Report gauges pluses and minuses of online learning

A report on the findings of a year-long study released in January by a group of professors at the University of Illinois highlights the promise and pitfalls of online teaching and learning.

The professors conclude that online courses can be of high-quality–but not if they become university cash cows filled with faceless teachers and anonymous students.

While aimed at college administrators, the report’s conclusions are relevant to K-12 leaders as well, as more and more K-12 schools experiment with online delivery of courses.

The idea for the report came in 1997, after University of Illinois President James Stukel discussed a vision for the school that included an emphasis on learning “beyond the bounds of time and place.” Some professors embraced the idea. Others shifted in their seats.

One of the skeptics was John Regalbuto, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the university’s Chicago campus. Regalbuto said he had no qualms about using new technology in the classroom, but he was concerned about the quality of teaching when students and professors don’t come face to face.

Regalbuto ended up as chairman of the group of professors, divided evenly between those wary of online teaching and those who promoted the concept. He said the report is a “good news/bad news” scenario for college administrators.

“The good news is high-quality online teaching can be done… but it’s not going to be the moneymaker administrators think it’s going to be,” Regalbuto said.

The professors concluded that good online teaching takes a lot of effort on the part of the professors, who must find a way to maintain a “human touch” with their students, usually through small classes. They also said young college students–fresh out of high school into their early 20s–benefit more from social settings where they can interact with classmates and teachers.

University of Illinois chemistry professor Patricia Shapley agreed that setting up an online course can take more time than setting up a traditional course. Her online chemistry class includes quizzes three times a week and “lectures” that have pictures and text students can click on to learn more about concepts they don’t understand. Clicking on a diagram of a chemical reaction, for example, might show that reaction taking place step by step.

But she said a large class–hers usually has 100 to 180 students–isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Students still chat with teaching assistants in small groups, but they can “go to class” whenever they like on a certain day and see other students’ questions on a common message board.

Matt Wargin, a 22-year-old University of Illinois journalism graduate, said he liked the flexibility of an economics class he took where quizzes were given online.

“I loved the fact that it was online,” Wargin said. “I didn’t have to be in a specific room at a specific time.”

Janet Poley, president of the ADEC Distance Education Consortium at the University of Nebraska, said college students bound to certain places by work or family find the internet ideal for their courses.

According to a U.S. Department of Education survey covering the 1997-1998 school year, about 1.4 million students were enrolled in college-level, credit-granting distance education courses.

The key to how well students learn, Poley said, is how the courses are structured. Classes taught by committed faculty members who get involved will work just as well online as they do in the bricks-and-mortar classroom, she said.

Regalbuto said that’s the point of the report–that professors must be involved. He said he’s thought about setting up a web message board for his students and sees some advantages to online learning, although he still wouldn’t support an entire online undergraduate education.

“Perhaps the best of both worlds is to be a resident student with access to these online teaching tools, because some of them are fantastic,” Regalbuto said.

University of Illinois

Online learning Report

ADEC Distance Education Consortium

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