5 Things That Make An Online College Course Worth Your Money
Purdue University, University of Southern California, Vanderbilt University, and more than two dozen other colleges are now being prosecuted students seeking tuition refunds after the spread of the coronavirus forced many institutions to complete spring classes entirely online.
This frustration will only grow as campuses struggle to reopen safely in the fall, with many already saying they will will likely remain online in one form or another next semester.
The pandemic has essentially dissociated the whole set of values from higher education, exposing the relative importance of each of its individual components: social experiences, exposure to innovative researchers, extracurricular activities, and classroom learning. While most of these components disappear, leaving only a digital facsimile of the classroom experience, parents and students wonder if another semester online is really worth up to $40,000 or $50,000 a year.
In the wake of the pandemic, many colleges have understandably resorted to some sort of emergency teaching protocol, relying primarily on video conferencing. These tools are a great way to stay in touch, but they fall short of replicating the real teaching and learning experience. Far too many schools are trying to reuse existing lesson plans on Zoom. Communicating is not synonymous with learning.
The good news for parents is that it is not only possible for online learning to match the quality of face-to-face instruction, but also even surpass it when done well.
As the founder of a company that helps teachers create more engaging learning experiences – offline and online – I’ve spent the past decade observing the learning data generated by teachers using creative way around the world. And as a father of three school and college-aged sons, I know firsthand the frustration of watching your child’s interest in learning wane with increasing Zoom fatigue.
Here are five markers parents should look for in a high-quality online program.
Faculty prioritize interactions with students
The strategy currently used by many institutions is very similar to what happened in the news industry in the 1990s. Newspapers, in the beginning, took their print edition and put it as is on the Internet. The result was a product that readers and advertisers felt less and less obligated to pay for.
In print editions, articles were the main point of interest, but as the Internet allowed readers new ways to interact with news, this value changed. Newspapers quickly realized they needed to prioritize interactivity, launching comment boards and forums alongside the news. Instead of trying to replicate an existing experience, they had to take advantage of the specific benefits of moving to an online version. Today we see how this original insight into readers’ desires to express their opinions is the foundation of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter. This is a lesson that institutions should also learn.
Online learning allows professors to enhance their courses with interactive features that keep students engaged and engaged with the material. Good online programs not only ask students to absorb information, but encourage them to ask questions and explore. This can take the form of answering questions at the end of a learning module, hyperlinking to additional material such as interesting YouTube videos, or asking students to respond with their own video and audio assignments.
The class is not bound by the course schedule
One of the greatest assets of an online course is its flexibility. Online learning allows students to study on their own schedule. This is all the more important as students learn from home and across multiple time zones. Restricting an online course to the types of prefixed blocks of time required by class schedules is ignoring one of the most powerful benefits of online learning.
The flexibility of online programs explains why they are so popular with adult learners and why a large majority of online courses over the past decade are asynchronous or pre-recorded. Many students have other obligations outside of school, including work and family responsibilities. This may be especially true now, as the coronavirus disrupts childcare, careers, and finances. Institutions that don’t recognize this benefit fail to understand the true power of online learning.
Content is bite-sized for online attention spans
Online course materials should be delivered in shorter chunks. Since students are not forced into class at a specific time, the size of lessons and materials should match what is known about social media behavior and online attention span.
Rather than static 45-minute on-screen lectures, students want shorter modules, or “learning objects,” that include some type of interactivity. This requires more preparation on the part of the instructor. They should focus on the types of questions students will want to ask and how they will react to the material in real time. Online teaching becomes more of a preparation for a conversation, rather than a one-way transmission of information. But it will produce better engagement among the students.
Students stay connected with their peers
Although often misused, video conferencing has an important role to play in online learning. Redirecting and distributing live conferences via video conferencing tools will never be as good as the real thing. No one wants to learn alongside a tic-tac-toe board of 30 other students, and chances are many students will turn off their cameras anyway. The experience is much closer to a conference call than a classroom.
But the tools can be put to good use in smaller sections and breakout sessions, allowing students to stay in touch with each other. As students are widely dispersed, videoconferencing tools can be an effective way to foster peer-to-peer learning, an important aspect for keeping students engaged. Students who may be reluctant to participate in a large class can learn through talk with their peers via smaller eruptions. Great online programs know the difference between using these tools in ways that encourage engagement and ways that drive students away.
Learning and engagement are measured in real time
Through e-learning, institutions have access to unprecedented insight into student performance. Online platforms can track student engagement, interest and understanding of what is being taught. The best programs also continuously measure feedback loops between students and teachers and determine, in real time, student performance. Do they take notes, show confusion about materials, or do they test assessment questions well?
Strong online programs encourage instructors and counselors to dig deep into how students learn and how they respond to specific materials, and then adjust the program to improve it. It is the ultimate feedback loop, and where online learning can be even better than face-to-face learning. Very often, in analog classrooms, teachers receive little information about student engagement or reaction to course materials.
As institutions head into the fall and the shock of this derailed semester wears off, parents should expect more because the technologies and best practices already exist. Even with the recent lawsuits, most students and their families have been remarkably patient with the higher education response so far, but only because they view it as a temporary band-aid during a sudden and difficult transition. . They will expect much more as emergency response becomes the norm. Requiring schools to have and understand these five markers will help parents ensure that the education their students receive is always worthwhile.
Fred Singer is CEO of Echo360, founder of WashingtonPost.com, and father of three high school and college students.