Online Classrooms: Trash or Treasure?

Winston Churchill once said, "There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction," an assertion that accurately describes the possible peril connected to a trend entering colleges and universities across the country: the online class.

Sixty-five percent of higher education institutions now say that online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy and more than 6.1 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2010 term, an increase of 560,000 students from the previous year, according to the Sloan Reports' "Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011."

Those are pretty staggering numbers considering most private schools, such as the college I attend in North Carolina, are fighting to keep their enrollment numbers up in the face of financial aid cuts plaguing the state.

We might find ourselves feeding the need for ultimate convenience and boosting revenues as a trade-off for a solid education.

As mentioned in a piece by The Times of Malta, we are becoming a very secluded society; by diminishing classrooms replaced by electronic portals, there is a level of dehumanization that replaces real-life interaction.

A solid education holds students accountable for attending classes at a certain time, fosters
interactions with a diverse set of individuals, measures whether or not one is truly grasping the
material and gives students the tools they need to survive in the real world.

Will online learning lead to a sort of "bifurcation" of higher ed, where a small minority get the "full-strength" version with on-site living, face-to-face professors and fellow students, inspiration from professors, one-to-one career counseling, networking, etc., vs. the "decaf" version of looking at a screen, only occasionally getting the chance to ask questions in chat rooms or group discussion not to mention the other important aspects of a college education?

Any sensitive theatergoer will tell you that live theater is a completely different experience than watching the same thing on TV or your computer screen. Can the energy that an inspiring teacher calls forth be funneled into a computer screen?

While there has been some definite momentum and excitement as Harvard, MIT and Yale announced online learning projects earlier this year, we should caution ourselves from jumping head first into a seemingly deep pond only to discover it was a puddle.

There seems to be more questions than answers where online education is concerned. Will employers glom on to the certification of online learning grades and quickly determine that an X online grade is equal to a Y grade at MIT, Yale, and Brown for example?

And how quickly will some statistically clever Mark Zuckerberg come up with significant and reliable tables and charts comparing "full-strength" college grades with the equivalent "decaf" grades?

Be that as it may, transforming the classroom experience to your laptop seems to lessen the traditional college experience and thrusts students further away from reality. Turning to an online model for ones educational experience has some pretty far-flung implications and also lacks marketability for real life jobs.

But could my thinking be archaic fodder?

An incredulous college administrator announced that half the world is already using Skype, Apple's FaceTime and texting more than they talk when I suggested that creating an online atmosphere might actually dilute the college brand, experience and connections offered in traditional classrooms across the country.

Essentially, then, I was left to wonder if the perceived complete and utter reliance on emerging
technology should define a student's educational experience.

In a world where students demand certain services it will certainly be interesting to see where this road of leisure leads.

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