CATESOL News Winter 2012

Online Education for Colleges and Universities: Boon or Bane?
by Tad Walters and Anthony Halderman

First, a disclaimer. We’re no Luddites. We’re techies, but on occasion, in our traditional face-to-face classrooms, time slows down and a kind of magic happens that we rarely experience in the online environment. Online college classes have much to accomplish in order to achieve the kind of success—or magic—educators have enjoyed in the traditional classroom.

Walter’s teaching experience at a for-profit, online university along with teaching traditional college classes that utilize online learning platforms (Blackboard, eCollege, Moodle) has encountered mixed results. As a tool for traditional classroom instruction, these platforms offer both pedagogical and communication conveniences, but as the sole learning environment for a class seeking effective writing, analysis, critical thinking, and authentic student engagement, it sucks!

The artificial nature of discussion boards, PowerPoint presentations, and pre-recorded video lectures don’t provide pedagogically sound learning experiences frequently stated in course outcomes. However, if the online classroom made regular use of live videoconferencing, live audio, and live chats, it might come closer to the efficacy of the traditional classroom. As it currently exists, online education devolves into a series of impersonal, rote tasks, responses, and assessments. Such an educational experience is not engaging, not analytical, not inspiring—not magic—despite the flexibility of teaching/attending from home.

If these online-only schools lack effective instruction and pedagogy, then why would highly-credentialed college instructors be willing to lend the ethos of their hard-won degrees to such questionable teaching practices? Answer ….. a paycheck! While most colleges cut budgets, freeze hiring, and reduce faculty, online “universities” attract instructors with employment opportunities. If we continue pretending that it is ethical for ill-prepared students to delude themselves by buying worthless degrees, that it is ethical for “part-time, temporary, contingent” faculty to scramble for scraps of employment at schools that shouldn’t be accredited, and that none of this will taint our traditional institutions of higher education, then rude awakening awaits us.

The California State University system currently plans to launch “CSU Online” in early 2012. This is a clear indication that some traditional schools plan to move toward the online model despite the dismal track record of such entities. As The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Eric Kelderman noted earlier this month, “Critics see online education, offered in particular by for-profit colleges, as the dark underbelly of higher education, with the quality of Internet courses second to the greed of unscrupulous investors.” In response to these inadequacies, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) is considering more stringent requirements for such online colleges (Kelderman).

Perhaps, if traditional public schools move into this realm, standards will improve in this online environment. Perhaps. However, with the history of institutions of higher education relying on transient instructors like Walters as a means of cost-cutting, we don’t feel confident that the online environment will soon offer a magic spell for student success and retention.

Works Cited
Kelderman, Eric. “Online Programs Face New Demands From Accreditors.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 6 Nov 2011. Web. 21 Nov 2011.

Tad Williams teaches English at Cuesta College, Cal Poly University, and with an online university. Anthony Halderman teaches English at Cuesta College and Cal Poly University.

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