Which Is True About Online Learning?

To what extent do online learning programs deliver? How does teaching happen?

Do you have a concern that some online education programs are fundamentally flawed in the way they are designed?

Online learning should not replace traditional higher education, but it should not supplement it. For an organization to succeed in transitioning, then, from studying to learning, it must first understand how to transform the very nature of higher education. This goal is why courses offered through offline and online models must be linked to one another in a way that makes them more effective and satisfying for both students and faculty.

Are Online Programs Flawed?

According to the American Council on Education, “online or blended courses can enhance the transition from classroom to online course work and be a component of, rather than a substitute for, traditional course offerings.” The council continues, “Online learning systems are frequently designed with the same, or at least comparable, complexity as traditional classroom or print-based courses; in that sense, they should not be compared to each other.”

Online learning that is thought to be novel or innovative is of less consequence than the seamless, student-centered delivery model.

There are notable exceptions to this. A college in California, Fresno State, took some heat last year when it canceled classes in large numbers, in part because of budget concerns. But that model will likely not work for most colleges and universities.

Not So Fast

I make this argument because many educators and higher education professors clearly do not understand this essential difference between online and hybrid courses. As described in the above-linked article, academics and college administrators are often inclined to view high-quality, high-touch, classroom instruction as the most basic academic level. They assume that high-touch, student-centered learning is specifically what informs academic outcomes.

The reality is that online education has to be collaborative, personalized, analytical, and civic, and it has to be based on the opportunity for teamwork. But it is rarely thought about as such. High-touch, student-centered, and similar course models are seen to be useful for assessing learning outcomes, but with many unintended consequences.

It is interesting that this view of online education as primarily a substitute, rather than a complement, for higher education is reflected in which programs are most likely to be effective. According to a report from The Learning Innovation Center, “Black and Hispanic students will constitute 39 percent of enrollment in online or blended classes in 2021, but only 16 percent of those participants will have been online for more than two semesters.” This suggests that minority students are adopting hybrid learning methods to improve their enrollment.

Why are Student Attrition and Loss Due to Online vs. hybrid Learning Policies?

Despite the persistence of this view in academia, a body of research has established that graduate degrees obtained through online and hybrid courses are more likely to be good ones, and that students obtain far more worthwhile credentials in the long term when learning has offline and online components.

Perhaps online education is so valuable that it has the capacity to replace the entirely of high-class, college-bound undergraduate programs in a social system that already lacks a corresponding pipeline of well-trained faculty and administrators.

Maybe students who are willing to utilize virtual learning resources to achieve their academic goals will adjust the value of a professional degree towards general competence rather than specialization. Or they may find ways to improve upon their careers because they have gained an understanding of social collaboration and the importance of whole-person learning.


All of this is highly debatable, but the point remains that questions are necessary about how an institution might be best able to provide an overall, sophisticated learning experience—including components like collaboration and experiential learning—over the course of a student’s educational journey. Such a range of educational options should mean that a student who has a focus on critical thinking can enhance her prospects for a successful future by taking online classes that give a pathway towards mastering these skills.

The reality is that many academic institutions do not provide this wide range of educational options, even though students want them. This is primarily due to the traditional approaches of organization. The quest for scale and efficiency does not mean having to forego effectiveness or transparency.

Education is increasingly the destination of choice for many. Our thinking must shift towards the importance of providing the best kind of experience possible.

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