Nearly a million more students were taking at least one online course in the United States during the fall 2009 term than the previous year. That dramatic growth rate is about 10 times higher than the growth rate of the overall higher education student population, 21 percent versus 2 percent. Those are the findings of the latest research in "Class Difference$: Online Education in the United States, 2010," a multi-year project that examines online education in this country, performed by Babson Survey Research Group in collaboration with the College Board and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.Unfortunately, though, in our experience many, many universities that are strictly online are little more than degree-mills. Here is what an anonymous administrator who provides online sourcing for one major American online university says:
"A lot of people might think that it is the programs or the administration of these for-profit online institutions that are the root of the problem. However, as I work with and get inputs from their teaching faculty, it is clear that many of their instructors do not have the least understanding of pedagogy, and some of their requests in terms of service show that they are little more than rubber stamper with little or no interaction with their students. Instead, they are the administrators themselves, ticking off boxes based on students' performance in asynchronous environments, devoid of feedback and inputs. Students' only form of feedback is a tragically inflated grading system meant to give students what they are paying for--passing grades and, tragically for many students, a worthless degree."Many online campuses, in order to overcome exactly this criticism, are turning to online tutoring providers to give their e-campuses a human touch. By providing a minimum number of either synchronous or asynchronous interactions with an online instructor--often a third party provider--they can provide the students with the sort of learning-driven feedback that should be a basic component of any education, either online or offline.
In a telephone interview, Amy Donahue, an online educational consultant and head of Business Development with Syntax Online Education Development, a consulting firm working primarily with higher education, noted that while many online campuses are moving towards pursuing a mass-market model, the value of their offerings still depend on the value of the education that they offer.
"Small class size, one-on-one time with instructors as well as teaching assistants or online tutors, and timely, learning-driven feedback on assignments is still essential to developing the skills needed for later academic or professional success," says Donahue. "Failure to provide quality education is failure to provide a quality product, and while now the market is still fairly naive about online education, the Princeton or Harvard of the online environment is still waiting to be made."
The research has found that the concentration of online students tends to be at the largest institutions--those institutions that already might not fair the best in terms of quality of education. The report states that schools with 5000 or more online student engage fully two-thirds of all online students. Many of these maintain little more than a skeleton campus, with a few thousand students, with thousands of students online--both within the United States and abroad. The the University of Phoenix, founded in 1976 as a upstart college, is the largest private university in North America with students at over 200 campus locations and online learners studying dozens of programs all over the world. The value of a degree from the University of Phoenix is debatable, but a very convincing argument would have to be provided for anyone to think it compared to a tier one or tier two brick and mortar university.
"These institutions capitalize on the fact that a bachelor's degree is today's high school diploma," says Donahue. "It isn't that they are without promise, but generally they tend to contribute to the cheapening of the bachelor's degree and the destruction of the value of their own market--online university degrees."
We also support Ms. Donahue's conclusions. Online education can offer the same education value as traditional brick and mortar institutions for many degree programs--but at present, most models do not achieve that. A mix of small, online classroom environments, supported by one-on-one online instruction by highly trained course support tutors, with exceptional instructor feedback and a focus on student skills--not just giving students "the grade they paid for."