For those not familiar with online courses, numerous questions arise. For this reason, we want you to know a few facts about the structure of online courses and their rigor. Many students and parents are concerned that online courses are not as rigorous, or lack the academic integrity, of regular courses – particularly regular Truman courses. We want to assure the potential student that the same scrutiny Truman applies to its brick and mortar courses is applied to its online courses as well.
Numerous Studies Demonstrate Learning is as Strong (or sometimes stronger) in an Online Environment
In September 2010 the U.S. Department of Education released a meta-study that examined over 1000 independent studies, and 50 independent learning effects and concluded:
“…on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classesmeasured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviationwas larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face. Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions.”
This study is regularly referenced as one of the most significant pieces of research to address the effect of online learning. It’s import is NOT to suggest that face-to-face learning is ineffective. Rather, it suggests that – at a minimum – such “brick and mortar” classes are roughly comparable to online classes in their learning outcomes. Blended classes (those that use both online and face-to-face elements) have the highest learning outcomes. Indeed, many courses taught during the regular academic year at Truman use blended methods.
The bottom line is, where best practices are employed by a college or university to design and conduct online courses, students should expect comparable learning outcomes. When care is not taken – as in any course that is poorly constructed – less impressive outcomes are created. Indeed, a great deal of the criticism that has been leveled against online courses has been leveled against providers who do not employ these best practices, or are sometimes termed “diploma mills.”
Accreditation Requirements Demand Comparability in Content, Rigor, and Assessment
Truman is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. The distance learning component of the University’s operation is a part of this accreditation. Nationally, Universities are expected to conform to roughly common expectations regarding the meaning of “a credit hour” (though pending legislation is re-evaluating this question). Normally, we tell students to think of one credit hour of class time as requiring an additional two hours of work outside of the classroom (some argue that number is practically even higher). By this standard, a student in a three credit class is going to be spending about nine hours a week doing reading, completing assignments outside of class AND sitting in the classroom. As any student will tell you, that out-of-class element can vary a fair amount. When professors convert their classes to online offerings, there is an expectation of approximate comparability in time devoted to the course. This is an expectation that Truman needs to be able to demonstrate when it is periodically reviewed by its accreditation bodies.
So you might be asking, “If I’m not in the classroom, how does that equivalency work?” Well, when an online class is constructed properly, students are going to view lectures from professors, read texts, engage in threaded discussions (or even live discussions), engage in frequent assessments (quizzes, short response papers, journals), collaborate with classmates on work, and complete the same kinds of papers and assignments they would for a normal course. What’s more, because course content is richly supplemented with hyperlinks, video, and other content, students who are truly interested in a topic will likely find themselves exploring terms, concepts, or facts – AS THEY ENCOUNTER THEM – rather than waiting to do it later the way they might when listening to an in-class lecture. The environment is dynamic, and therefore, very engaging to the inquisitive learner.
Truman is Accredited to Offer Online Learning
In 2011 Truman took the next big step in offering online courses. With the introduction of fully-online graduate certificates, Truman was required to seek an expansion of its accreditation to recognize its work in the online environment. A site visit was conducted to evaluate Truman’s practices, and accreditation was easily extended. Not satisfied with merely meeting initial entry standards, an Online Learning Strategic Planning Committee is currently working to develop the vision for Truman’s use of online learning as a supplement to what it already does best in the classroom.
Online Students DO Have Contract with Their Professor – Even if Not Face-to-Face
There is a myth that you will take an online class and never meet your professor. While true in a physical sense, professors and students do get to know each other quite well in a virtual sense. We keep class sizes for our online classes small – about the same size as our regular classes. Our professors use interactive tools, such as discussion boards, virtual office hours, Skype conference calls, etc., to remain available and engaged with their students. Because our online professor are – nearly always – regular Truman faculty, these are the same professors students will encounter when on campus. Indeed, they may be professors normally-matriculated students have already had in class.
Many, If Not Most, of the Strongest Pedagogies Have Their Equivalents in an Online Environment
The online environment is surprisingly good at replicating some of the best teaching strategies of the traditional classroom. In fact, our Learning Management System (Blackboard), allows teachers to make virtual equivalents of many of these techniques. Discussion boards simulate class discussions asynchronously, and can actually draw-out more participants than normal classroom conversations by removing the face-to-face pressures created for some students in live discussions. Peer editing, peer feedback, and group work are more easily facilitated in an online environment than in the traditional classroom. Wikis allow students to work collaboratively to build knowledge databases. With the proliferation of computers with built-in web cameras, even presentations are increasingly possible. Are these two environments fully comparable? No. But they can come awfully close under the guidance of a good teacher.
Truman Professors Who Teach Online Are REQUIRED to Attend Special Training Before Teaching an Online Course
Not just anyone can teach an online course. All Truman professors who want to teach online are REQUIRED to successfully complete a training course in online instruction. Mind you, this isn’t an hour-long seminar! It’s a full-fledged online course that unfolds over many weeks. Professors learn about the strengths and weaknesses of online education, and how to construct the course around them, by actually experiencing the act of online learning from the student’s perspective. Additionally, Truman is part of the Quality Matters Program, which is a nationwide program designed to provide support, best practices, and peer review of online courses, as well as the Sloan Consortium. In 2011, Truman introduced a grant system to incentivize the development of quality online courses, requiring professors to compete for funds to dedicate their summers to developing new content.
Online Learning is Becoming an Essential Element of American Higher Education – Within Significantly Expanded Participation
We hate the “but everyone’s doing it” argument as much as the next guy. However, sometimes there’s an argument to be made that people adopting a particular approach are adopting it because it works. Of the 24 schools in COPLAC (the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges), 19 are either offering online courses, developing them, or working with a partner to deliver them. This isn’t surprising since the number of students taking online classes is growing. A recent study noted:
“By 2015, 25 million post-secondary students in the United States will be taking classes online. And as that happens, the number of students who take classes exclusively on physical campuses will plummet, from 14.4 million in 2010 to just 4.1 million five years later, according to a new forecast released by market research firm Ambient Insight.”
These are extreme numbers, and several studies offer more conservative estimates. However, one of the more reliable statistics we do know is that nearly one-third of all college students has taken at least one online course. There are some state K-12 systems that are now requiring high school students to take at least one online course before they graduate. As a larger number of students mix the sources for their learning, we would much rather have a student take a Truman-quality online course, than an online course from just anyone who will provide the content to them. Fundamentally, we believe our traditional, face-to-face, residential learning experience is valuable for many good reasons. But if a student is thinking about going elsewhere to get ahead during the summer, we’d rather they do it with Truman online!