on me. 

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@popacorn @OriginalProf @MaureenDowney 

I've heard there also are online techniques for classroom participation, although not face-to-face, in which the students complete an assignment, post what they wrote, and then comment upon one another. Also, there's the possibility for the teacher to communicate individually with each student via computer.


But I've only heard of "hybrid" college online courses, that mix classroom discussion of subjects with online completion of assignments and discussion topics.


But a friend at UGA did tell me that learning how to teach his class online required an entire term of preparation beforehand to learn how to do it.

popacorn
popacorn

@OriginalProf

Yes, and a diligent teacher would require/read/comment on posts, as would every single student in the class. Of course your friend had lots to learn, I am sure he is still stumbling and learning, and will be the first to admit he has just scratched the surface, as have we all. 

Quidocetdiscit
Quidocetdiscit

@OriginalProf @MiltonMan @popacorn


I use Khan Academy in my classroom sometimes, just to let students experience a lesson from a different format and perspective.  They are generally well done and of interest to the kids.


And sometimes there are errors.


My students LOVE catching them!

Quidocetdiscit
Quidocetdiscit

@popacorn @OriginalProf


The problem with those "forum" type commentary and post requirements for online course are that they are not "natural." They have very specific criteria, so any tangential discussion is discouraged and can even lead to a lower grade.  However, in a traditional setting, it is some of those asides that lead to deeper understanding of the content as students gain from the sharing of experiences and ideas of others.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

"But online-only education hasn’t boosted graduation rates. According to a study from the Education Trust, the graduation rate at some online-only schools runs as low as 5 percent."

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Just wanted to highlight the above sentence from this solid, well-thought-through column by this educator.


In addition, one fact I did find missing from the article was that different teachers have different talents.  Some are great with lecture because their students are fully engaged with the ideas with them.  One Assistant Principal who had evaluated me in action in the classroom had complimented the way I conducted the lecture part of my lesson.  She said I would lecture with given ideas and allow questioning by students in the process of the lecture.  That way students, individually, got the lecture ideas and even learned from one another regarding the questions of other students and the answers given to them.  I would personally call upon various students during my lectures to keep them engaged and I would often walk around the room while doing so.  I had been a theater minor (so this was a particular talent of mine - call it "stage presence"). 


I, also, did the small group interaction and monitored the students interaction with one another in a daily lessons, which the students enjoyed, but I much more enjoyed the lecture interaction with students and I loved my subject matter and communicating it to my students. My enthusiasm for verbal understanding was "catching" to the students, and I was "live" to them with all of the back and forth intellectual growing between us all.  The students were juniors and seniors in high school.

Kvinnan2
Kvinnan2

"Ninety-three percent of college faculty consider meaningful instructor-student relationships necessary for a high-quality online course."

Would one expect them to say otherwise? How did buggy whip manufacturers view the advent of the automobile, or teachers' union bosses the coming of charter schools?

oh Pleese
oh Pleese

@Kvinnan2 I have taken mostly traditional undergraduate and graduate classes.  But I have had a few on-line as well.  I think I am not alone in placing value on the social/personal interaction between students and other students and the interactions of students with the professors face-to-face.  Yes, one can get the credits one needs without 'buggy whip' educators, but I wouldn't trade my years of on-campus experience for anything.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Absolutely not a fan of on line education.  Have not seen that it results in anything near mastery of material.

MiltonMan
MiltonMan

Misleading article like always on Maureen's blogs:


"The ever-rising cost of tuition has made work necessary for many students. In the past 30 years, the cost of an undergraduate degree has increased over 250 percent."


...and the federal government is to partially blame on this with federal loans, grants, etc., etc. giving colleges a green light to increase tuition.



Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@MiltonMan Federal loans and grants do not cover anything near the cost of education.  Educational costs have gone up for students largely because states have moved the cost from taxpayers to the students themselves.

MiltonMan
MiltonMan

@Wascatlady


...and if it where up to libs like you and Jason Carter, those rich evil college students would be denied HOPE/Zell Miller in this state.

bu2
bu2

@MiltonMan 


I'm curious about her comments that fewer students are full time.  As a % that is unquestionably true.  But I would be surprised if the actual number had declined.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@MiltonMan @Wascatlady Mah-lar-key!  I am all for merit based aid, as well as need based aid. When GA added the HOPE (1993?), a merit based award, it discontinued its involvement in SSIG, a matching fed/sate NEED BASED program.  I thought that was a travesty.


Two of my kids got HOPE, and graduated with honors.  I am NOT against HOPE.  I wish I could have qualified for that kind of help for my master's and PhD programs! 

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

I was a non-traditional student for both my undergrad and graduate degrees.  I was working a full time job, raising a family, and starting up a business - all while taking night classes.

The biggest obstacle I encountered was the lack of classes offered at night.  This was especially frustrating when you needed a class as a prerequisite for other classes, but the school didn't offer it for 2-3 semesters.

PJ25
PJ25

@Lee_CPA2 Same here though I only have an undergrad degree.  And by working through school I was able to pay as I went even if that meant skipping a semester or two.  Nothing beats graduating college debt free. 

Astropig
Astropig

@Outer Marker @Lee_CPA2


"Nothing beats graduating college debt free. "


Amen Brother! (Or sister). Debt free graduates have more career freedom and can make economic decisions that are in their best long term interests,instead of just trying to tread water.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Outer Marker @Lee_CPA2 

How long ago was that? Nowadays, minimum-wage jobs--such as the ones college students get--don't pay enough to cover college expenses.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Lee_CPA2 

A common problem, even today. Some faculty may not want to teach at night. Some night-classes may not have enough students enrolled to "make," so even if they're required classes they can't be offered. I do know that with the tighter budget restrictions today, it's harder for night classes to "make" since they must be nearly full to justify the expense.  (A night class that has 8 students enrolled used to be allowed to run, for example, but now it would have to be nearly full with 15 students to run.)

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf @Outer Marker @Lee_CPA2


Have to disagree here. Your kid doesn't have to take a minimum wage job. I know several students that worked construction jobs to pay for school. It's hard work,but you can make more than minimum wage if you're industrious. You also acquire a few life skills that will come in handy for the rest of your existence. Also, Astropig jr. did field repair work on computers and electronic gizmos during college and made pretty good coin. It was like stealing- he would have done it for free,but since he's good at it,they paid him about $60 an hour and mileage.


You have to think outside the box to really succeed at the college finance game. But short term pain= lifetime gain.


redweather
redweather

"Such an approach allows on-campus students to tailor their course load to their learning style."


Learning styles have been pretty much debunked, but otherwise the hybrid model is one that works fairly well.