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Educators' Thoughts on Distance Education
by various educators
Green Mountain College's Experience with Online Education
When Green Mountain College established its first graduate programs (in Environmental Education and Sustainable Business Practices) the choice of using an online educational platform offered several advantages. The college wished to appeal to mid-career people who wanted to pursue a graduate degree while still holding full time employment, and sometimes while raising a family, as well. Green Mountain College is located at a distance from any large population center, and it had yet to establish any sort of reputation in postgraduate education. Online education offers students the opportunity to log on to complete their assignments at any time, day or night, from any location. The program lends itself to internet marketing, which is how most students have come to discover it. Best of all, the college was able to establish the program without any additional brick and mortar capital needs.
In practice the electronic communication has proved to be surprisingly immediate and personal in nature. The Green Mountain College programs include one long-weekend residency on the college campus at the beginning of each of the two years. This provides students and faculty an opportunity to meet and get to know each other and helps to facilitate effective communication. Regular commuting to the campus is not required, however. Capstone projects are usually presented on campus at the time of graduation, but students unable to attend in person are able to present their projects electronically. Although not a part of the formal program, face-to-face meetings or telephone conferences are sometimes arranged by students engaged in joint projects or just wishing to confer on class-related matters.
The electronic, online educational platform has allowed Green Mountain College to establish successful graduate programs that it otherwise most likely would not have been able to.
Consultant and Adjunct Professor
Green Mountain College MBA in Sustainable Business Practices
At Oak Meadow School, we continually assess the benefits and the drawbacks of online education. Our aim is to provide an education, not just a diploma, to students who choose to learn outside of the traditional classroom. Technology enhances distance learning by connecting students with teachers and creating a supportive learning community from afar. Having access to online curriculum makes learning possible for familes who are traveling extensively or living in remote areas where mail service is unpredictable. However, we have found that most students prefer to use printed materials so studying can be done anywhere, anytime, without needing a computer or internet connection. Our assignments encourage students to engage with books, the natural world, and their communities in order to expand the scope of their learning. At Oak Meadow, we use technology as a tool for communicating while recognizing that the true heart of learning lies in a supportive mentoring relationship with a teacher and the student's active (as opposed to virtual) engagement with relevant, meaningful material.
Director of High School
In several of its programs, the SIT Graduate Institute uses a hybrid learning model that combines face-to-face courses with distance learning components. Each of these programs begins with a short-term residential session that minimizes time away from jobs and families and continues with online learning that maximizes increased skill development, interaction with faculty and classmates, and personalized advising. Because each of the programs builds on the assumption that interpersonal connections add value to one's learning, this format builds a strong interpersonal learning community at the start of each program, which is then further developed via on-line studies. It also allows students to gain valuable, practical work experience in the field through their jobs or related internships.
In terms of learning, students thrive in an environment where they can read, reflect, and interact with others who are experiencing similar situations but in varied socio-cultural, political or geographic contexts. After establishing personal connections with each other, the subsequent online environment gives them access to learning from and with each other while located around the world and allows for shorter time laps between gaining and applying the new knowledge. In addition, the on-line component provides for greener, more sustainable ways of learning since the increased use of electronic resources translates into the decreased use of physical resources such as paper, electricity, gas, etc.
It is important to note that on-line education presents challenges as well. Distractions from family, work, and distance from school can also hinder learning, especially for those students with intermittent internet access. A learning community is only as strong as everyone's contribution, especially when taking place on line. For some accessing the internet is as easy as breathing, but for others it is expensive and at times even risky (in locations with political tensions). Effective instructors must be aware and flexible at all times if their students are going to be successful.
SIT offers three hybrid programs: a Master of Arts in Teaching (English as a Foreign Language), a Graduate Certificate in Conflict Transformation Across Cultures, and a Master of Arts or Graduate Certificate in International Education. Each program builds on the values of sustainability and social justice, and is geared for professionals who are engaged in their communities around the world in their respective field. Additional information can be found at www.sit.edu.
Sora H. Friedman, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of International Education
Chair, International Education Degree
SIT Graduate Institute, a program of World Learning
P.O. Box 676, Kipling Road
Brattleboro, VT 05302
The great benefit of online education is that it removes barriers to education posed by geography and schedules. People without easy access to a campus can learn from the remotest hilltop, day or night. In addition, it provides access to resources worldwide that can greatly enhance learning. Exploring the Louvre is just a click away.
The "con" side (if you can call it that) is that successful online learning requires motivation, self-direction, and independent learning and study skills. As well, some people greatly prefer the face-to-face interaction of a classroom – though many first-time "onliners" are surprised to discover how interactive online classes are, how rich the personal relationships become, and how deep the online discussions can get. People tend to think carefully about what they express in an online course, and there is no such thing as sitting silently in the back of the classroom.
Co-Director, External Degree Program of Johnson State College
Communication and information tecchnologies have powerful potentials for recognizing, respecting, and responding to individual differences in educational purposes, learning styles and cognitive development. When they do so, personal transformation and learning that lasts results. When they are used for batch processing such results seldom occur.
Special Assistant to the President of Goddard College
Most obviously, the online platform has the advantage of making education more accessible by eliminating the restrictions of time and place. Students can pursue degrees while still fully engaged in careers, family responsibilities, and other pursuits. But the less obvious benefit of online education is the way in which it has altered the traditional teaching and learning process in a positive way. Online education, by virtue of its asynchronous delivery and greater student to student interaction, does not follow the traditional "sage on the stage" teaching method typically found in lecture style classrooms. Instead, the process involves constructivist principles, through which students have the opportunity to independently experience, discover, and internalize the subject matter. In this model students learn more than facts; essentially they learn how to learn through personal exploration and through interaction with peers. In my opinion, the real value of online education lies in its potential to bring such elements of constructivism into mainstream education.
Sandra Bartholomew, Ph.D.
Dean of Enrollment Management
Green Mountain College
Community College of Vermont conceived of online learning fifteen years ago as a means of furthering our core mission of providing access to higher education for Vermont students from Barton to Bennington. That continues to be our motivation. Our priority in developing online courses has been to use distance learning technology to provide the same high-quality, interactive learning that we offer in our classroom courses. And like our classroom courses, our online courses are small—averaging fourteen students—and we provide the same student support services online as we do on-ground.
The well-documented conclusion that there is "no significant difference" between classroom and online learning has become somewhat outdated, since emerging technologies and increased access have blurred the distinction between the two. Of the 423 students who received a CCV associate degree in 2006, nearly two-thirds took at least one online course, and one-third took at least a quarter of their courses online. For these students, the difference between classroom and online learning had more to do with what worked for their particular life circumstances than which was better, because they knew that they would get the learning they needed either way.
Dean of Academic Technology
Community College of Vermont
PO Box 489
Montpelier, VT 05601
Adults are best supported in dynamic, interactive and accessible learning environments that encourage self-direction and invite them to capitalize on life experiences. By their nature, online learning environments have tremendous potential to support adults' needs to be self-determining and reflective in their learning. That potential, however, is realized only when there is conscious and deliberate attention to a creative collaboration that engages students and facilitators in purposeful and meaningful dialogue.
Low-residency programs, pioneered at Goddard, offer the best of both worlds: connection within a dynamic learning community of faculty advisors and fellow students, and the flexibility to complete a degree from anywhere in the world.
Dr. Barbara Vacarr
President of Goddard College
As of today, my belief is that 100% online asynchronous learning is good for those who are comfortable with lots of screentime, like to work on their one schedule, and can't travel to the teacher or make time to meet at specific times. It's not as good for forming personal connections, or for teaching one how to present and function socially in close proximity to people. Also, 3D online worlds allow for some very effective simulations that are not possible in reality, such as learning about plant roots by being in a simulation of what they look like from underground.
100% online, but with asynchronous and synchronous work seems to add the ability to teach people to present and interact with others in real time and afford distant speakers and lively discussions. And it adds a dimension of getting to know people better, especially with video and audio. But it still lacks the vitality, socialization, and high level of information that comes from being in person.
Blended learning is my favorite. I believe that if a teacher integrates activities well, the best of online asynchronous, online synchronous, and in person, can be used to make a rich class. For example: Reading, writing and commenting can happen at the student's own pace during the week and small groups can meet online to help each other. Synchronous online meetings afford speakers from around the world who can answer questions live, and in person meetings provide rich workshopping, lectures and small group work, and lab time. Also, break time provides social time that helps a cohort form for after school networking.
We are still in a discovery phase with online teaching and learning. This technology is a tool, and so far, when used properly with passion and skill, it seems to be a good tool. Right now we are still figuring out what "properly" means. When the dust mostly settles in a decade or so, we'll know more where this tool fits in teachers and learners toolbox.
Program Director/Faculty, Teaching with Technology, Marlboro College Graduate School
I'm responding to the message you sent to Tom White inviting him to contribute a few sentences about the pros and cons of online education. I'm not sure I have a quote for you per se, but there is an abundance of material...articles...on the web these days if you are interested in searching out some of the research on online education. Although it's been around for a while now, it's still new enough that I'd have to say all the evidence on either side is surely not in yet! And I believe there is a lot of misconception and misperception as well. As an example, the statement I hear sometimes is "I took it online because it is (or I thought it would be) easier." And that often is not the case in the end.
I've been working in online education for about 15 years now...first as an advisor to students in online programs, and now as the director of online programs at OIT. Some students really struggle with the format and environment...and long for the 'good old days' when they could sit in a classroom. One of the things I've heard many times from students in these programs is that they miss the in class discussion and interaction and the immediacy of getting questions answered.
That said, I've also had the majority of students I've worked with in online programs praise the education from a variety of perspectives. One was how much more difficult in many ways it was to become educated in this manner. But along with that was more often than not an acknowledgement that they felt they really 'owned' the information and understanding of the subject. This in part was due to the necessity of doing a lot of the searching, reading, studying and understanding of the material and having to depend upon one's self and not just having as one student put it to me, 'downloaded' by lecture. Another comment I heard from students frequently was, you need to be highly organized, self-motivated, committed to the program, determined, and willing to put yourself out there a bit more than you might in a classroom setting. The comments go on and on, but often center on these qualities that you must have to be successful. (Another one is that students often feel safer and more encouraged to speak up in online classes since it feels less threatening to them.) The great thing about that is when you ask students about their experience, many times they'll say, about those characteristics, "gosh, these are characteristics that are also extremely valuable in the workplace, and I can tell prospective employers that."
The technology is evolving rapidly as well, and addressing some of the 'deficiencies' if you will, of online education. For instance, there are many web conferencing opportunities now which provide more direct contact between students, and between the faculty and students. Faculty are becoming creative in ways they never could before, as well. The old 'correspondence' course is not totally an artifact of earlier 'distance education' programs, but it's far less available these days.
I would say that online education is not for everyone, nor is it applicable to every subject and situation. But, I would also say it's a fabulous opportunity for many students who have few other ways to access formal higher education, or for that matter, a way to expand the offerings in the high school realm. The other thing I would say about it, in a general sense, is, that the education students receive through online programs, depends heavily on the quality of the teaching in that program. This demands that the institution set and expect adherence, to standards in the courses and programs they deliver. Not every faculty member is suited to teaching online, any more than every student is to learning online. Also, keep in mind that there is not an industry standard per se yet developed. There is a lot of helpful information and suggestions about what works and is good, but there is not one mind about what it all should look like. There are some good practices stated 'out there' but not necessarily bought into by everyone in this business. There is a lot of the "Do what works for you" attitude out there.
Whew... guess I was ready to talk about this! Are you sorry you asked?!
If you have questions about what I said or something doesn't make sense or ring true to you, please give me a call and we can chat about it. Also, Tom's suggestion about talking to Cody Jones is a good one...she's a very good online instructor.
Director of Distance Education
Boivin Hall 186
There are many benefits of online education. First and most important because the class is spread out over an entire week, it allows for more in-depth discussions by increasing the opportunities to "apply" the content to the real world. Students have time to reflect and process information before having to discuss with the class. It allows for a more diverse student population because online students are located all over the country and the world. This online interaction helps improve one's communication skills through the online discussions and virtual collaboration.
Last the obvious benefit is convenience. The online student can attend class when it is convenient for him or her whether it be in the morning before work or in the evening after dinner is over and the children are in bed.
Mary Bradbury Jones
Director of Accelerated Online Programs
"My verdict: offer both classroom and online courses. Online courses provide great flexibility for students who must manage coursework around career, family, and other commitments, and they accommodate diverse learning styles, if course materials are presented in a variety of media. In the seven-university Oregon University System, online courses allow us to reach students across campuses and institutions, working professionals, and the larger community. However, in my experience, not all topics are well-suited to online instruction. I have found that online interactive discussion of current issues, evolving policy, and changing political, environmental, and economic conditions--all inherent to my courses--is cumbersome. A common comment is that students prefer classroom discussions to responding to each other over discussion boards or in a chat room. They find "live" discussions inspiring and thought-provoking, while online dialog is a chore to them. I also have yet to find an ideal way for students to present projects to each other online, although I expect this to change as both available tools, and my skills with them, evolve. Finally, it can be time-consuming to effectively communicate highly complex material, particularly mathematic and statistical computations, through email and chat. So in my view, courses covering basic topics involving independent learning that can be assessed with simple tests are ideal candidates for online instruction. Courses that involve field work, group projects or extensive interactive discussion, topics affected by evolving policy and conditions, and complex computational material all are well-suited to "live" delivery. At least, so my students tell me."
Cody Jones, PhD
Instructor, REE/Portland Extension Activities
Oregon Institute of Technology
It should be noted that a modern day, traditional education incorporates quite a few online learning tools. Each of my classes were videotaped and posted online within 24 hours. In addition, most courses were supplemented with an online learning system called Blackboard, where professors posted course materials, assignments and external links. In classes where attendance was not required, students could simply show up for tests and pass the course. However, this was the road less traveled. The majority of my peers, including myself, wanted to personally engage the faculty & student body and take advantage of those extra opportunities afforded to us in a traditional education. In class, I had the ability to contribute to discussions and speak with the professor after class when I had a lingering question. This personal interaction with the professor motivated me to pay close attention in class and keep up with readings. I did not have this same enthusiam when I watched classes I missed online. With regard to group assignments, I valued the face-to-face meetings that occurred throughout the duration of a project. Stuck in a meeting room for hours on end, I watched with a close eye how natural leaders would rise up and successfully motivate group members of diverse cultures and personalities. Again, this high level of personal interaction motivated me to take great pride in my portion of the assignments. I did not want to let my team down, especially since I'd be seeing them on campus throughout the year. I quickly learned that those who performed well in group projects gained strong reputations inside and outside the classroom, strengthening their overall network.
This leads us to the most fundamental aspect of any business school education, networking. There is widespread belief on campus that our classmates are all potential lifelong friends and business partners. A traditional educational setting allowed me to truly cultivate these relationships right from the start. Team building exercises and social events filled our schedule for two weeks before the semester began. Then, as classes kicked into gear, we continued our interaction by having group project sessions in the mornings, followed by club meetings in the afternoon, and then we'd grab a beer in the evening when we weren't inundated with assignments. Throughout the day we'd start by discussing homework, but in no time we'd be sharing stories of our travels, hometowns, family, and career aspirations. I could sense solid friendships and networks being created. In no time at all, we were traveling the world together during winter and spring breaks. I credit the traditional educational setting for providing the atmosphere to spur such deep camaraderie. Networking was a vital tool in job recruiting as well. I did access the online alumni network and connect with some great people, but there was no substitute to alumni who came to campus on the hunt to hire students from their alma mater. These alumni would tell me that they have a strong allegiance to Stern because of the companionship and knowledge they gained while in school. They believe in the school's culture and the students who matriculate at Stern. Even during the financial crisis, this strong alumni-student bond made way for hirings of interns and full-time employees from our program. In the midst of the recruting process, it also helped having classmates around campus as a support system. Together, we would mock interview and share notes on companies, frantically preparing for the 30-minute interview that could decide our fate.
Furthermore, an extraordinary part of my traditional education was attending speeches, discussions, and Q&A sessions led by prominent business leaders and politicians. These speakers look forward to visiting our campus and presenting to an captive student audience. I felt privileged each time I sat for such an event.
People say that the best way to learn a foreign language is to totally immerse yourself in that country. I feel that Stern provided a great platform for total immersion into the business world, both online and off.
NYU Stern School of Business
MBA Class of 2010
The online classes offered by the Sustainable Design Institute at the Boston Architectural College are instructor-led, interactive, small and asynchronous. Each of these characteristics is vital to their success as an educational experience. By being instructor-led, our students are able to engage in give and take with the building industry experts who develop and teach the courses. The interactive nature of the courses –topically-based discussion forums are obligatory and graded- exposes students to each other's ideas and experience as well as those of the instructor. Class sizes are limited to 15 persons plus the instructor, making manageable and meaningful discussions possible. Because our students –and instructors- are based in all time zones, the courses need to be asynchronous. This feature also allows students with busy lives –and jobs- to "enter" the classrooms according to their own daily schedules. Because they can be based in all time zones, students bring their own cultures and environmental conditions to the classroom, which, along with their different professional backgrounds, makes for a richly varied learning experience.
Please let me know if you have questions or need more.
Lance Fletcher, AIA, LEED AP
Director of Sustainable Design
Boston Architectural College
If by online education you mean an electronic education factory where students are over-charged, faculty under paid, subjects dumb-downed, and academic advising conducted through a comptroller's office...then it's all a sloppy sham. But if you mean a new way to reach out and adjust education to the time and cost constraints of students, where faculty communicate one-on-one with their distant charges, where learning is learner-based, and where profit is a reluctant necessity absent from the mission...then it's another great American innovation is teaching and learning.
President, Sterling College, Craftsbury Common, VT
Sterling College provides a learning community in which students and faculty engage in meaningful experiences each day as part of an integrative environmental liberal arts curriculum. By using a wide range of online tools, students could have the potential to shape their engagement of physical learning environments by scaffolding their experience with online collaborative environments wherein they can help to define their place and expectations of experience. Furthermore, globally shared forums create incentives for diverse participation, and networked blogs and other online venues can effect real social and political change.
Dean of Academics, Sterling College, Craftsbury Common, VT
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