Episode 107: What’s All This I Hear About Online College Courses?

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Welcome to Series 10, Issues in Higher Education. We want to spend at least the next handful of episodes discussing a variety of what we believe are issues in higher education–not necessarily about college access or college applications or college admissions, which is where we spend most of our time with you. Yet, we believe that these issues could have long-term implications that are important for your family.

When casting about for a good definition of what we mean by an issue, we came across the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary and its definition of issue: “a subject or problem that people are thinking and talking about.” We think that definition will give us plenty of room to take up a number of issues we have been thinking about lately.

By the way, in case you aren’t familiar with the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, it is a compilation of American English vocabulary that students will use in high school and college. Interestingly, the Dictionary, published by the Cambridge University Press, contains, according to its website, “more than 2,000 key vocabulary items from the content areas of math, the arts, chemistry, earth science, physics, American and world history, social studies, language arts, and other disciplines, as well as the more general vocabulary used in academic writing and speech, such as ‘analyze,’ ‘derive,’ and ‘subsequent.’ That might be a handy dictionary to have.

So, let’s get started. Our first issue is online college courses. Now, this is an interesting issue for us because I am not much in favor of online courses as a way for college students to get the most out of their college experience (even though I once wrote a college online business course, which I thought was pretty good). Marie, on the other hand, has both written and taught quite a few online courses for several colleges at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Marie has also written and taught blended college courses–that is, courses that are partly online and partly in class. She is something of an expert on this issue of online higher education. And, as always, we might not entirely agree.

We want to take a look at fully online courses today, though some of what we say will undoubtedly apply to blended courses as well. We are going to look at a variety of student populations and talk about each one separately.

1. Online College Courses for Freshmen

Let’s start with college freshmen. When they arrive on campus, it is likely that some of them already took online courses in their high schools–either on their own at home or while sitting in high school classrooms or computer lab facilities.

We are going to suggest, for openers, that high school students who take an online course while sitting in a high school building under the supervision–even the loose supervision–of high school staff members are not really getting the full online experience. Those students are not doing classwork on their own schedules, studying and meeting assignment deadlines on their own, or sinking or swimming without the benefit of any live over-the-shoulder professional adult guidance.

Parents, you cannot judge such experiences to be indicative of what a college online course might be like for your freshman. In fact, when we were working at the high school we co-founded in New York City, almost all of our students took at least two online high school courses in our classrooms, and we were still very reluctant to see them enroll in any online courses when we sent them off to college for the first time.

On the other hand, if your teenager has taken an online course entirely at home–including as a fully homeschooled student–then your teenager has had an experience closer to a college online course. His or her success with such courses might be better predictors of his or her success in college online courses.

With that said, there are many, many students who come to college without having had any experience with online courses. These are the students who worry us most. Why?

Taking online courses at the college level requires that students have better-than-average self-discipline and self-motivation. It is easy to get behind in an online course when you don’t have to show up physically at a building for class two or three times a week. There is no camaraderie of walking to class and sitting in class with other new freshmen. It is easy to imagine that you will do that online assignment on your computer at midnight and then accidentally fall asleep or go out with friends.

Taking online courses at the college level also requires that students have better-than-average reading and writing skills. This is something that a lot of students don’t think about nearly as hard as they should. Most online courses have a lot of reading associated with them, even if a professor gives video lectures as part of the course (and they all don’t do that). And most online courses require a lot of writing, both of a formal nature and of a more informal nature, such as when responding to posts of classmates typically each week. Unfortunately, many college freshmen simply do not have the reading and writing skills they should, as we have said here at USACollegeChat too many times to count.

And now I will offer an opinion. I think that it is unlikely that most freshmen can take an important introductory or foundational course (like Calculus I or Composition 101 or Introduction to Sociology or Spanish I or Biology 101) and get everything out of it online that they would get if they were in a classroom with a professor two or three times a week. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

2. Online College Courses for Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors

I feel slightly better about sophomores and juniors and seniors taking online courses, but only slightly. I still think that live instruction in a classroom or lab or even lecture hall is likely to give students more food for thought and likely to engage them better with the content of the course.

To the degree that the online course is an elective in a field that is not the student’s major, I feel less concerned. But that is only because I am admitting that it is not as important for the student to learn the content as well.

To be fair, I do think it is probably true that upperclassmen have more self-discipline than freshmen and, therefore, stand a better chance of getting through an online course as the professor intended. So, that’s a plus for upperclassmen. It is also probably true that, if an upperclassman is super-interested in the content of the course, there is a better chance that the he or she will do whatever is required to learn the material.

3. Online College Courses for Undergraduate Students in the Summer

Let’s talk about summer school, and I will give you a real example of a student I had worked with during his application process. Let’s call him Victor. Victor had won a handsome scholarship to the prestigious state university he chose to attend. The scholarship required that he keep a 3.0 GPA–not an unreasonable requirement, I believe.

Well, Victor did what lots of freshmen do. He got busy with friends and activities and let his GPA plummet closer to a 2.0 than a 3.0. He was notified that he would lose his scholarship for his sophomore year, though he might appeal to get it back if his grades rebounded.

We knew that he had to get his grades up ASAP. So, during the summer after his freshman year, Victor and I chose four online courses that the university offered–two courses in each of two summer sessions. Victor was able to take the online courses at home, which was critically important since he could not afford to live on campus and take regular summer school courses. We chose courses that I thought leant themselves to online study (that is, not advanced mathematics or sciences, even though Victor is a biology major)–courses like music history and contemporary literature.

Partly because there was a lot riding on the successful completion of these courses (and partly because I talked to him every day about what was due and whether he had done it), he finished the four courses with four A’s. Were the courses somehow easier than the courses would have been if he had taken them in class? To tell you the truth, I am not sure, though I have my suspicions that they were. Nonetheless, those A’s and a good fall semester of his sophomore year dug him out of the academic hole he had found himself in, and he got his scholarship back.

So, in Victor’s case, online courses were a great option. They would also be a great option for other college students in his situation. Or for college students who want to get a bit ahead before the next academic year, for whatever reason. Summer courses online–like summer courses in classrooms–can be a very attractive way to catch up or move ahead, depending on your college academic situation. Parents, that is an idea that might be useful to your own kids who are in college now or will be soon.

4. Online College Courses for Graduate Students

Let’s turn our attention to online courses for graduate students (you might have one of those at home now, parents, or you might have one in the future). At the end of September, I read a piece in The New York Times by Kevin Carey. It had this intriguing title: “An Online Education Breakthrough? A Master’s Degree for a Mere $7,000.” Here is what the article said:

The master’s degree business is booming. College graduates looking for a leg up in the job market are flocking to one- and two-year programs that promise entry to lucrative careers. Top colleges are more than willing to provide them–for a price. Tuition for a 30-credit master’s in computer science from the University of Southern California runs $57,000. Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon charge over $43,000 for the same degree.

But one highly ranked program, at Georgia Tech, has taken a very different approach. Its master’s in computer science costs less than one-eighth as much as its most expensive rival–if you learn online. And a new study by Harvard economists found that in creating the program, Georgia Tech may have discovered a whole new market for higher education, one that could change the way we think about the problem of college costs.

Georgia Tech rolled out its online master’s in computer science in 2014. It already had a highly selective residential master’s program that cost about the same as those of competitor colleges. Some may see online learning as experimental or inferior, something associated with downmarket for-profit colleges. But the nation’s best universities have fully embraced it. Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, U.S.C. and others have also developed online master’s degrees, for which they charge the same tuition as their residential programs.

Georgia Tech decided to do something different. It charges online students the smallest amount necessary to cover its costs. That turned out to be $510 for a three-credit class. U.S.C. charges online students $5,535 for a three-credit class. (Both programs also charge small per-semester fees.)

With one of the top 10 computer science departments in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report, Georgia Tech had a reputation to uphold. So it made the online program as much like the residential program as possible. (quoted from the article)

Wow, that is powerful. I have to think twice about something like this that Georgia Tech would do, because Georgia Tech is as good as it gets. And what’s more, here is some information from the article about the student-professor relationships in the online degree program:

Charles Isbell, a senior associate dean at the College of Computing, helped lead the effort. Mr. Isbell has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence and machine learning from M.I.T., and he teaches those subjects at Georgia Tech. He translated his lectures into well-produced online videos while administering the same homework assignments, midterms and final exams. Tests are proctored by a company that locks down a student’s computer remotely and uses its camera to check for cheating.

In theory, on-campus programs offer direct access to professors and peers. Mr. Isbell began noticing differences in that respect between his residential and online students. He was interacting much more with students who had never set foot on the Atlanta campus.

“I never see students at my office hours,” he said. A few linger after class to ask scheduling questions, but that’s about it.

Many of the thousands of online students, by contrast, are constantly interacting on a website set up for that purpose, where Isbell can log on and help. “I can jump in and say: ‘No, you should be thinking about this,’ ” he said. “I spend more time helping them with assignments online than I ever do on campus. The experience for the students and for me is much richer online.” (quoted from the article)

Well, there’s something I wasn’t expecting. But perhaps here is the reason, as explained later in the article: “The traditional on-campus students in the Georgia Tech master’s program tend be young and just out college, with an average age of 24. The average age of the online students was 35. A sizable number were 45, 50 and older. Ninety percent were currently employed.” (quoted from the article) It seems, then, that online courses might work better for older students, for students who are likely more serious than traditional undergraduates, and for adult students who might need that master’s degree in order to keep a current job or get a better one.

5. Online College Courses for Adult Students

That brings us to the final population, and that is adult students–not just older graduate students, but older undergraduate students. For a couple of decades, adult students have been the only growing population of college students.

Adult students usually return to college–or start college for the first time–because they need some sort of credential in order to earn a living or a better living. Therefore, they are serious students. They are highly motivated. They are disciplined. They have what it takes to succeed in online courses.

But–and it’s a big but–they are not like your high school seniors will be next year when they are college freshmen. And that’s precisely why we have been reluctant to recommend online courses for first-time college freshmen coming right out of high school.

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