Give online a chance


Should colleges develop and offer online courses? Yes. And UT’s online course system should be much improved. 

Currently, UT offers self-paced online courses for credit through the University Extension (UEX) program. But the courses offered are costly. According to the program’s website, a UEX course can cost anywhere from $350-1,800. Compared to Austin Community College’s fee of $62 per credit hour, a three-hour online course at UT is at the very least almost twice as expensive as one at ACC.

What’s more, UEX online courses cannot even be previewed. Until you pay the lump sum cost of a course, all you get is a vague half-page description of what you are getting into should you decide to sign up. You can only judge the courses by their lackluster descriptions, and after slogging through a few, I have no incentive to sign up. 

This is disappointing, especially since the market for online education is growing. According to the Sloan Consortium’s 2011 report on online education, “Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States,” over 6.1 million students took at least one course during the fall 2010 term. And the 10 percent growth rate for online education enrollments far exceeds the 2 percent growth in the overall higher education student population. 

High-quality online courses are growing in popularity as well. Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company that offers online courses for free globally was recently in Fast Company’s list of Most Innovative Companies of 2013 for “simultaneously scaring and wooing universities into the future of education.” Coursera boasts courses from top tier universities all over the world, including courses from almost all Ivy League universities. Based on the number of courses offered alone, Coursera has quickly overtaken edX — the online consortium of which the UT System is a member — in quality and in recognition. While Coursera has started offering some online classes for credit for under $200, many of its classes just offer a certificate, meaning its community of over three million users is made of people who just want to learn for the sake of learning.

On the other hand, UEX’S self-paced online courses seem to be there for the sole purpose of the University saying it offers online courses for credit. 

So why doesn’t UT engage in online education in a meaningful way? Developing better online classes has  the potential to solve many of the University’s problems. More engaging online courses could conceivably improve graduation rates by offering students variety and flexibility. Students could take courses they wanted to take rather than those they managed to get into, thereby increasing students’ dedication to their coursework. And students could take good courses at odd times while still being able to manage their individual schedules. 

What’s more, online education can engage students through hybrid methods of instruction like graphics, visual animations or just through creativity. Imagine, for instance, taking an interactive Spanish course taught by someone who is speaking to you from Spain. And online courses can increase rates of knowledge retention by offering immediate quizzes that don’t penalize students for nonattendance the way iClicker questions inevitably do.

Yes, UT has taken part in online education initiatives. But to whom do these courses cater — the best students on campus or the struggling ones? I haven’t heard of anyone taking UEX courses with excitement. 

Instead, while developing online education, the University should create courses that entice the best students to willingly take what they have to offer just for the sake of learning something new. They should offer their students the best possible, because only then will they be successful. 

UT’s motto is, “what starts here changes the world.” The world of education is already changing at a rapid pace. And if UT cares about the value of its students and about enabling them to change the world, it should get on board with online education as soon as possible — in a manner that is meaningful and engaging, unlike UEX, and offers credit, unlike edX. 

Malik is a Plan II and business honors program freshman from Austin.