January 26, 2014

Higher Education Split over Benefit of Online Courses for Students

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Despite controversies concerning the motives on online education companies, Cornell professors say online courses can be effective source of learning for students.

Recent studies by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education have revealed that much of the motivation behind companies such as Udacity, Coursera and EdX moving toward online education and massive open online courses is not due to efficacy or increased accessibility to students, but rather enormous profitability.

Prof. Beth Livingston, industrial and labor relations, said that while initial efforts toward online courses did not always have students’ best interests in mind, some online education programs still offer benefits to some students.

“Much of the early drive toward online education was likely fueled by for-profit companies looking to provide cheap courses … without much care for actual student learning,” Livingston said. In 2012, the online education sector received investments of $1.1 billion, with 324 tech companies earning $1.43 billion in profits during a 12-month period, according to the Huffington Post. A report released in 2012 by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) later revealed that these private, for-profit online higher education programs “spent more on advertising and recruitment than on instruction.” However, there are still online education programs that can be worthwhile for students, putting money toward the quality of the education, according to Prof. Margaret Shackell-Dowell, accounting. Online classes give students the opportunity to take the course in a manner that fits their schedule,” Shackell-Dowell said. Such classes can allow students to focus on the material over winter or summer breaks, including “students who are trying to get ahead [or] caught up for a variety of personal and academic reasons,” according to Shackell-Dowell. Online programs can be useful for students with disabilities, family burdens and classroom anxiety, according to Livingston. Livingston — who has been teaching online courses since she was in graduate school — said there are still ways for the courses to be taught in a way that helps students. “They can be done quite well if the professor is well-acquainted with the course material and the technology, and if the professor cares about student learning enough to use the inherent flexibility of online education to meet student needs,” Livingston said. Prof. Shackell-Dowell further points out that students can use these programs to “learn a course in a deep fashion… as opposed to combining it with a bunch of other courses and activities and spreading themselves too thin.” Livingston said Cornell’s online and MOOC programs seem to be effective in helping students, “so long as the expansion is done thoughtfully.” “Cornell does a pretty good job of integrating online functions into the existing class structure, and they seem to be going about building MOOCs with thoughtfulness,” Livingston said. “Using online classes, and other online tools, to help meet student needs can improve the educational experience for students at Cornell.” The funding for many online education programs, which was over $32 billion in 2011, comes from over 25 percent of the Department of Education’s financial aid funds, according to the Huffington Post.