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Fall 2011, Past Students, Ruthie Kelly

Online college education challenges traditional conceptions of learning

By Ruthie Kelly

Stevan Marlow had been planning on transferring to San Diego State from Grossmont College, his local community college, for years. But since he was employed full-time, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., his class options were limited by his work schedule.

“Until I looked at online courses, there were some required classes I just wasn’t going to be able to take,” Marlow said. “I was really discouraged for a while.

Stevan Marlow gestures toward the computer he uses for all his online classes.

Stevan Marlow, a student at Grossmont College, has taken many courses online as he works to transfer to SDSU. Here, Marlow gestures toward the computer he uses for all his online classes.

“Last semester, though, between evening classes and online courses, I was able to complete all the classes required for transfer. I don’t really like taking classes online, but if I hadn’t, I literally cannot think of how I could have moved my education forward to SDSU. My financial situation means work is not an option for me.

“I took four classes online in the Spring 2011 — history, statistics, philosophy, and biology — it was intense, but it was worth it. I was pretty psyched when I got the acceptance letter in the mail.”

More than half of the population of the United States attends some college, according to the U.S. Census Bureau [pdf], and the level of college education is linked to how much money an individual will earn in his or her lifetime. With the advent of online courses, and even entire universities, a college education may be more accessible to the general public than ever before.

But many are skeptical of just how much benefits that an online classroom brings, compared to a traditional in-person classroom setting. Beliefs about what counts as education are challenged by the unfamiliar format. Like any new application of technology, some adaptations are more effective than others.

“I would say teaching an online course versus teaching a classroom course is more difficult,” said Kris Stewart, a professor of computer science at SDSU, who has taught CS 301: Computers and Society, both online and in the classroom. “You have to be more prepared and more organized. In lectures, you get spontaneous non-verbal feedback so you can tell if the students aren’t understanding a concept. Doing that over email is much more difficult.”

Computer science lecturer Russ Kelly can use his iPad to connect with students. However, he says this ultimately leads to more of a time commitment on his part.

Computer science lecturer Russ Kelly can use his iPad to connect with students. However, he says this ultimately leads to more of a time commitment on his part.

Stewart also noted the time commitment on the part of the professor is often more substantial.

“I probably spend one to two hours on my email answering questions every day,” Stewart said. “Sometimes it’s the same question over and over again. And there’s often more seats in the online classes than there are in the traditional courses.”

Russ Kelly, a former lecturer in computer science at DeVry University and Coleman University, agreed, noting that it also seems harder on the students.

“For some students, being online makes them less shy, and obviously there’s a convenience factor — you don’t have to travel to and from class, so it’s more efficient in terms of transportation and you can adjust when you log on to your own schedule. However, it’s not more efficient in terms of time and effort. In fact, it’s often more work. As a student, you have to be more of a self-starter and actively teach yourself, and be more active in asking for help if there’s something you don’t understand.

“Also, paradoxically, some students who are shy in class are even more shy online, because they have problems with writing skills and they don’t want to be judged for their mistakes. When you make a post for the whole class to see … well sometimes students can really lay into one another for things like grammar, but that just makes the student who made the mistake and all the other ones who read the discussion less likely to post.”

Kelly also noted that teaching online was more difficult for the teacher, requiring commitments of time and effort not present in a traditional classroom.

Online universities and classrooms present more opportunities and more problems

While proponents of online education may cite benefits such as convenience, flexibility, and accessibility, particularly for non-traditional students, the ease advocates portray the online experience to be is not the complete picture.


Erin, a student at the for-profit Ashford University, explains how online classes are different than in-person classes, focusing on the different technology she can use to complete her assignments and posts.

Karen Elaine, who is dually enrolled at SDSU and Grossmont College, said online classes are not a simple matter of easier or harder.

“In some ways, they’re easier than an in-person class because a lot of the assignments and tests are open book, open note,” Karen said.

“A lot of the tests that I took in my online history class last semester, I could have my book out right in front of me while I answered the questions. Of course, the teachers know you’re doing this so they make the questions harder, so you really have to have read mostly and know where everything is before you start. But it’s still less stressful so in that way it’s easy.

“But at the same time, they’re more difficult because you have to teach yourself. You can’t ask the professor as many questions, or ask as easily, or always get the answer — you kind of have to find it yourself. You’re on your own.”

Not all students are “tech-savvy” enough to be successful in an online setting. Stewart noted that SDSU’s online course offerings come with a quiz-like survey designed to test whether or not the student is prepared for the demands of an online, or “distance education,” course. Questions range from queries on the students’ access to and comfort with technology, to students’ study habits, to their beliefs about education in general.

“Online classes really put more responsibility on the student,” Stewart said.

“Often times when I am having a conversation with a student who is struggling, I have to point out that there’s the survey right there when they sign up, and I have to ask, ‘Did you take the survey? Did you remember that we put it there so you’d know what you’re signing up for?’”

Blackboard's app for iPhone and Android (pictured) allows students to access content and participate in classes on the go.

Blackboard's app for iPhone and Android (pictured) allows students to access content and participate in classes on the go.

In addition, technology comes with technical problems. DeVry University’s Facebook page is pinged with questions from students about the for-profit college’s online classroom portal being down. This may be spontaneous, in which case service being restored could take minutes, hours or even days, or it could be scheduled maintenance that students failed to note and anticipate. Ashford University’s Facebook page contains questions from students who have difficulty accessing their online textbooks. Students may have Internet connectivity problems with their routers or Internet service providers, neither of which is something schools can help with.

Sometimes the problems are not limited to technical ones. Entire web forums have been dedicated to complaints by dissatisfied students. Ashford Univertity’s own Facebook page also contains questions from students that raise concerns in the minds of potential degree-seekers. Many students there complain about missed or late disbursements of financial aid and problems contacting university officials who can help. Clayesha McElwee writes, “Keep running down a dead end street with the Financial Aid Dept. Starting to feel like this is a game…Called at 7:30 a.m. got one answer, called back at 1 p.m. and got a totally different answer…Supervisors don’t even know what’s going on.”

Others complain about plagiarism by other students. One student, Linda Redman, writes, “I think anyone committing plagiarism should fail the class and have to write a letter of apology to the person they copied. And more than a one liner. Just saying sorry doesn’t cut it. I never heard what happened to the student who copied mine. The instructor wouldn’t tell me. But an apology would have been nice.” Still others complain about the non-responsiveness of professors. The Better Business Bureau records nearly 100 complaints filed against Ashford University in the last three years.

While such complaints exist at other universities, students attending brick and mortar campuses generally have more access to resources to help them resolve such situations. Online-only college students do not have as easy access to assistance in the event that something does go wrong.

For-profit colleges may provide more hindrance than help

The Number of Students Attending For-Profit Colleges is Growing Fast

The Number of Students Attending For-Profit Colleges is Growing Fast

Since 1998, the number of students attending for-profit colleges has skyrocketed. For-profit colleges are distinct from private colleges and public universities largely in their objectives — for-profit colleges, unlike public universities and private colleges, are a business. They have investors who expect a return on the money that they have provided.

The goal of for-profit colleges is to make a profit, meaning they must spend less money than they collect from students. Many for-profit colleges accomplish this through economies of scale, which they create by having all, or most, of their courses online. University of Phoenix was the first widely-known online university, but there are many others, including the previously mentioned Ashford University, DeVry University, Coleman University, Kaplan College, Argosy University, and others.

Tuition at for-profit colleges is often much higher than that at both public universities and private colleges. These colleges enroll many students who would otherwise not be accepted to four-year universities or have personal circumstances that make college attendance difficult. Many of these students are low income, and the colleges enroll them by having them take out federally funded student loans via the Federal Direct Loan Program, or in the case of military veterans, by using their GI Bill benefits.

Frontline did an investigation into how these universities focus on recruiting military members in particular, because of their access to  a large pool of federal funds.

In 2010, Congress’ Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee held a series of hearings investigating how for-profit colleges operate, attempting to decide whether to allow federal funds to continue to flow into this sector. The vast majority of these colleges’ funds come from federal dollars — nearly 90 percent — and nearly a third of all GI Bill dollars spent go to for-profit colleges. As Sen. Harkin, the lead investegator on the committee, noted, that’s a 600 percent increase in just a few short years. Sen. Harkin later issued the following report on the HELP Committee’s findings.

View this document on Scribd

The Government Accountability Office also issued a report in which undercover students enrolled [pdf] in several for-profit universities, unnamed in the report, to observe whether or not detractors’ criticisms were based in fact. While some online universities had policies that were properly enforced and paralleled those of traditional schools, many did not. The report found many universities failed to confirm that the undercover students had actually graduated from high school or earned their GED, which is one of the few prerequisites required to attend these colleges in the first place. Some undercover students who “skipped class” by failing to log in or submitted assignments late, including weeks after the deadlines, were not failed from their courses. Some undercover students committed blatant acts of plagiarism, one even submitting a series of images instead of the essay that was assigned; many were not properly disciplined and faced minimal or non-existent consequences.

Frontline also did an investigation of the for-profit college industry in general, the widely distributed “College, Inc.”, noting the high costs and problematic graduation rates and job placement rates.

Many different media organizations have issued similar reports. The Huffington Post investigated Ashford University, while The New York Times focused on Ashford’s parent company, Bridgepoint Education. The Voice of San Diego also investigated Bridgepoint, whose main offices are located in San Diego. USA Today explored the high loan default rates of students at these colleges. NPR featured a segment on its radio program which interviewed Christopher Beha, who also published the following extended piece of his undercover experiences at University of Phoenix:

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Even if these concerns are eventually resolved, Stewart notes, an online can be “Ok,” but doesn’t capture some of the most important aspects of college.

“There’s more to college than just mastering information,” Stewart said.

“It depends on your goal. For many, it shouldn’t be just to get a degree — there’s an element of developing maturity and responsibility and sociality that can be lost in an online setting.”

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