George Timmons 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Today, more than ever, colleges are faced with what appear to be competing priorities. On the one hand are issues such as cost containment, revenue generation and facilities renewal. On the other are concerns about academic integrity and the quality of the student experience. Distance-learning technologies, especially online education, can help institutions address this perceived competition while remaining faithful to their primary mission. The Sloan Foundation reports that more than 4.6 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2008 term, a 17 percent increase over the previous year. However, according to the Distance Learning Lab at Howard University, only 43 out of more than 100 HBCUs in 2008 offered any distance-learning programs. Many of these were noncredit in nature; few institutions had degree programs that could be completed in full, or signifi cantly so, at a distance. Today’s traditional-aged college students have grown up in a digital world. From cell phones to the Internet, from instant messaging to YouTube, the use of technology is pervasive. There are reasons to become excited about the role that welldesigned online instruction can play in enhancing learning outcomes and student success. Instructional methods can be matched to individual learning styles and sophisticated, interactive simulations can be built to mirror real-world situations. In such environments, students can demonstrate their ability to integrate information and apply concepts without the risks evident in “live” experimentation in subjects such as chemistry. The 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) found that online students were signifi cantly more likely to participate in course activities that challenged them intellectually and to participate in discussions that enhanced their understanding of different cultures. And, according to the Sloan Foundation’s latest survey of online education in the United States (Learning on Demand, released January 2010), a full two-thirds of chief academic offi cers agree that learning outcomes in online education are equal to or superior to those achieved in face-to-face courses. For all its benefi ts and strengths, online education cannot replace the traditional campus experience. Online education, however, can serve as a valuable means of enhancing that experience. As pointed out by Chris Dede of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, a growing body of research suggests that, for learning outcomes, “hybrid” or the blending of online and classroom formats is superior to face-to-face alone. In some cases, expanding an institution’s reach through distance-learning technologies may be the key to that institution’s survival. In 2009, nearly three-quarters of public and half of private, nonprofi t institutions reported online education as critical to their long-term strategy, notes the Sloan Foundation in its January report. Online education offers an institution the ability to redefi ne its service area, reach new categories of students and build its brand name. Internally, there is the potential to better serve students and to allow for the reallocation of scarce resources. Online programming can also help retain students while simultaneously opening avenues to reach new learners. By including high-demand and required courses among those offered online, students can access learning opportunities while maintaining family commitments and the employment needed to pay for their education. As the nation’s oldest, private nonprofi t college serving students exclusively at a distance for nearly 40 years, Excelsior has more than a decade’s worth of experience delivering online instruction. We have found online education to be especially appealing to minority students. More than one-third of our 30,000 enrolled students are minority. In a survey of adult students nationwide conducted for Excelsior by Zogby International, 76 percent of adult minorities agreed they would choose to complete a four-year college degree if they could do so with the fl exibility that online education offers. Only twothirds of Caucasian adults reported the same. Excelsior College believes so much in the value of distance and online education and its usefulness in serving those traditionally underserved in higher education – a central element in our mission statement – that we will sponsor a two-day workshop this summer and lend our expertise to senior-level educators and administrators at HBCUs in an effort to help them adopt or expand distance-learning programming at their schools. President Barack Obama has called for a 60 percent increase in the number of Americans who have college degrees, an essential element in building our intellectual capital domestically and the nation’s position in the global economy. This will not be an easy task. According to Southern Regional Education Board 2007 data, the six-year graduation rate in its region among Hispanic students was 43 percent and 40 percent for Blacks — fi gures that mirror the national experience. Reliance on traditional models of higher education alone will not meet the president’s challenge. Distance- and onlinelearning technologies have a proven effectiveness and are more easily scalable in response to rising demand. The time for greater institutional engagement in and adoption of distance- and online-learning programming to fulfi ll missions, to keep traditions alive and to reach new students has never been more important. – Dr. George Timmons is dean of online education and learning services at Excelsior College.
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