Studying the Long-Term Effects of Online Education

Posted on February 26, 2013


Online learning has grown into an integral element of higher education. No longer an experimental novelty practiced by a handful of tech-loving pioneers, digital classrooms have enjoyed a steady surge in popularity for their low cost and ease of access. But you can't change the way people approach learning without permanently impacting a few things along the way. Recent studies offer plenty of insight when it comes to better understanding how online and blended courses influence the students enrolled in them. And current trends and undertakings might reveal some of the possible hamstrings they might encounter — and, thankfully, some of their possible solutions.

As It Stands Now

According to the Sloan Consortium, more than 6.7 million American college students are currently enrolled in at least one online course. This follows a steady increase from previous years, and educators these days generally look upon blended or wholly Internet-based classes favorably. Seventy-seven percent reported that they believe that the learning outcomes for such courses met or exceeded those of the traditional in-person options. And when it comes to administrators, 69.1% say online education is a major component of their future plans.

The U.S. Department of Education's 2010 evaluation of online learning unearthed compelling reasons to keep providing digital classrooms. Like the Sloan Consortium after it, the organization noted that students from online classes display the same amount of competence as their counterparts; however, they did not see the same examples of them performing above the stated objectives. Individuals enrolled in blended courses merging online and face-to-face educational strategies yielded the highest results of all. These findings provide schools with more evidence towards greater on-campus tech integration.

Because online education has proven itself a viable alternative — if not outright replacement in some instances — to brick-and-mortar institutions, it is now available for military personnel and their qualified dependents using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Even if they enroll in Internet-based degree programs, they receive a living stipend, just like their equivalents in more traditional classrooms. Most online education options have by and large proven themselves well worth the investment.

The Cost of Going to Class

And with tuition at more traditional colleges and universities increasing, online schooling might very well supplant face-to-face in the coming years. College Board findings noted that the published tuition and fees for public, four-year schools "increased by 31% beyond the rate of inflation over the five years from 2002-03 to 2007-08, and by another 27% between 2007-08 and 2012-13."

If these numbers continue to rise, the comparatively low cost of online courses and programs might force more and more students toward them. Education experts, investors, and innovators agree. Brick-and-mortar schools cannot survive unless they become more affordable.

As The New York Times noted in 2008, gas prices also impact the decision regarding which type of classroom students opt to enter — digital or face-to-face. The same sentiment holds true now, when the national average hovers around $3.776 per gallon. So many economic factors influence the sustainability of online education, all of them currently favoring its status as a permanent option.

Size Really Does Matter

Although they've been around since 2008, it wasn't until 2012 that massive open online courses (MOOCs) hit the mainstream. Although these classes, with enrollment in the hundreds or thousands, have made education more accessible for many students, they aren't without their downsides. The Sloan Consortium study discovered that despite all the press and positivity levied towards MOOCs, most professors and academics remain skeptical regarding their efficacy.

And these concerns are not unfounded. While online classes' more "traditional" form typically engages and educates on par with face-to-face learning, MOOCs still need some maintenance to meet these standards. Ten percent of students (or fewer) enrolled in these courses complete them, with 20% held up as a victory. Only 9.4% of American schools plan to incorporate MOOCs into the curriculum, and just 2.6% have them already. It'll take some tweaking and following through on these promises of democratizing the learning process before more colleges and universities embrace the relatively new approach.

The Physical Tolls of Online Learning

Because the structure of online courses places learners behind a computer or smartphone screen all day, concerns unique to them arise — and require addressing. Research may prove that pursuing an Internet-based class or degree plan undeniably proves a fine academic undertaking. But that doesn't mean that potential issues should go ignored.

Face-to-face interaction is a necessity in social education, and even advocates of online lessons believe the best programs need to account for this discrepancy. Sherry Turkle's 2011 book Alone Together analyzes how the rapid influx of technology has dramatically altered human communication. Digital spaces provide more conduits for connecting with others than ever before in history, but the MIT professor noted how they also promote more instances of loneliness and inauthenticity.

Mental health isn't the only concern: optometrists worry about the physiological side effects of spending too much time on a computer. An estimated 50% to 90% of individuals behind the screen suffer from some degree of eye strain as a direct result of their technology usage. For the ones with astigmatism and other visual impairments, this means even further damage over time. Computer Vision Syndrome could escalate and compromise ocular health if online education entirely overtakes the traditional campus. At the present moment, all enrollees can do is adjust their screen settings and take regular breaks to give their eyes a rest.

How Things Can Get Better

"Learning needs to become more open, mobile, social, and analytical because today’s students — active learners — demand it," says Stacey Fontenot, Vice President of Product Marketing, Academic Platforms at Blackboard. Just because there are concerns regarding online education doesn't mean it needs to disappear altogether, especially since most of the concerns have fixes in place or currently being developed.

"Engagement with the learning should always be the primary focus (after the content itself), and that means dynamic, participatory experiences," she continues. "The question isn't whether education tools are physical or digital, but rather which tools are interactive and which ones are static. Digital is not a requirement, but adaptive and flexible are … The new education experience will be more consistent with what teachers and learners have come to expect from current technology."

MOOCs are only about five years old, which means educators are still looking for comparatively solid strategies. It stands to reason that more schools will warm to the idea of online courses for hundreds of students once the pioneers discern how to approach the inherent problems; some of the solutions will come simply from trial and error. In November 2012, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated more than $13 million toward 12 grants experimenting with the MOOC format. Nine of these went to colleges such as Georgia Institute of Technology (which partners with provider Coursera) and University of Wisconsin (whichpartners with Desire2Learn). All of these schools and their associates plan to develop MOOCs in subjects like English and math, tracking the positives and negatives along the way.

Even beyond the generous Gates Foundation gifts, other progress in the MOOC sector might reveal the tactics necessary to keep them for phasing out into just another higher education fad. The MOOC2Degree initiative offers free, professionally developed courses that participating institutions accept for credit. Major MOOC provider Udacity now proctors final exams for its Intro to Computer Science course, thanks to its relationship with Pearson. University of Colorado accepts transfer credit for select Udacity courses. All of these pushes might hopefully uncover a valid solution for the retention issues currently inspiring skepticism and apathy. Improving MOOCs could very well lead to spreading the perks of online classrooms to even more students.

Another way to increase MOOCs' sustainability might involve incorporating more social media, blogs, and wikis. Pearson studies noted that 33.8% of higher education professionals now include at least one of these tools in their curricula. Although wikis and blogs remain the most popular media, all the aforementioned digital resources increase student engagement and knowledge retention. Both of these benefits might promote MOOCs as an attractive option in due time.

Collaborative textbooks, sometimes in wiki format, open up even more possibilities for greater learning opportunities. These not only make education more accessible through teamwork, but they often lower the cost of required reading materials as well — if they don't eliminate them altogether. One of the most show-stopping examples of an effective multimedia textbook is Smarthistory. Run by Khan Academy, professional art historians and other approved contributors lend their knowledge, photos, and more to cover the entirety of humanity's creative achievements in the visual arts. For free. The Dynamic Textbook Project, presented by University of California, Davis, provides an ever-changing online academic environment where allowed participants promote the STEM fields. Visitors receive a comprehensive look at chemistry, biology, physics, geology, and more at no cost. Visitors who truly love these industries and have something to offer are encouraged to contribute to the overarching body of work.

Blackboard also embraces the push toward group efforts with its upcoming xpLor initiative. Teachers upload course materials, and their contemporaries or students (or both) alter them as they see fit. Everyone enjoys a chance to contribute their own creativity and perspectives in a dynamic environment, rather than merely downloading an assignment and working straight from the instructions. Built-in copyrighting and Creative Commons tools allow educators to share work for others to alter without worrying about plagiarism. "Versioning" help them keep track of changes without requiring loads of documents. The xpLor initiative launches in summer 2013.

The socialization might bother some parents and educators, but they don't need to worry. K12 Inc.'s 2009 study on the subject, which focused on the comparatively more vulnerable kindergarten through high school demographics rather than higher ed, proved that students enrolled in full-time online courses boasted social skills at or exceeding their mainstream classroom counterparts. Just because their classes take place on the Internet does not mean they completely disconnect from kids their own age. While they foster many of their communication and collaboration skills online, they do participate in field trips and extracurricular activities for face time.

At the college level, Meetup.com groups based around online courses are available for study groups, field trips, and general hangouts. Students hoping to collaborate face to face take advantage of the site (Facebook as well) to organize a wide variety of events, so they never have to fret over slipping into antisocialism. MOOC leader Udacity tackled the problem with its laudable Udacity Meetup efforts. More than 3,000 students in nearly 500 cities participate in the offline communities to share their love of collaborative learning beyond the digital walls.

In the long term, online education seems destined to keep traveling a positive path. Some aspects, particularly when it comes to guarding against vision loss and building sustainable MOOCs, still require some adjustment. But more studies and more experiments will hopefully unveil more solutions. For now, though, the overall student and professor reports illustrate how things are and will probably continue to be largely fine in the online learning classroom.