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Outcome, Not Process, Matters in the On-Campus vs. Online Education Debate

Outcome, Not Process, Matters in the On-Campus vs. Online Education Debate
The route a student takes to a particular learning outcome is not nearly as important as ensuring the student has completed the necessary learning.

The face of America’s college students has changed. It’s reported that only 15 percent of today’s college students are of the “traditional” 18-to-24 age range. According to the Lumina Foundation, only 38 percent of adults (those between the ages of 25 and 64) in the United States have an associate degree or higher. In addition, there are 36 million who have some college credit but no degree. In order for the nation to reclaim its international reputation of having a high percentage of college-educated citizens, and to meet President Obama’s goal of 60 percent overall degree completion by 2020, we need to help our adult population earn degrees.

The overwhelming majority of today’s college students (the 85 percent) are working adults who also have family and civic obligations. With claims such as these on their time, which is the better means for them to obtain the credits they need to earn a degree: a traditional campus-based pathway or a distance learning approach? The answer depends largely on the individual student’s learning style and the benefits he or she will ultimately receive out of the process, as well as the overall cost of earning a degree.

The Learning Style Question

Although I work for Excelsior College, an established and accredited distance learning institution, we will be among the first to recommend the campus-based format for “traditional” 18- to 24-year-old students. The structure and socialization this environment provides is quite often what these younger students need to succeed. Likewise, if adult students believe they learn best in a physical classroom on a fixed schedule, where engagement with fellow students is face-to-face, then a campus-based program may be best. If, on the other hand, the flexibility to engage with the course material, peers and faculty at a time and place of one’s choosing is needed, then a distance learning option may be best.

Many who fall into the some-college-but-no-degree category have had a campus-based experience but haven’t taken an online course, an option frequently associated with distance learning. There’s no rule that in order to experience an online course, students have to fully enroll in a degree program. If adult students are apprehensive about whether an online or distance approach is good for them, they should take courses on a non-matriculated basis first to find out.

The Benefits Question

The most commonly cited benefit of a distance or online program is flexibility. Like their campus-based counterparts, online programs have deadlines students must meet for submission of course work. What is different is when and how students interact with the course content, faculty and fellow students. Most online courses are delivered asynchronously so students don’t have to log on at specific times. Instead, they can view the material and engage with it when it is most convenient for them — after work, during lunch, after putting the kids to bed and so on.

Another common benefit is cost. Tuition for an online course can often be lower than that of a campus-based one. Even if it costs the same or is a bit more, once the “hidden” costs of a traditional classroom experience are factored in, savings can build up. With an online course, adult students don’t have extra transportation expenses getting to and from campus, and the cost of child or elder care can be avoided or reduced considerably because students can choose when and where they go online.

For those who may believe quality gets lost when flexibility is promoted, think again. The most recent Sloan-C report on online learning shows 77 percent of academic leaders would rate learning outcomes in online courses to be the same as, or superior to, face-to-face courses.

The Cost Question

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in its November 2012 Signature Report #4, observed that pathways to degrees are becoming increasingly complex, noting one-third of first-time college students attended multiple institutions before earning a degree or certificate. Campus-based versus online formats aside, one of the biggest challenges adult students face is how to use the college credit they have already earned to help them achieve their educational goals. Many institutions have arbitrary requirements that a minimum number of credits must be earned from them in order for the student to graduate.

If more institutions were willing to recognize the equivalency of transfer credit, the cost of earning a degree could be significantly reduced.

For example, in the 2012-13 academic year alone, Excelsior accepted 671,000 transfer credits on behalf of more than 15,800 newly-enrolled learners for a total savings of $262 million — what we call our Knowledge Value Index. The acceptance of these valid credits toward degree requirements means these students, their families and benefactors — including federal- and state-sponsored grant and scholarship programs — did not have to pay for them a second time.

The acceptance of transfer credit is recognition of the multiple, academically-sound sources of original credit. A considerable amount of college-level learning takes place in courses delivered by industries and by the military, and through credit-by-exam programs that have been evaluated by the American Council on Education or the National College Credit Recommendation Service. This is a big part of what the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) calls prior learning assessment (PLA).  In one of its studies, CAEL found graduation rates are two-and-a-half times higher for students who applied PLA credit toward degree requirements. PLA students also had higher persistence rates and shorter times to degree completion.

The Final Score

Distance education will never replace traditional higher education, nor should it. Classroom-based learning holds tremendous pedagogical and sociological benefits, especially for younger students. However, distance and online programs provide the flexibility and convenience campus programs are not well-suited to match.

In the final tally, it is the outcome of the educational experience that really matters, not where or how students learn.

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