Online Learning: Good or Bad?

Dr. Roger H. Sublett

President Roger Sublett

A university exists to serve its students by providing value to their educational endeavors.  Union Institute & University has been involved since 1964 in delivering education to adults — long before online delivery options were even dreamed of.  We used letters (snail mail), the telephone, small group meetings, and residencies to provide learning opportunities for our students.  When FAX machines were developed, Union was there to adopt its advantages for our students. Then, email revolutionized the way our university communicated with our students, and the internet changed everything again for Union and our constituents. It is fair to state that Union developed the concept of online delivery models/distance education before the technology existed to support it.  As better technologies became available, Union was an early adaptor to each innovation.  That spirit of experimentation and determination is why the Ford Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education invested in Union’s founders’ vision in the 1960s and why the university has existed for almost 50 years. In fact, we are preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary in 2014.

There are considerable debates today about whether online academic programs are comparable or actually inferior to on-campus programs in meeting rigorous academic requirements. This seems a strange debate to me given the influence of technology in every facet of our lives.  Business and industry could not exist without technology; governments could not function without technology; and medical advances would not be as successful without technology. So why is higher education being challenged about online learning and the impression that it does not meet the standards of quality of face-to-face instruction, when, in fact, ample research and evidence proves that online learning is either equal to or actually exceeds in-class face-to-face instruction when learning outcomes are measured. 

“For Union, the issue is not whether or not we use one method or the other; the issue is the quality of the program being offered and the outcomes achieved by our students.”

Part of the reason may be that higher education has been traditionally slow to change or endorse changes.  Union has been an exception to that rule and has paid a heavy price with criticism from the academy, but has produced countless outstanding graduates who have contributed greatly to their organizations and communities.  For Union, the issue is not whether or not we use one method or the other; the issue is the quality of the program being offered and the outcomes achieved by our students. 

When Union received its original funding in the 1960s, supporting organizations envisioned two things happening: 1) Union would develop alternative approaches to higher education for adults to overcome the notion held by many higher education leaders who did not believe that traditional institutions were meeting the needs of adult students; 2) Union was expected to share what we learned in the process in order to inform the broader community about new approaches.  Our faculty and administrators – and indeed our graduates, including our 14 college presidents – have done both throughout their careers and have contributed to the scholarship of higher education since 1964. 

From my perspective, the debate should not be about technology; all of us in higher education should be embracing every new technology available to enhance the impact of learning in our communities and support to our students.  Available technology today provides universities in the U.S. a competitive edge internationally if we use it creatively.  One example is that Union now has a very robust and perhaps unmatched online library, providing exemplary service in support of all our programs, particularly the rigorous doctoral programs that require in-depth research. Students from all across the globe can access our library resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week so library hours are never an issue.  Our students and faculty are empowered and enlightened by the resources; the university is saving money on buildings and maintenance, and can redirect these funds to build people and programs, enhancing the purpose for which universities were designed:  enabling our students to achieve the learning outcomes they desire.

Learning does not occur only during certain times of the days or months of a year; it occurs every waking minute of a student’s life.  Those institutions that adapt to the learning styles and demands of their students will thrive in future years.  Those institutions that hold on to the past will struggle to meet enrollment goals and will increasingly be dependent on their endowments to sustain financial viability.  There is no doubt that investment in technologies may be expensive initially. In the long term, however, the investment is wise for both institutions and their students. 

“…the debate should not be about technology; all of us in higher education should be embracing every new technology available to enhance the impact of learning in our communities and support to our students.”

The Sloan Consortium recently issued their eighth annual report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education. “Class Differences:  Online Education in the United States, 2010,” is an impressive document outlining the progress made in online learning and its impact on higher education.  Among the significant findings were:

  • More than 60 percent of all reporting institutions said that online earning was a critical part of their institution’s long term strategy, a small increase from the 59 percent in 2009.  

  • More than 5.6 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2009 term; an increase of nearly one million students over the number reported the previous year.

  • The 21 percent growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the less than two percent growth of the overall growth of the higher education student population.

  • Nearly 30 percent of higher education students now take at least one course online.

From my perspective, online learning is neither all good nor all bad.  It is what it is—another alternative approach for students to consider when they elect to pursue higher education.   

New approaches to learning always threaten the status quo—such is the case of online learning, whether it is practiced by for-profit, not-for- profit, public, or private universities.  I suggest we all take a deep breath, talk to our students, research the benefits of online learning, become aware of its limitations, and be willing to make appropriate changes within our organizations, and seriously embrace the opportunity to become more sophisticated in using technology with the clear focus of benefiting our students.

Ultimately, our students will determine the merits of online learning.  So far, by the sheer increase in participation over the last few years, it certainly appears that their voices are encouraging us to move toward expanding this option as one delivery model.

Roger H. Sublett, Ph.D.