The for-profit online school industry has received a great deal of attention over the past few years and the reasons have involved recruiting practices, low retention rates, and the failure to pay student loan rates. Recently there was an article about one online school that was being audited, specifically regarding the level of faculty to student interactions.
This particular school offers competency-based online degree programs and students are completing their degrees without being enrolled in traditional online classes. The underlying reason for the audit is related to the programs being qualified to receive federal aid. In order for students to be eligible to receive federal aid there must be "significant instructor to student interactions" and if those interactions aren't present the programs become ineligible for aid.
The online university in question doesn't offer traditional specific class terms or credit hours, and instead students work at their own pace and take pre-developed assessments to demonstrate that they possess the required knowledge and competencies. Whenever a student needs assistance, instructors are available during set hours and there is an option to schedule an appointment with an instructor for one-on-one instruction. The audit seeks to determine if those are enough interactions to categorize it as an online learning program or merely a set of correspondence courses. The findings of this audit could have a significant impact on the implementation of competency-based programs, which many online schools have considered implementing or are in the process of adding to their programs.
From my perspective as an online educator this audit brings to light an important aspect of online learning that goes beyond the question of the number of interactions, and it is the role of the instructor in the learning process. I understand that the purpose of the competency-based programs is to acknowledge the past experience of students and allow them to work at their own pace. However, what happens to the role of the instructor who is no longer actively involved in online classes? Are instructors still teaching students if their primary responsibilities involve scheduling appointments with students, evaluating assessments, and answering occasional questions? This leads to another question that is relevant for all distance learning programs: what makes online learning "real" for students?
Correspondence, Self-Paced Courses
At its very essence a correspondence course is self-paced in nature, with or without specific completion deadlines. Originally this concept began as a mail-in course with required reading materials provided and a test or assignment was to be completed and mailed in. These courses were eventually replaced almost completely by online courses. It is still possible for an online course to be established as a correspondence course, especially if there is little or no instructor involvement in the class and it is designed to be self-paced in nature. This approach is often utilized in continuing education programs that do not offer degree programs and credit hours.
Some program directors believe that an online course is adequately structured if an instructor is available to answer questions when needed or they are present during a specified time throughout the duration of the course. But consider what that same approach would be like in a traditional college. Students would be required to sit in a class and study, the instructor visits the class once or twice a semester, and/or the instructor has office hours on campus if a student wants to schedule an appointment. Is that the best way for adults to learn? They can certainly learn on their own but then why go to a class at all? More importantly, what does their degree really mean by the time they have completed it?
How Learning Becomes Transformational
At the heart of higher education is the belief that learning should be transformative in nature and that is the missing component with self-paced online courses. For example, with graduate level self-paced courses some educators believe that these students don't need interactions with instructors, that their skills are advanced because of the degrees they have already completed. They may also believe written assignments aren't necessary and a quiz will suffice. The same is true for discussions, that instructor involvement isn't always necessary or adequate participation could be provided by the instructor through a pre-developed post.
But that isn't meaningful online learning and it isn't transformative. Students need the instructor's involvement and more importantly, they need the instructor's active presence to bring the course and course materials to life. Interactions can be transformative, not only with questions that must be answered but class discussions and feedback as well. What does an online class become when students have questions but immediate contact with the instructor is not an option? Or class discussions that occur without an instructor present to prompt engagement and ongoing conversations? Can students learn if their only involvement with an instructor occurs through feedback provided for a written assignment? Higher education is meant to transform students, through the development of academic skills and acquisition of knowledge. More importantly, higher education has the potential to transform ways of thinking and that is how students learn.
What Makes Online Classes "Real" to Students
From my experience, online classes become "real" to students when they feel a personal connection in some manner. It begins with a sense of belonging and community as they interact with other students and continues as they work one-on-one with their instructors. This is not an automatic process and it doesn't occur quickly. If students perceive their instructor isn't actively involved, doesn't seem concerned with their academic well-being, or isn't responsive to their questions and concerns, they can slowly begin to disengage from the class. Another manner in which the online class becomes "real" occurs when students participate in class discussions and gain new insights and perspectives about the course topics. When they read the course materials they may or may not connect with that information and it is dependent upon whether or not they are able to comprehend it, relate to it, and connect its meaning to the real world. An instructor helps students develop this connection to the class and the course subject matter.
Competency-Based Programs and Higher Education
What does this mean for competency-based programs? The trend to change the traditional model of learning and move towards this approach continues to grow. The outcome of the audit may or may not change the view of program directors and educators once the results have been published. What I believe from my own experience working with online students and online faculty is that students need the involvement of their instructors in a classroom setting. Class discussions provide an opportunity for transformational learning and that is a component often eliminated with these types of programs. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle, with a hybrid approach that blends classes and competencies as methods of measurement. Or the use of competencies could replace the traditional learning objectives as the basis for development of online courses.
I cannot predict with certainty how higher education will continue to evolve; however, I can state that students need interactions with their instructors. The role of the online instructor should not be minimized to that of a grader or evaluator alone as it results in missed learning opportunities and makes distance learning feel distant once again. I am an advocate for instructors developing a strong virtual presence and being highly involved with and responsive to their online students. Through these interactions learning is transformative and becomes a process that is nurtured rather than a function to be completed. Through an instructor's involvement students are prompted to develop important skills, such as critical thinking, and they can help provide the context necessary to make learning meaningful and relevant.
About the Author:
Dr. Bruce A. Johnson is an innovative educator with extensive experience in the field of higher education. Dr. J has expertise in adult education, distance learning, online teaching, faculty development, curriculum development, instructional design, organizational learning and development, career coaching, and resume writing.
Dr. J has authored the following publications:
Appreciative Andragogy: Taking the Distance Out of Distance Learning: Appreciative inquiry has been translated by Dr. J for use in online classes as an instructional strategy. This is applicable for any class or subject. Order your autographed copy today, which includes other special additions: http://tinyurl.com/nenrr7w
Be Prepared to Teach Online: Strategies from an Online College Professor:The topics in this book include adult learning basics, developing a virtual presence, feedback and grading basics, developing a supportive mindset, online instruction basics, plus much more. Purchase your copy today and consider it to be an investment in your ongoing professional development. http://tinyurl.com/lr9a96a
Discover Your Personal Best through a Positive Mindset Tune Up: This is a book that does not have to be read from cover to cover. It is meant to inspire you and help to distract your thoughts when there are moments of doubt, fear, or questions. This book will help you tune up your mindset and stay focused on discovering your personal best. http://tinyurl.com/ob3q9e5
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