14 March 2020
Education officials and industry experts are debating the future of online learning. The discussion is important because recently hundreds of universities in the United States have moved classes online because of the spread of the new coronavirus.
For Asha Choksi, the rise of internet-based or online study programs has led to major improvements in higher education.
"What it's done is, it's actually given a lot more power to students in terms of how, when and where they learn," the head of research for Pearson Education told VOA. Her company supervises online learning programs.
Colleges and universities worldwide have been looking for ways to provide high quality education off campus and outside of normal business hours. The decision by many schools in the U.S. to suspend in-person classes during the recent coronavirus crisis has shown how important online teaching can be. And demand for such programs is increasing.
A growing industry
The financial advising company Tyton Partners valued the online program management industry at over $1.5 billion in 2015.
Choksi, however, argues that her company is creating a path to higher education for people who might not have been able to get a degree otherwise.
Pearson Education is one of a growing number of companies that have partnered with schools to create online study aids and full degree programs. Classes meet online through video conferencing. In this way, students are able to communicate with each other and their professors even when they are far away from school.
Online learning also permits older students, who work full-time and support families, to work on their education in their free time. It can be helpful for people who might have difficulty coming to a college campus, such as disabled students or those who live far from any college or university.
Not so fast...
However, recent research suggests the majority of college students and professors prefer in-person instruction. In addition, some experts are concerned that companies supervising online learning programs are not clear about the policies they have with the schools they serve.
Last year, the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research published two opinion studies on online higher education programs. Researchers asked over 40,000 American undergraduate students and 9,500 professors what they thought about these programs. In both groups, at least 70 percent of people said they prefer in-person instruction.
"Students see in-class lectures as opportunities to engage with instructors, peers, and...content," the researchers wrote. "Faculty satisfaction with their overall technology experience has declined."
In-person learning is especially important in fields like healthcare and teaching. Online education can never really take its place, said Stephanie Hall. She is a fellow with the independent policy research group The Century Foundation.
"Students need to experience...what it is they're learning about, reading about or hearing about in the classroom. And I don't know yet the degree to which technology can facilitate that," said Hall.
She added that it is not just the user experience that is the issue. Her organization has released several studies about a number of online program managers, known as OPMs. These include companies such as Pearson Education, 2U and Academic Partnerships.
When schools make agreements with OPMs to run their online programs, they often do not make important information available to students, Hall said. This includes how much control the company has over the design of the program or whether the faculty leading the classes were involved in their design.
In addition, many colleges and universities advertise online programs as a low cost opportunity for students. But in some cases, students attending in person classes get financial aid and online students do not. This is another detail which many schools do not make clear to students.
Hall argues that rules for these programs are very limited. She said schools should be required to give all of this information to students. She also believes agreements between the schools and companies are too long and should be renewed each year. In this way, companies will improve to keep the contract.
But Asha Choksi says OPMs are already working to make their systems better. And no one can predict what these programs or higher education will look like in the future.
She noted that the EDUCAUSE study mainly centers on the opinions of traditional students, meaning those between 18 and 24 years old. In her opinion, the study does not deal with the needs of non-traditional students who just do not have the time to enter traditional programs.
Although there is a debate, online higher education is here to stay, Choksi said.
I'm -Anne Ball.
And I'm Pete Musto.
Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.
Words in This Story
campus – n. the area and buildings around a university, college, or school
degree – n. an official document and title that is given to someone who has successfully completed a series of classes at a college or university
prefer – v. to like someone or something better than someone or something else
undergraduate – adj. used to describe a student at a college or university who has not yet earned a degree
lecture(s) – n. a talk or speech given to a group of people to teach them about a particular subject
opportunities – n. amounts of time or a situations in which something can be done
engage with – p.v. to become involved with someone or something
peer(s) – n. a person who belongs to the same age group or social group as someone else
faculty – n. the group of teachers in a school or college
facilitate – v. to make something easier