USA Today - Learning Online Without Being Alone: The Value of Community in Blended Offerings

USA Today - Learning Online Without Being Alone: The Value of Community in Blended Offerings

By UMassOnline CEO David J. Gray

Distance learning advocates will sometimes argue that anything and everything can be learned by anyone, anywhere, at any time, online. Some will even suggest that online instructional methods transcend the power and reach of the traditional classroom experience. While it’s true that many college students prosper academically no matter how, when or where the material is presented, there are two important academic realities that technology purists and staunch online proponents sometimes overlook: every student is different; and we are, all of us, at every stage in life, communal beings.

At different times, for individual reasons, and to varying degrees driven by our own unique preferences, we need or want to be in the physical presence of others. We congregate to share happiness, seek support, to be seen and heard and, of course, from time to time, because it is for some of us, some of the time, a faster, better or simply preferred way to learn and to teach.

This year, in conjunction with the five campuses in the University of Massachusetts system, and thanks to a generous development grant from the Sloan Foundation, UMassOnline developed and launched ten new blended learning offerings that combine online instruction with classroom interaction. Some, as you might expect, such as our nursing certificates and degrees—developed by UMass’ Worcester Graduate School of Nursing—feature content that for some learners is accelerated by at least some interaction or hands-on application.

Other blended offerings in business and management give students the option of spending about a third of their time during their course of study on campus, with others, for face-to-face learning. Is this a tacit acknowledgement that pure online distance learning is a flawed model? Have we at UMassOnline surrendered to those who would say that distance learning can not rise to the quality level of a traditional on-campus college education? Not at all. In fact, we believe our continuing innovations in the blended learning concept will have national and international implications for UMassOnline as we look ahead to extend and expand our global reach.
What we have already discovered is that, for many of our online students who live and work within commuting distance of a UMass campus, blended learning is quickly becoming a preferred option. For some of them, the most obvious blended learning benefit is enjoying some limited class time while preserving the flexibility of course work that is predominantly accomplished online. But a number of other factors are making these new blended offerings some of the most popular programs we have ever offered. For some, the blended learning option provides the physical campus connection that, while probably impossible to quantify, somehow validates, elevates or otherwise tangibly distinguishes their college experience.
For others, the on-campus component is an aid to their academic self-discipline since a pure online experience can test a person’s ability to manage a busy personal and professional schedule while mastering college-level course work independently. And for still others, blended learning simply satisfies the natural desire we all have to be with others and to meet those who form a part of our community, either online or in the real world. In short, for some, blended learning offers the best of both worlds.

Date: 03/21/08