A group of student leaders has tried online classes, talked with other college students about their experience and traded their insight with educators. And as more colleges expand their online offerings, education administrators and policy-makers could learn something from these students.
Thirty-two percent of higher education students took at least one course online in fall 2011, according to the Sloan Consortium report Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States, released in January. At NorthWest Arkansas Community College, 42 percent of its 8,069 students enrolled in at least one online class, an increase of 17 percent since last spring.
"When we see those numbers increasing or see feedback from the students saying that they want more online options, we take that very seriously, and have responded with resources and more online opportunities for our students," said Todd L. Kitchen, vice president for learner support services.
The numbers are even higher at the University of Illinois Springfield, where 61 percent of 18,368 students take an online class.
"When higher ed is beginning to slip in enrollments, online continues to grow," said Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning and director of the Center for Online Learning Research and Service. "It's a matter of access, and it really ultimately becomes affordability."
For example, Maritime College in the SUNY system started a graduate degree program online in international transportation management to provide access to students outside of New York. This degree is one of only seven in the world like it, said Kevin Rea, a student in the program.
"We really didn't have a choice but to bring it online because if we didn't, we would be losing out on any student that couldn't get to the Bronx and New York City," said Rea, a student trustee on the SUNY Board of Trustees and president of the Student Assembly of the State University of New York. "We kind of had to adapt to that system."
But not all students want to take online classes. The media, politicians and educators often assume that because today's generation is more technologically plugged in, they want their entire education experience to be mediated by technology, said Jonathan Stein, student regent on the University of California Board of Regents.
But instead of operating on assumptions, decisions should be based on data.
"If we're going to move forward, we should have some sense that the students in classes today are interested in that change," Stein said.
Though students' opinions about online education differ, they generally want leaders to listen to them, provide quality course options and integrate technology to improve learning.
Too often, education leaders and politicians make decisions about online learning without seeking student input. And since students are their customers, that's a big mistake.
If university leaders invest in a new online program that students don't want, they wasted their money on something that won't be successful, Rea said.
"The students here are customers, and you need to make sure that you're taking their input so that what you're offering to them — your salient education — is something they A.) are able to use and B.) that they actually needed for their job," Rea said.
In the University of California system, student involvement has been limited in the online course decisions. But the system is now addressing that by setting up conversations between student and faculty leaders, as well as administrators, Stein said.
"University leaders need to engage students, they need to hear students, they need to explain to students exactly what they're seeking to do," Stein said, "and I think that they need to show that they're moving to high-value, high-touch blended learning models instead of moving things entirely online."
Leaders need to understand that for-profit "diploma mills" have scared away some students from taking online classes. And as for-profit course providers — including Coursera and Udacity — pitch their platform to universities, they also spook some students.
"If university officials start talking about moving classes entirely online, students freak out because they're wondering if their degree, which for previous generations of students has meant so much, is being turned into some cheap, for-profit equivalent," Stein said.
Students are also concerned about course design, said Hillary Hill, a sophomore at Sonoma State University who represented the student perspective at California's higher education summit RE:BOOT in January. She took online classes at other colleges and said the course design affected her experience.
"I think they're a really good idea and really useful — if they're done well," Hill said. "The format is really, really important; I've taken a couple different courses that have had different impacts on me just based on the course design itself."
Whether they're online or on the ground, courses should set high standards for students, said Ashley Humphrey, student regent on the Tennessee Board of Regents and vice president of the Student Government Association at Tennessee Technological University.
"I definitely think that one issue we're going to face with online classes in the future — that a lot of students have brought up to me — is that sometimes the rigor is not there with online courses," Humphrey said.
The professor makes a difference in the course quality as well. And it certainly helps to move experienced professors who have taught face-to-face into the online arena, said Rea, a graduate student at Maritime College in SUNY.
"I've seen kind of an unwritten policy — I don't know if it's official or not, but I would love to see it made official — that you can't teach an online class unless you've taught it in the classroom first," Rea said. "That way, there's a way to judge how the teacher's performing, at least as I see it, and also so that the teacher's first bout is not online."
Aside from offering quality courses, colleges should offer choices that match student learning styles and schedules. Online options help students who have busy schedules because of their student leadership or work responsibilities. And they work best in their strong subjects, general education classes and classes they enjoy.
"If you're interested in the topic, then you're more willing to focus and work on it," said Andrew Kuhn, president of the Associated Students of Mesa Community College in Arizona. "I think a big majority in online success is how engaged is that person in that subject."
Subjects such as math do not work well in the online format, Kuhn said. He and other students at his college had a harder time taking it online because they're used to an instructor working problems on the board, answering questions and tailoring problems for struggling students. In their online classes, there's no live professor, just slides that include problems and occasional YouTube videos.
"In general the consensus is that they are more convenient, but the majority of people I talk to are here because they're the same way I am — they're visual learners, they like being in a classroom, they like the discussion, they like that face-to-face time with the teachers," Kuhn said.
If students aren't in the classroom, they miss out on in-person contact with both teachers and their classmates. And that could have consequences, Humphrey said.
"Probably the best combination would be for students to do some bit of online classes as well as being in class, because with online classes you are going to have the issue of losing some soft skills possibly — just the interaction with different students," Humphrey said. "And there is some way to combat that, like with the discussion boards that I talked about, but there are still some limitations to what an online class is able to offer a student."
Though online classes work well for non-traditional students who need more flexibility, Rea said, they don't work well in every circumstance or for every person.
"I definitely think that online classes, though, are not for everyone, and not everyone that does well on an online class will automatically do well on all of them," Rea said.
In many colleges, lower state funding and higher student enrollment have brought online learning to the forefront as a cost-savings measure. Particularly in California, this situation tells some students that educators and politicians are more focused on saving money than considering how their choices will affect learning.
"I think it's really important to focus on the students, because it's our lives," Hill said, "and a lot of times I feel like there's not enough focus on us."
University leaders should experiment with new technology if they think it will raise completion rates, grades and learning, Stein said.
"But if we're exploring this because we think it has the power to save money or make money, and educational outcomes will sort of come out in the wash, that's a really really problematic approach," Stein said.
That said, technology is here to stay. And if it's integrated thoughtfully into education, it will help students.
"Technology integration into education is a very important thing that, if done well and correctly, will immensely enhance the quality of learning, the pace of learning," Kuhn said.
Online classes will have a place over the next number of years. So it makes sense for students and educators to work together as they figure out how to make online classes a high-quality option.
"I think online classes are definitely a huge part of our future, and a huge direction that we're going to see higher education move in," Humphrey said, "so we just kind of have to get used to the fact that they're here to stay and do whatever we can to work to improve that system."