Online learning: A look at the pros and cons of learning online vs. in a traditional classroom

Monday, July 16, 2012
Danielle Sampson of St. Louis studies one of her online courses in Kent Library at Southeast Missouri State University. She is taking online classes in chemistry, writing and philosophy. (Fred Lynch)

Southeast Missouri State University started its first online classes in 1999. The courses filled quickly, and it wasn't long before instructors and the admissions department identified a need for more online programs.

"People were inquiring if it would be possible to complete their degree online," says Dr. Allen Gathman, associate dean for online learning at the university. The first fully online major -- a bachelor of general studies -- became available in 2005, and the school has since added several others, including undergraduate degrees in organizational management, business administration and interdisciplinary studies, as well as a handful of graduate programs.

Last fall, the Babson Survey Research Group's annual survey of 2,500 colleges and universities nationwide found that 31 percent of college students now take at least one course online, a number that has grown steadily in each of the nine years the survey has been conducted. The survey also reported that the number of students taking online courses increased 10 percent in 2010, compared to only 2 percent growth in the overall population of higher education students.

"We've seen continual growth in our online programs," says Gathman. "This summer over two-thirds of our credit hours are online." Online courses are popular for university students who go home for the summer and want to continue their coursework, but can't travel back to campus for traditional sessions. When it comes to online degree programs, Gathman says the numbers are skewed toward nontraditional students: Adults who are attending college for the first time or returning for additional education. People who have been unemployed or underemployed during the recession are also taking the opportunity to build on their education.

"They may be employed and trying to move up in their field of employment by getting a higher degree," says Gathman. "Because they're working, they're often unable to make it to traditionally scheduled classes during the workday."

With online courses, students have the freedom to do coursework when they have time to do it, whether it's at 2 a.m. following a shift at the factory, or first thing in the morning before the kids wake up.

"I know from when I have taught online classes, I can look at the time stamps for the things students are doing. A lot of them were doing their coursework while I was asleep," says Gathman.

It's also convenient geographically, he says, especially as broadband Internet is becoming more accessible in rural Missouri and elsewhere. In fact, a number of other area schools, including Three Rivers College, Mineral Area College, Southern Illinois University and Murray State University, offer a variety of online courses and degree programs.

"Another advantage is that some people are really reluctant to participate in class discussions. They won't speak up in discussions on controversial subjects. With an online forum, they're much more willing to write something than they would have been to say it standing up in front of people in class," says Gathman. "Forum discussions, if used well, can be much more thoughtful because students have more time to reflect and consider when they're writing."

One thing to consider -- and it may be a disadvantage to some -- is that online courses put more responsibility on the student.

"In terms of self-discipline, there's no set time to show up, and when you do show up, there's nobody feeding you the information," says Gathman. "You have to budget your time, keep up with your work and actively participate more than in a classroom."

In a classroom, he explains, the professor can look around the room as he's speaking and make sure the students understand the lecture. Students can raise their hands with questions, and the professor can respond right away. Online, a professor puts the course information out there, but the only way he knows if students are "getting it" is if they provide active feedback in the form of quizzes and online forum discussions.

"And you'd better like to read and write," says Gathman.

Some classes do work very well online, and Gathman feels more faculty are realizing that online programs can be an effective teaching method. He's talked to instructors in several departments who are interested in offering additional online classes, and he believes interest will continue to grow among faculty and students. The next step for the university, he says, is figuring out the role of an institution like Southeast in a world where there are entire universities online, and even some free online classes.

"(Online programs are) very well suited for people who are busy or work full time," says Gathman. "They can fit an education in when they have time for it, rather than when we decide to hold classes."

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