E-learning Programs in Higher Education
One of the first forms of e-learning included a video/audio system that transferred course material from one place (a provider classroom) to several others. Even though students are enrolled in the same class, they may attend class in different designated places, thus learning synchronously — at the same time — with others. Most schools have moved away from this method as technology has improved. Currently, the most common form of e-learning is online classes—those that use a course management system and the Internet to connect teachers and students. Students in online courses learn asynchronously — at different times. Some e-courses use both traditional (in classroom) learning as well as online course management systems. Students attend classes on a regular basis and also log on to the Internet to complete assignments or for supplemental course information. The advantages and disadvantages of online learning are discussed below, as are student and faculty perceptions of the format.
Keywords: Asynchronous Learning; Blended Learning; Course Management System; Distance Learning; Hybrid; E-learning; Online Learning; Sloan Consortium; Synchronous Learning; Web-based Instruction
Learning electronically, or online learning, is an option for many college students. Ben Baker is a thirty-two-year-old father with two children. Baker attends college part-time and works three days per week. When the time comes for Baker to register for classes, he looks for sections that are offered online. "It just makes things easier. I can log on and do my class work when it's best for me, which is usually after my kids go to bed" (Personal communication, November 3, 2009). A 2010 Sloan Survey reported that 5.6 million students were enrolled in at least one online course in the fall of 2009 (Sloan Consortium, 2010). Baker is one of over 5.5 million. By 2012, the number of online learners had increased to 6.7 million (Allen & Seaman, 2013, p. 4). Getting an education electronically is an option for students who appreciate convenient, flexible, and independent learning. E-learning does not provide an environment that is beneficial to all students. However, for those students who are interested in the concept, there is a course or program not far away that will fill their needs. In fact, according to the US Department of Education, "62 percent of the postsecondary institutions surveyed offered online education courses" in the 2011–2012, according to Allen & Seaman (2013). This trend is expected to continue for many reasons.
Advances in technology have resulted in online courses becoming a normal part of college life, especially for community colleges who have suffered financially due to past recessions (Bradley, 2008). According to the Sloan Consortium, in 2006, "there were 1.9 million community college students enrolled in at least one online course;" that figure represents more than half of all the online enrollments of that year (Bradley, 2008, p. 9). In contrast, private, 4-year baccalaureate schools "enroll less than 5 percent of the online student population and have the lowest rates of growth in online enrollments" (Bradley, 2008, p. 9). Community colleges cater to students at a distance and offer Associates degree programs, professional certifications, and the majority of liberal arts classes required for baccalaureate programs, with the option of online courses.
A 2013 study found, however, that while 97 percent of community colleges offer online courses, only 3 percent of students attending those institutions are enrolled in entirely online degree programs (Fain, 2013). For the most part, students felt they learned better in face-to-face instructional settings, especially in science and foreign language classes.
Types of E-Learning
There are differences in the delivery of e-learning options, depending on the college and its resources. The first incarnation of electronic learning was most popular in the 1970s and 1980s, and some colleges still utilize the form. Distance learning includes video and audio simulcasts that originate in one place (generally a classroom) and are televised to one or several other places, usually classrooms in other schools. This type of e-learning is called synchronous, meaning that the students and instructor need to be present at the same time to participate in the class. Sometimes teleconferencing is included in this model so that instructors can "meet" with individual students without the rest of the class listening in. While this technology is effective, it is not the most efficient.
Online learning is the most popular type of e-learning. Courses taught online use the Internet and a course management system (e.g.: Blackboard) to present course materials that are created by a teacher to students who attend class from a location of their choice, usually home. Students are required to purchase and read textbooks and to complete assignments just like in a traditional classroom. However, course material is posted within the course management system where students submit assignments, take tests, and participate in discussions with fellow students. Online classes are asynchronous in nature because learning takes place at different times for students, generally when it is most convenient for them, which could be anytime of the day or night. According to the Sloan Consortium, which has been tracking the trends of online learning for many years, in the fall 2010, about 6.1 million college students were taking at least one online course, which was over 30 percent of the nation's higher education students (Sloan, 2011, pp. 11–12).
A third type of e-learning combines traditional classroom teaching with a course management system, even though students still attend regular classes. For blended or hybrid learning situations, teachers may require that discussions, group work, research, or homework assignments be completed and submitted through the course management system, even though the class meets on a regular basis. Teachers can also post course requirements, like a syllabus or assignment specifications on the course management system so that paper copies are not necessary, which is especially helpful in large classes. As Jackson and Helms explain,
Even among institutions that do not choose exclusively online courses, many are using course delivery platforms, such as Blackboard Learning System, to communicate electronically with students outside of class for grades, assignments, and updates. Other colleges and universities use a combination or hybrid approach offering classes partially online and partially in class (2008, p. 7).
For these types of classes, students know where they stand academically because once grades are posted they can be viewed at any time. In addition, faculty can keep attendance and any other class records within the management system, so everything is in one place and accessible with access to the Internet. Again, for large classes, these features are helpful.
Advantages of Online Learning
The biggest advantage of learning online is that students can do it on their own time and at their own pace. Assignments have due dates, but students can complete them in advance if they like or during lunch breaks or even while having their morning coffee in pajamas. Convenience and flexibility are important factors when it comes to students choosing online courses (Rowh, 2007). For some students, speaking up in class is similar to torture. In an online environment, participating in discussion forums from a keyboard is a relief for students who fear public speaking. Another advantage is that online learning is not limited to full-time students, nor is it limited to college students. According to the Sloan Consortium, in 2007–2008, 1,030,000 K–12 students were enrolled in an online course, which is a 47 percent increase from the 2007–2008 school year (Picciano & Seaman, 2009, chart p. 1). High school students can earn college credit without having to travel to a college campus. In that same vein, students attending one college can sometimes cross-register to take an online course offered at a different institution. Students with special needs may also find online learning advantageous. Students who care for a family member or those who have an illness can again work at their own pace and not have to travel to or be present in traditional classes to gain a college education.
Disadvantages of Online Learning
Taking a class online requires discipline. Students have to prioritize their schedules so that logging into their online classes — and completing the required work — is a daily activity just like preparing for and attending a traditional class. Students who procrastinate completing assignments when they see a teacher on a regular basis will not change their ways — and are likely to increase them — when they feel they are accountable to their computers rather than a teacher. Also, it is easy to be distracted by a telephone ringing, a child crying, or the sun shining, and that may make completing online assignments difficult for some students, whereas once in a classroom, distractions can be limited. Another disadvantage relates to technical issues. Students taking online courses not only need a reliable computer and Internet access, they also need to be able to contact someone when something doesn't work. Some course management systems have "help" features that can talk a patient student through problem solving. However, if something goes wrong in the middle of an online exam, even the most patient student may feel frustrated and give up.
The Online Learner
Students who take online courses have the same "income, race, and ethnicity" that their peers in traditional courses. However, more students who take online courses are older than students who take traditional classes, and 70 percent of students who take online courses are women (Groux, 2012). "About 40 percent of cyber students are under the age of thirty, while about 20 percent are younger than twenty-five" (Groux, 2012). Sixty percent of online students are white, about 20 percent are black, and approximately 8 percent identify themselves as Hispanic (Kolowich, 2012). Sixty percent are employed full-time, and the majority live within 100 miles of the...
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