Message to Online Learning Critics: “You’ll See.”

John Ebersole, the president of Excelsior College, wrote in Forbes Magazine last week that administrators critical of online education should think twice before pooh-poohing the industry.

Pointing to recent research that shows an increase of adults enrolled in higher education, but that the percentage of adult students who prefer distance options remains unchanged from 2006, Ebersole says many critics will argue that flexibility is no longer enough and that online education must demonstrate an increase in the value of online learning. However, as one of the industry’s earliest critics, and as a convert, Ebersole suggests that such a line of argument ignores the vast improvements online learning has experienced in recent history.

Pointing to some of the difficulties he has experienced with online learning—from an online completion rate of under 50 percent at UC Berkeley in the 1990s to a lack of faculty incentivization at Colorate State University—online learning has had a bumpy ride since its inception. However, while at Boston College, Ebersole said the high development cost of online courses was finally justified for him because the mistakes made in pursuing online learning in the past had finally been overcome.

Simply transferring traditional course material to an online format stopped being the norm in the 2000s. Institutions finally recognizing that achieving student learning outcomes online required collaboration between developers and faculty experts to build courses from the bottom up. Moreover, such programming required specific thought for adult pedagogy and student support mechanisms.

The interaction among students and between students and faculty online has caught up to the experience of a face-to-face class (and, in some cases, surpassed the traditional classroom). Moreover, online courses can offer similar assessment techniques to those of in-class courses, including quizzes, mid-term examinations, final examinations and writing assignments. Group work is also a possibility online now.

Ebersole recognizes that the online medium still is not perfect, but he argues that its journey from its humble beginnings is worth the attention of higher education administrators.

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