The Boston Globe - Online success depends on learning style

Boston Globe - Online success depends on learning style

By D.C. Denison

Should you take your next course in a classroom or online?

Sorting through educational offerings has always been a difficult process, but it’s more complex now with the advent of online learning.

Which is best? The immediacy of face-to-face classroom, the convenience of an online course, or a “hybrid’’ course that blends a some of each?

Online education is now way beyond a novelty. Some 4.6 million students took at least one online course during the fall 2008 term, or one in four enrolled students, according to the most recent Sloan Report on Online Learning.

Online education courses are delivered entirely via the Internet. Typically, students download the course materials right to their computers, and interact with professors and classmates in online discussion groups. Homework and tests are submitted through the computer. Many courses also incorporate video and audio lectures.

The best-known online players include the University of Phoenix, Walden University, and Capella University, with the for-profit Phoenix’s current enrollment of 476,500 students making it the biggest university in North America. But the brick-and-mortar competition is catching up, from the likes of University of Massachusetts, Lesley University, and Boston University, while smaller institutions, such as Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, N.H., are promoting online programs, too.

Generally courses that include clinical experience, for example, substantial classroom discussion, or even heavy computation were best taken on campus, where students can use the school’s lab space and other necessary equipment. But those distinctions are “about ready for a paradigm switch,’’ said Karen Muncaster, the associate vice president of academic technology and program design at Lesley University in Cambridge.

Improved online technology, combined with students’ increasing comfort with computer-mediated interactions, have made it easier to teach more subjects online, said Muncaster. For example, Lesley College has discovered that even “extraordinarily experimental’’ courses that include drama and dance are now viable online, she said.

“Today a teacher can easily grab video clips with a cellphone and post those online to illustrate a point, or a concept,’’ Muncaster said. “That makes it much easier for the teacher, and the students. You used to need a video crew for that.’’

Jeannette E. Riley, a professor of English and Women’s Studies and the academic director of online education at UMass Dartmouth, also cautioned potential students not to assume a program won’t work online.

“You might think, for example, that a nurse with an associate degree couldn’t get a bachelor of science degree online,’’ she said. “But in fact many of those nurses have already satisfied their clinical requirements, or they are able to work with a local hospital as a ‘practice partner.’ ’’

Both Muncaster and Riley also cited the increasing availability of “blended’’ or “hybrid’’ programs as extending the options for students who are inclined to take online courses. In these blended offerings, students can attend in-person laboratory sessions or meet for regular class discussions.

However, more important than trying to determine whether a certain topic can be taught online, UMass’s Riley said, is for prospective students to assess their own “online readiness.’’

An online student has to have more self-discipline, she said, because there aren’t regular classroom sessions to structure the week’s work. Computer-based courses also place a higher premium on written over oral discussion skills. And online school projects demand that students be comfortable “working collaboratively with people they’ve never met.’’

Lesley’s Muncaster also urged prospective students to think about his or her “learning style,’’ suggesting that students who enjoy interaction will get more out of online courses, which generally require students to frequently comment on the material, and other student contributions.

“If you’re the kind of learner who likes to just take it all in, and think about it, you might not like the online experience,’’ Muncaster said. “Online, you may be sitting in front of computer wearing pajamas, but you are going to be interacting actively with a lot of other people who are sitting in front of their computers in their pajamas.’’

Added Nancy Coleman, director of distance education at Boston University: “You can’t sit in the back of the classroom online.’’

Prospective students should also be alert to ways that they can put the growth of online course offerings to their advantage, said Carol Aslanian, a senior vice president of market research at EducationDynamics LLC, a marketing firm that specializes in higher education. For example, online courses are a good option for people pursuing careers in fields where there is high demand for relatively few programs, such as nursing.

“Many of the classroom-based nursing programs can only accept a small percentage of the applicants,’’ she said. “Online programs have filled that gap because they have much greater capacity.’’

Online course offerings are also valuable if you’re interested in a specialized field, Aslanian said.

The University of Vermont, for example, offers an online course in “Ecological Economics,’’ which is probably not available at your nearby community college.

“You may find exactly the program you’re looking for a thousand miles away,’’ said Aslanian. “Online education can make that happen.’’

Date: 10/13/10