The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 27, 2013

Our View: Online learning not for everybody

The Free Press

— Online learning is here, it's exciting, and colleges and universities are embracing it as the wave of the future. But the future may be arriving a little too fast for some online learners.

A word to the wise: If you think online education is for you, ask yourself whether you're truly the highly skilled and highly motivated student you think you are. If you're concerned you'd do better with the personal attention a real live instructor can provide, perhaps you're better suited for the standard classroom setting -- or at least a course where the online instruction is supplemental to standard fare.

No one disputes that online learning has exploded in recent years and that online activity will continue to increase. Each year the courses become more comprehensive, and coupled with technological improvements, the possibilities for learning seem endless.

According to the Columbia University Community College Research Center, nearly a third of all college learners are enrolled in traditional online courses, but they are often run by professors who interact very little with their students. Nine studies undertaken by the center collecting data on hundreds of thousands of classes in the states of Washington and Virginia have repeatedly shown that online students are more likely to fail or withdraw. Also, students who struggle in traditional classes are likely to struggle even more online.

About 51,000 students from Washington State community and technical college were tracked in a five-year study ending in 2011, and it found that students who took more online courses were less likely to earn degrees or transfer to four-year colleges.

Despite the challenges online learning entails, colleges and universities continue to roll out more and more programs and make it ever easier to enroll in online classes. The University of Minnesota, in fact, has joined more than 50 other U.S. and foreign educational institutions to embrace Massive Open Online Courses. For the first time this spring, partnering with the online education company Coursera, the U of M will offer large and mostly free online classes, where thousands can learn from the same professor.

The open online courses offer obvious advantages. Students who cannot attend universities or cannot afford them can nevertheless access college-level courses. There will be no course credit for the classes, at least for now, but what the program will do is allow students to explore their interests without the usual risk.

Online learning for paying students, however, used as part of graded instruction, does carry risk. There is still no substitute for the personal learning experience that a live instructor can provide, and those students who are tickled by the enticements online delivery systems provide should carefully consider before plunging in.

Colleges and universities also have a responsibility to their students to diligently improve their online offerings to ensure the highest possible success rate -- and to be cautious about enticing those most vulnerable to failure.