Understanding New Media – Final Paper
If education teaches us anything, it is the fact the nothing remains constant, even the method of education itself. The age old tradition of schooling has changed. No longer is learning confined to the classroom. The ability to gain knowledge has moved outside the walls of the university. Distance education is quickly becoming a vital part of higher learning, but is by no means a new concept. In the 1950’s and 1960’s many universities offered correspondence classes in which students could submit assignments by mail with colleges to complete their coursework. In the late 1950’s through early 1980’s New York University utilized the technology of television in education by offering “Sunrise Semester”, the first telecourse offered for college credit to those who paid registration fees. With the advances in computer technology, distance learning would transform again. For as long as personal computers and the internet have been accessible to the average person, the question of whether cyberspace can be used as an educational tool has been asked, and universities have answered. Online classes began to be offered in the late 1980’s and in 1993, the first online accredited university, Jones International University, was launched. Today, most universities in America offer online classes as well as degrees earned exclusively online. The ability to learn outside of the classroom creates a myriad of economic and geographical possibilities that make it easier for more people to enroll in college courses and earn higher learning degrees.
However, as distance learning becomes a greater force in the world of education, another question must be addressed. Is distance learning truly as valuable as a traditional face-to-face education? The argument continues to rage in academic circles as to whether an online education offers the same benefits as an in-person learning environment. The question of whether a distance learning degree should weigh equally as a traditional degree has been raised as well considering that an online education provides a much different approach to both teaching and learning. The presence of a teacher and students in a physical classroom has been the standard of learning for centuries and though distance learning offers flexibility to the student, does this flexibility in learning result in a loss of quality? The student who learns in a virtual classroom exchanges the complications of in-class education for the problems of online learning. Distance education drastically affects the social aspect of learning as well as the relationship between learning and technology, creating both positive and negative aspects for the student. .
There is no escaping the fact that the cost of college education is rising dramatically. According to The College Board, in 2009-2010 the average cost of a private four year education was $26,273 per semester and $7,020 per semester at a public college. These prices are solely for the education, and do not include travel expenses, the cost of boarding, and meal plans. The high cost of education can no doubt be a deterrent to many individuals seeking a college to attend. The economic issue of in-class education is one that distance learning can offer an alternative to. Though all education can be expensive, distance learning can greatly reduce the cost to the student. Much of the tuition a student pays at traditional university includes building fees, technology fees, and other expenses generated by the need for upkeep of campus facilities and payment of on-campus staff. As Todd Oppenheimer illustrates in, The Flickering Mind, universities see an opportunity for profit by using cyberspace to attract more paying students while being able to circumvent the need for and subsequent cost of a campus workforce and upkeep, thus reducing the price of schooling. Additionally, the student no longer needs to leave their place of residence in order to go to class. In the New York Times article High Cost of Driving Ignites Online Classes Boom, Dr. Robbie K. Melton states, “We had to train more faculty and provide more online courses because students just couldn’t afford to drive to our campuses”. Via the internet, students can reach all of the information, assignments, and course documents they need in addition to being able to interact with their professor, and fellow students. The need to spend money on transportation is then eliminated. No longer does the issue of having to spend money on gas, tolls, or meals from away from home present a problem. Travel becomes an obsolete factor when entering into the world of education in cyberspace, a fact which also alleviates the issue of geographical parameters for students.
The problem of geographical proximity is exacerbated for students who reside in less urbanized areas. Not every individual who wants to attend college lives within a close proximity to one. Those who live in large cities can hardly travel for more than a few minutes without passing some institution of higher education, but what of those who live outside of large cities? The majority of the country lives in major cities but there are still many people in less densely populated areas wishing to attend college. Those who live in more rural portions of the country may have difficulty in finding a school that is readily accessible. In areas that have more land area than population the ability to travel to a traditional classroom environment on a daily basis may be impossible for spatial, temporal, or economic reasons. Additionally, the number of accredited universities in a rural environment many be far fewer than in a more densely populated area. A physical university is an expensive proposition to build from the start. Few institutions would jump at the chance to build a college in a location where the population is so sparse that they would not be able to fill enrollment, thereby being unable to pay for the facilities, teachers, and other costs. Distance education can remedy this situation via its very technology. Due to the fact that students meet in a virtual classroom, their physical location becomes irrelevant. Whether a student is writing from an internet café in the heart of Manhattan, or snowed in at their home in Montana, they are all equidistant from their online learning environment. Ultimately, there are no excuses for missing a class.
It is not only geography that can make attending an in-class lecture difficult, but the problem of time as well. People have always multi-tasked in their lives, but as our culture moves at a quicker and quicker pace, the structured time needed for in-person education can be more difficult to find. As the country has been slow to recover from its financial crisis, people are working at jobs that offer only part-time hours or jobs at non-standard hours of the day to support themselves and their families. With these altered schedules, distance learning offers the solution. Online education is flexible to the user’s needs. In a regular in-class environment the student completes assignments and interacts with their fellow students. Distance learning requires the same tasks, but they may be done at different times which are more convenient to the student. A mother of two with a day job may never be able to attend traditional classes, but would be able to log onto the internet and post conversation topics to a discussion board after her work day is over. Such a person is still devoting time to their education, but they choose the time in which to do it. Due to this flexibility, students may possibly even perform better in their studies. Different individuals focus better at different times of the day. Some people are more cognitively alert and open to learning in the early part of the day while others function better at night. The rigidity of in-class schedules can not compensate for these differences among people and how they work best. Distance learning offers the opportunity for each student to contribute when they are in their best frame of mind to interact and learn in the virtual classroom.
In addition to time flexibility, the on-line classroom offers the student an alternative process to learning. The traditional classroom has always been a teacher centered environment in which the professor directly relates information to their students via lecture or computer presentation, and the student records the information. Once education is transferred into the virtual realm, students begin to learn in a new two-step process. As Paul Levinson states in his article Online Education Unbound, “rather then attempting to inject or spoon-feed information into passive student minds, the ideal online teacher is one who attempts to elicit active student learning” (222). Rather giving information directly to the student, who may or may not be listening, online instructors are more likely to pose discussion topics that will promote a dialogue to open among their students. From this point, the student becomes more responsible for finding their own information and drawing conclusions, participating actively rather than simply taking dictation from an instructor. Once the individual has completed the first half of the process, the information gathering and studying, they must then communicate their finding and conclusions to the rest of their classmates via an on-line application. In this way the process of learning becomes a peer-to-peer education process. As each individual posts their thoughts and views in a discussion forum, and fellow students reply to their posts, students begin to learn from each other.
The fact that students begin to learn from each other does not by any means remove the teacher from the education equation. In any learning environment, the teacher remains the individual with the expertise in the subject being taught. This new method of learning simply changes the role of the teacher in the dynamic of their class. The cyber-classroom makes it virtually impossible for any professor to lecture so the teacher of an online class develops into less of an instructor, and more into a guide. As Gene I. Maeroff suggests in A Classroom of One, “An online course, properly crafted, builds in many opportunities for students to advance their learning through responses and discussions” (42). Through the assignment of discussion topics, assignments, and responses to student dialogue, the teacher of a course can direct their students to new conclusions and thoughts that delve into the subject of a class. Additionally, the fact that there is more opportunity for student interjection in the virtual classroom may also be beneficial to the teacher as well. As more and more students may have one point of view on a topic, and can openly voice them, a teacher may actually gain some new insight from their students on a particular topic. Additionally, a student writing on a discussion board from their home is more apt to bring a radically new perspective to a subject by the simple fact that they don’t have to voice a different opinion in person. Intimidation and self-consciousness are considerably reduced when expressing opinions and interacting within the virtual classroom. The less structured environment of the online classroom opens up new learning possibilities because individuals can voice their opinions so openly and easily.
One of the greatest benefits of an online education is its ability to prepare the individual for the later working environment. Not only is the individual responsible for the gathering of information, but the team approach to problem solving when the individuals gather into a group mirrors the experience of working in a professional electronic group environment. In the professional world it is imperative for the individual to be able to work and communicate with co-workers while also being able to perform individually. The distance education experience offers just such training. The teacher of a distance course takes a less dominant place in the class and students are called upon to think and information gather by themselves, much in the same way they might have to take individual initiative without being given specific information or instruction at their job. At the same, time students must present and discuss their findings to their fellow classmates in a logical and cohesive manner in their virtual classroom, a group environment. Lastly, due to the fact that distance education requires computer skills, students gain a better knowledge and control over the technology that dominates the modern workplace. Most students have some computer skills by the time they enter college, but using the technology quickly, efficiently, collaboratively, and as an information resource is a more refined skill and one that will be crucial in their prospective workplace.
Online education seems to offer almost unlimited possibilities to students and will surely become an even larger ingredient in the future of education. The accommodating alternatives that it offers to traditional in-class education can not be disregarded. However, though distance education provides many positive advantages for students it certainly can not be called a perfected form of education as yet. Distance learning creates new possibilities in interaction, flexibility in class schedules, a greater student voice in the “classroom”, and technical preparation for the workplace, but also presents formidable challenges. Due to the fact that distance education requires a vastly different approach to teaching, it creates its own social, technological, and economic problems that must be examined before instruction is held exclusively in the virtual classroom.
There can be no doubt that socialization is one of the main components of a college education. College does not only give students academic skill, but also offers the opportunity to interact in an adult environment with teachers and individuals of like mind and ambition. The classroom is one of the most important places that this process unfolds. The traditional classroom has always been a place for instruction, but more significantly, a forum where people learn to interact, discuss, and draw conclusions as a group. When students participate in a dynamic classroom they are learning an important skill that will serve them in future endeavors. Interpersonal communication is a much different experience than communication through the buffer of cyberspace. The virtual classroom, in keeping with many theories of the internet, provides a sense of comfort and security to the user. The medium is under their control and they are seated safely alone behind their monitors writing their opinions for their class to see. As Clifford Stoll states in High-Tech Heretic, “The best way to create a community of loners is for each of us to escape into the welcoming arms of the internet” (144). This is a much different experience than having to physically and calmly face a classroom of live students, and present a well-organized, cogent spoken argument. Public speaking and interpersonal communication are vital skills to have, yet at the same time, not a skill that could be practiced through a distance education class.
The lack of interpersonal communication in the online classroom also presents challenges to the student assessment process. No longer physically in the classroom with their students, online instructors have increased difficulty in charting their pupil’s academic progression. Having met a student in person and seen their work habits, an experienced teacher will always be aware when a student is falling behind or even worse, plagiarizing and cheating. When dealing with the virtual classroom, a teacher never gets the opportunity to meet with a student in person and may never have a true understanding of the student’s actual academic proficiency level. With a class that meets completely online, it is possible for a student to leave coursework incomplete, and merely had another individual complete it for them. Unfortunately, an instructor would never be the wiser. In the same way, the instructor encounters an additional problem as far as plagiarism. The internet contains a wealth of information that could be attained and plagiarized by anyone with an internet connection. Though computer programs such as “Turnitin” have been developed to stop the spread of internet plagiarism, instructors are still on losing side of a battle against the sheer size of the internet. Being that neither teacher nor student ever has an interpersonal relationship, it is also impossible for an instructor to ever truly confront a problematic student and rectify the problem.
Distance learning presents other communication and interaction challenges as well. In the traditional classroom environment, there is virtually no time delay between teacher and student interaction. Questions can be asked and points clarified between student and teacher instantaneously. In a virtual classroom it can be harder for a student to interact with their teacher. It is not uncommon for an e-mail, blog posting, or other form of communication to go unanswered by an instructor until it is too late or almost too late to be of help to the student. Certainly the professor who is teaching multiple on-line courses may very possibly miss a question from a single student. Discussion board threads and e-mails can multiply so quickly and become so unmanageable that a single question or comment is easily overlooked. The need for the technology creates an extra step and consequently a time delay between teacher and student that can become frustrating to both. Furthermore as Maeroff points out, teachers will have to retrain to transition to this e-learning environment (90). As online education expands, teachers who may not choose to teach them will be assigned online classes. The teacher being pressed into online classes may either resent the fact of having to do so or may simply be too unfamiliar with the technology to make it a truly effective learning tool. Online learning depends greatly on the teacher’s comfort level with the medium, as well as their ingenuity in employing it. The question then must be asked, are the primary functions of education being sublimated to the technology?
In many ways, technology does become the central focus in the distance learner’s educational experience. With no physical classroom to enter, the computer becomes their only link to education. Technology, although reliable, is not without its problems. We have all experienced personal computer malfunctions, cable outages, or system wide issues that impact technological infrastructures. These periods of malfunction will present serious obstacles to the online student. Since the student is no longer physically interacting with a teacher or classmates, they must ensure that the equipment that keeps them connected is maintained in a state that will allow optimum performance. With the rapid advancements in technology, computer hardware and software becomes obsolete at a startling rate. A computer bought for a college freshman today will be outdated and inadequate by the time they receive a four-year degree. Additionally, the user must worry about system upgrades, software upgrades, as well as application and programming compatibility in order to be able to run all of the programs required to participate in online classes. These hardware and software upgrades can be an extremely expensive proposition for the user. Not every student may have the financial resources to maintain their equipment adequately. At the very minimum, the user must have at least a basic understanding of how computer hardware and software work and interact. At times, even the most savvy of students can run into a problem with the technology that they do not know how to fix, or worse, a complete technological failure. Because computers are mechanical, they are subject to breakdowns that even the most talented technician could be unable to fix. Technology is fallible in a way that the human is not. This is one of the primary benefits of an in-class education. The spoken word will never crash and be wiped from the page, will never lose its internet signal strength, and will never need a battery life or power source to be able to read it. As the computer and the internet are the primary tool of distance education, the technological aspect of instruction will always create a gap, however small, in the immediacy of the learning process as well as depend on its mechanical operation.
It is not only immediacy that is compromised by distance education, but the possibility of learning in a hands-on environment as well. Due to the fact that distance education is done solely through the computer, there are many physical skills that the student will be unable to learn and certain subjects that can never be taught successfully online. Many studies in the medical field, the scientific field, and even the technical aspects of communications could never be taught via distance education. The possibility of learning the practical technique to becoming a surgeon, engineer, or camera operator is obliterated by the lack of physical instruction and actual facilities to apply the student’s knowledge. The debate has always raged as to whether an online degree is equivalent to that of a traditional college degree. In this instance, the online degree is severely lacking. As Paul Levinson suggests in his article Online Education Unbound¸ to a large degree, online education can only offer a theoretical understanding of a subject, while falling short in offering opportunities at practical applications of the new knowledge being absorbed. Practical demonstration of the skill learned is impossible in an online forum. In advocating online learning, universities wanted to remove the need for physical structures thereby cutting operational costs. In the process however, they removed the facilities which enables students to learn practical skills were removed. The student may be paying less for their distance education, but they are also being offered less opportunity to learn in a physical hands-on environment.
Although online degrees may perhaps be more effective for the student, there is not always a commensurate saving for the university itself. As Stoll suggests, the materials and specialized technical staff needed to create, operate, and maintain an online education program can be a major cost to a university (23). The institution, seeing online education as a for-profit enterprise, may attain some government funding for the project. Additionally, it would have to rely heavily on outside funding and tuition to raise the remaining resources, an issue that presents a two-fold consequence to the student. Universities will have to increase tuition for both online and traditional students to pay for this infrastructure. Not only would this be unfair to the students who are paying for a traditional in-classroom education to fund online courses, but might even dissuade any anticipated distance students from enrolling. The creation of a distance education program can also be hazardous to universities when looking to outside corporations for funding. Maeroff points out that in an attempt to fund on-line education programs, many universities have chosen to locate companies who would underwrite the cost in return for a voice in the curriculum (122). This in turn puts the onus of complying with the company’s requests squarely on the university’s shoulders. If such classes are not to the satisfaction of the specific company, the business could pull their financing to the university creating further financial difficulties and possible tuition increases.
Of all of the potential problems of online educations cost to universities, the concept of corporate funding is possibly the most unsettling. The ramifications of corporate financing to universities or the creation of un-accredited and un-affiliated for-profit educational institutions by corporations threaten the very mandate of higher education. As more and more universities seek outside corporate funding to help support distance learning programs, one can only wonder what affect the new sponsorship will have upon the education being provided to students. College has always been a forum for the flow of information and free thought. With corporate sponsors involved in the financing of education, the intellectual haven that is the university may be under threat. Whether a business is giving funds to an advertising agency, a charity, or an educational institution, that corporation wants to make sure that they, as well as their causes and policies, will be presented in the best possible light. The cause for concern is whether corporate funding to schools will begin to dictate what is being taught to students. The oil refinery corporation offering funds to an educational institution may not be in favor of their funds being used to teach liberal “green” politics to students, and could always threaten to pull their funding if continued. Depending on the situation, the university might be unable to sustain the financial loss and be forced to change what it is being taught in classes.
The use of distance education has both positive and negatives attributes. No single conclusion can truly determine whether it is more or less effective than a traditional in-class environment, especially since every student has different needs, every teacher has a different level of comfort with the technology and both may prefer a different approach to learning. The individual must decide what the best choice is for them. Flexibility must be made for students who have problems of geography, time, or economics, but this does not mean that the traditional in-classroom education should become obsolete. Whatever the case may be, as a whole, the academic world must not forget that what is being debated over is education of people. As Todd Oppenheimer states, “In the end, the legions of education critics who incessantly pester the schools to make dramatic changes would do well to remember one central fact: At its core, education is a people process” (395). Each method of education offers something to the student while posing its own problems. Possibly, it will always remain a combination of both traditional and distance education that will be most successful creating the best learning environment to students. Perhaps this hybrid will be the most effective learning environment -- one in which students and educators can use the benefits of technology as a tool, while maintaining the human connection so vital to the education process.
Dillon, Sam. “High Cost of Driving Ignites Online Classes Boom.” New York Time on the Web 11 July 2008. 25 Feb. 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/11/education/ 11colleges.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&sq=online%20college&st=nyt&scp=19
Levinson, Paul. "Online Education Unbound". Communication and Cyberspace. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2003.
Maeroff, Gene I.. A Classroom of One. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Oppenheimer, Todd. The Flickering Mind. New York: Random House, 2003.
Stoll, Clifford. High-Tech Heretic. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.