Universities around the nation are continuing to implement more online courses each year, but skepticism amongst some students and faculty members alike bring concern that these new web based courses don’t hold up to the traditional classroom environment.
Slippery Rock University has increased their offerings for online summer courses over the past couple years and recently instituted a new web-only winter session between the fall and spring semesters.
The rise in the popularity of these courses comes from various factors. As they are typically less expensive for the university than their classroom counterparts, online courses serve as a good source of revenue for Pennsylvania schools being hit with state budget cuts to higher education.
Brian Danielson, the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Slippery Rock University, said that the popularity of them amongst students is the key factor to their recent growth.
“I believe the primary reason for the recent growth in online courses at SRU is an increase in student demand combined with the ability of SRU’s professors to continue to deliver high-quality instruction online,” Danielson said. “I think this is evident through the continued success of the online courses offered during the summer sessions as well as the success of the new, fully-online winter session.”
Matching the increased popularity of web-based courses is the criticism surrounding them. The fear of cheating is the major issue in web based courses, where students conduct all assignments away from the supervision of their professor, but other limitations such as the quality of education are concerns as well.
Despite the questions from the public, Danielson is confident the academic quality of online classes is equal to that of a classroom.
“When a student leaves a traditional classroom with an assignment or project, the professor doesn’t know who is actually doing the work. Online courses share this,” Danielson said.
“I think conversations on cheating should be less about finding ways to stop cheating and more about finding new ways to assess student learning – ways that don’t foster cheating. Problem-based learning and authentic assessment are some instructional methods that work in this direction and fit nicely in an online setting.”
Dr. John Golden, a professor in the School of Business at SRU, sees online coursework as a necessary part of academics in the modern world.
“The quality of online classes is as good or better than face to face classes,” Golden said. “Online classes require more self-discipline and they require more scholarship.”
Golden also isn’t buying into the notion that an online course opens the way to more cheating by students.
“There’s not any more than in face to face classes,” Golden said of cheating in web courses. “It is incumbent on the professor to make clear which quiz, assignments, exams and papers online are collaborative and which ones are not.”
Golden referenced several tools at professors’ disposal to monitor students’ activities when they are doing graded material online, from having different versions of exams to monitoring the mouse of the student to try to prevent web browsing during an exam.
“There’s no way to make a 100 percent no cheat environment, just like it isn’t possible to do so face to face,” Golden said. “Professors need to make clear in their syllabus that there is a zero tolerance for cheating.”
Danielson mentioned how online tools are provided to professors and students to make interaction a part of online courses.
“When working with faculty members, the Educational Technology team at SRU likes to break technologies into two main categories, presentation technologies, collaboration technologies, and online learning environments to host it all,” Danielson said.
“An example of a presentation technology, many faculty members use Mediasite to capture lectures that can be streamed online. This technology benefits the student because they can watch their professor’s lecture anywhere, anytime. Tools like Wimba and Adobe Connect are web-based collaboration tools that allow the students to interact with each other and their professors face-to-face, online. And of course, Desire2Learn is SRU’s online learning environment – the place where our professors pull everything together.”
Danielson and Golden are both part of a Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education grant to help develop a new type of online course to test out aspects of virtual reality.
Alongside Dr. Maria Harrington and another professor at California University of Pa., Danielson and Golden are working on a web course on sustainable entrepreneurship, which they hope to have completed sometime in 2013.
According to Golden, the course would create a virtual world in which students would get the face-to-face experience missing from current web courses.
“The goal is to test the effectiveness of teaching in a virtual environment,” Golden said of the project that would have professors and students create personal avatars which would interact in real time on a virtual campus.
Golden said the project is important because students in college now learn differently than they did in the past, dating the traditional setting of a professor at the front of a classroom to the eighteenth century.
Web based courses may seem far different than classroom courses, but Danielson sees them as being more similar than not.
“In reality, the process for developing an online course is not that different than developing a traditional course: select the content, analyze the learners, design the learning activities, develop the instructional materials, deliver the course, evaluate the course, and revise,” Danielson said. “The main difference is in how you move through the development process and the tools that are used. This is what makes online course development unique.”
Whether a virtual campus catches on in the next few years or not, SRU has no plans on reducing their online studies.
Accompanying public assertions that online courses are cheaper alternatives for universities currently in budget troubles, Danielson supported them for their flexibility in pacing and location of study as an advantage for students, as well as benefits like more opportunities for direct interaction with a professor and an increased sense of ownership in the learning process.
“In my opinion, one of the biggest impacts that technology has had on education is its ability to expand the classroom beyond the traditional 60 minute class period,” Danielson said. “What I mean by that is — student-student and student-professor interactions are no longer limited by the physical classroom. Technology allows the teaching and learning process to continue online, 24/7.”