online learning

Daily Texan columnist Amil Malik urges UT to “get on board with online education as soon as possible” (4/1/13).    This echoes The Daily Texan plea last October  asking UT and our regents for “a clear vision of what a technology-based university degree will look like” (10/23/12).

To be sure, UT has helped redesign a few courses in ways that use technology. But major policy questions are still unaddressed. These questions arise because it is now clear that some college subjects can be learned as well from a computer as from a professor in a classroom. So, what should UT do with a student who demonstrates such competence?

Should it recognize learning? Only when it has been acquired on campus, when it has been acquired partly on campus and partly online from course material developed by UT, and when it has been acquired UT knows not where and doesn’t care?

Probing further, what demonstrations of competence is UT prepared to recognize? Would “recognition” not only aid placement in advanced courses, but count as part of the requirements for a UT degree? 

And what encouragement would UT give a professor who wanted to develop a completely online course, or contribute to the design of the needed competency tests? Who would have intellectual ownership in a developed course? How much, if anything, should a student pay for such learning, if developed at UT? Who should develop the competence and assume responsibility for pointing a student at good online learning materials wherever to be found?

The University of Wisconsin has announced a “Flexible Option” which will grant credit to students without the requirement of spending time on campus or being enrolled in any UW online learning. At present, the option applies to only a few subjects as the faculty produces or substantiates the necessary assessment instruments.  Is this a model that looks attractive to the UT System?

Francis D. Fisher
Senior Research Fellow, LBJ School of Public Affairs

Massachusetts Institute of Technology is hoping to legitimize and further transform online learning. The school finds itself at the forefront of the open educational resources movement. With its many online course notes, lecture videos and other educational materials, MIT recently launched another online learning initiative called MITx. The goal of MITx is to extend the reach of higher education and provide students with a means of earning credentials to supplement their studies.

Online courses have earned a reputation for being “lite” versions of their classroom counterparts and are therefore regarded as easier. It is a widely accepted fact, for instance, that if a student needs an easy A for a core class, he or she would do well to take it online. MIT hopes to change this culture.

MITx is not an easier version of MIT but instead carries the MIT pedigree to an online medium where non-residential learners will receive the best possible experience. MITx builds upon MIT’s decade old OpenCourseWare, which now includes nearly 2,100 courses.

The idea of MITx is to allow students to supplement their current coursework in a way that is both easy to scale and accessible. For example, an engineering student will be able to take the knowledge he or she learns in an electronics class and apply it to an online lab. MITx will be a free program. However, those who wish to get credit from MIT will need to take an exam that will cost money.

The ultimate goal of MITx and other online learning programs is to create high-quality, affordable, accessible education for future generations. The Internet revolution has allowed an online learning community to develop. Contributions from MIT and other institutions of higher education will spearhead the movement to create an online consortium. An improved online teaching environment modeled after MITx would bring many benefits to UT.

A bona fide, undiluted online program would extend UT’s global reach. Unlike traditional classes, online courses are unrestricted by physical parameters such as classroom size or student-to-professor ratio. Anyone with a computer and the motivation will be able to complete
UT coursework.

The creation of such an online program can be easily achieved by recording lectures and scanning lecture notes. These materials can be uploaded online for anyone to access.

UT could also improve online courses by making them more interactive. The University could retool its lectures and coursework to be responsive to students’ academic progress. For example, homework grading software could analyze a student’s missed questions and provide suggestions for improvement. An online course could also crowdsource the grading process. Qualified moderators could be certified to comment on students’ work in real time. This would further personalize the course and tailor it to the needs of the student.

A UTx-type program could also better prepare incoming freshman for the rigors of a university-level education. Rather than taking an AP test, a graduating high school senior could take a freshman class early to get a better understanding of what it takes to succeed at the undergraduate level.

Moreover, the interest generated by MITx and MIT’s OpenCourseWare shows that online programs present an opportunity to create revenue. Depending on their size and quality, future online programs at UT could help generate much-needed money.

In its current state, online education is seen as an inferior manifestation of a real course. However, if done well, online education could become the preferred medium for future generations of students.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior.

As students continue to log on, update and check in, some UT system administrators want to take that connectivity one step further.
Emails obtained by the Texas Tribune last week reveal that one of the major “reforms” being pushed by new UT regent Alex Cranberg and recently unemployed adviser/researcher/shapeshifter Rick O’Donnell is the expanded use of online classes.

In emails between regents, system staffers and O’Donnell, Cranberg writes, “There should be some kind of online learning excellence institute at UT” in reference to an online graduate engineering program in use at Stanford University. Additionally, the Board of Regents has created a “task force” to study how to implement “online learning.”

The idea isn’t entirely new to the debate over the future of Texas higher education. Last year, a 20-member panel on higher education created by Gov. Rick Perry recommended students be required to take at least 10 percent of their coursework outside the classroom such as through online classes. Bernie Francis, a member of the panel, said “If the University of Phoenix can be successful, the question needs to be asked: can the public sector do the same?”

Yes, we should really try to emulate the University of Phoenix.

Online classes offer some advantages in certain areas where they complement existing curriculums. Such courses give students flexibility in scheduling, which can be especially important for nontraditional or part-time students.

As cited by the regents in their emails, Stanford offers several online engineering programs via its Center for Professional Development for post-graduate professionals to take continuing education courses.

UT already uses online classes as part of the UT extension program, whereby individuals can take certain courses online for credit.
Both examples are of optional classes offered to students and nonstudents alike, who for one reason or another are not able to attend in a traditional classroom setting. They are not, as proponents have tried to imply, an adequate substitute for either lecture or discussion-based classes.

Thousands of students in this country are currently enrolled in online classes, many through for-profit universities such as Kaplan and the University of Phoenix. Most of those students will either not graduate, or if they do, face high rates of unemployment as employers perceive their degrees to be of inferior quality than those from traditional universities. Those graduates are also twice as likely to default on their student loans.

What it boils down to is that physically sitting in a lecture hall or classroom is not the same as reading a powerpoint or watching a webinar.

Proposals such as the aforementioned rule requiring 10 percent of courses be taken online would do nothing but force students out of a classroom and onto a computer, an unprecedented step in the wrong direction. Furthermore, there is no proof that online education would do anything to alleviate the financial burden on Texas colleges and universities. UT-San Antonio provost John Frederick told the Houston Chronicle last summer that implementing online learning curricula can actually be more expensive than classes in a traditional setting.

Online materials should be incorporated into a curriculum when such materials substantially improve the quality of the education offered by that curriculum. They should not be forced onto students or faculty out of consideration for financial costs.

There may be colleges and universities in Texas where implementing more online learning is an effective and viable alternative to a traditional classroom setting, especially those schools that serve a more diverse constituency than UT. This University is not one of those schools. Forcing students out of the classroom is an ill-conceived proposal that would degrade the quality of education offered and do further irreparable damage to the University’s reputation.

It would be best for our Regents to remember that their responsibilities to the UT system include maintaining a “University of the first-class,” and not converting the Forty Acres into the Austin branch of the University of Phoenix.