College Online but Close to Home: Blending Traditional and Online Education

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For most of its 20-year history, online education has been regarded as an alternative to traditional education. Of course, being an “alternative” carries implications about status: secondary, out-of-the-mainstream, possibly even a little experimental. In fairness, that was an accurate assessment of online education in its formative stages. But we’re well past the formative stages now, and it’s time to rethink this idea.

Online and traditional education are not alternative paths but interwoven trails on the way to the same destination. Growing evidence shows students might benefit from more trailblazing between these paths. Indeed, the next evolutionary stage for online college may well take place right around the corner from your home, in a physical space that grounds your online experience in something real, tangible, and preferably in close proximity to a nice coffee shop.

An article in The Atlantic notes that with more students of all ages exploring online education, many seek to balance online convenience with immediate physical access. While online education may be booming, practical and bureaucratic barriers between on-campus and online education remain. By removing these barriers, we have a chance to realize better outcomes in both settings.

The Mainstreaming of Online Education

The number of people learning online is, by itself, reason enough to stop thinking of it as merely an alternative. According to The Atlantic, whereas 1.6 million students were enrolled in at least one online education course in 2002, more than six million were enrolled as of 2016. That seems mainstream, and if nothing else, signals that we’ve likely outgrown many of the strategies that accommodated this population back in 2002.

The Babson Survey Research Group notes enrollment in online courses grew for the 14th consecutive year in 2016. All the more remarkable was a simultaneous 4.5% decline in enrollment among for-profit institutions. The continued growth has been fueled by a 7.3% bump in online enrollment for public institutions; 7.1% for private, non-profits.

Sleazy, for-profit education rackets such as Corinthian College and Trump University once permeated this space, printing degrees worth about as much as the paper placemats at Denny’s, minus the fun word-jumbles and crayon mazes. In the headiest days of the early Aughts, these private, unaccredited degree mills operated without fear of retribution. Then a series of Obama-era regulations helped to curtail educational fraud. In addition to stomping out the most egregious offenders and forcing others to get their act together, these regulations helped to uproot some of the biggest marks against the credibility of online education. In their place, countless legitimate colleges and universities entered the virtual fold.

[Read here to find out how the Betsy DeVos-led Department of Education is rolling back those anti-fraud regulations.]

With roughly 35% of all college students taking at least one online class, the mainstreaming of online education is complete. But where to go from here? The answer lies close to home.

Not-So-Distant Education

Actually, the answer is home.

There was a time when online education was synonymous with distance education. A big draw was that your geographical remoteness didn’t have to stand in the way of your access. And that’s still true if you live in a small rural town, an unlisted woodland village, or a subterranean apocalypse bunker untethered from society (aside from your interest in higher education, that is). Point is, if you seek distance education, online college is still the best way to get it.

But that doesn’t mean online education must inherently be distance education. In fact, students are increasingly interested in online experiences that are not so distant. The Atlantic points out that for many students, while online education remains convenient and flexible, remoteness need not be a prerequisite. For students who desire or need a sense of community, a feeling of personal connection, or an opportunity to build relationships, the online experience alone just doesn’t cut it.

Now, with close physical proximity to the campus sponsoring your online degree, you can enjoy the best of both worlds. Bypass the expenses of on-campus housing and the scheduling demands of a full courseload, yet enjoy personal access to your professor, to a physical space where you can study with classmates, and to the cultural and recreational opportunities found only on a college campus.

This may be the future of higher education, in which your selection of online classes conforms to your hectic work- and home-life while still allowing for occasional, in-person attendance at lectures, meetings with professors during office hours, and sipping on coffees with unnecessarily long, Italian names while terrible acoustic bands stink up the campus cafe.

One note of caution, however: that experience doesn’t exist everywhere.

Putting College in the Blender

Blended Learning Universe calls blended learning “any formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.”

This strategy is, of course, commonplace and well-represented in traditional education. If you are a student who attends classes, resides on campus, wears college logo sweatshirts, and engages in other traditional student activities, chances are you’ve spent time leveraging online resources — digital libraries, activity modules, discussion forums, file-sharing applications — as part of your learning experience.

As a collective, colleges have embraced the technology behind online education, even in the traditional setting. The path from the traditional classroom into an online experience is clear and well-traveled. But the path heading in the other direction is not as obvious. For many online students, bureaucratic obstacles remain to participating in on-campus learning. The Atlantic points out that many colleges still hold course-load requirements for on-campus students, but most online courses are not a part of this credit-counting scheme.

In other words, if you’re picturing a truly blended educational experience, one that allows you to balance a handful of online courses and a handful of on-campus courses, it may not be easy to find. It does exist, but many colleges and universities haven’t made this leap.

Online education, while seen as increasingly credible, still gets held at arm’s length in many traditional universities. Online programs are often provided by isolated departments, separate institutes, or even independent third-party education companies. These agencies are sometimes affiliated with, but not necessarily fully embedded in, university systems. This prevents many colleges or universities from blurring the line between credits earned online and those earned on-campus.

It also suggests that many colleges and universities remain stuck in an experimental mindset when it comes to online education. However, with more than 35% of all students getting some portion of their education this way, the experimental phase is over.

The Economic Prerogative

It’s a two-way street, of course. The pressure isn’t just on traditional colleges to modernize their approach. Purveyors of online education will feel it too. In the interests of healthy competition, and in light of the for-profit sector’s recent shrinkage, schools that operate exclusively online may also want to reconsider their model.

Today, an opportunity and a want exist for credible purveyors of online education to step up and produce models that are both more appealing to consumers and more capable of providing quality experiences. By establishing real meeting and study spaces, computer labs, recitation halls, and even a selection of in-person courses, institutions that exist predominantly online can make inroads to the real world that improve a sense of accountability. And, given the research on blended learning, this is an approach that could likely improve the nature of the educational product itself.

All of this translates to greater commercial viability, which will drive the evolution of colleges on both the traditional and online sides of the spectrum. In fact, this is largely a discussion about commercial realities. Queue the cliché about how the internet has permeated and altered every aspect of our lives. Well, it has, most especially in the way we behave as consumers. We expect that our physical spaces will be matched by brand-consistent online spaces. When they aren’t, we can’t help but feel that the merchant in question is behind the times. (“So wait. You’re saying I can’t buy your Pennsylvania Dutch Apple Butter online? What gives, Amish guy?”)

For what it’s worth, Eastern Mennonite University totally has online courses. Like I said … mainstream. Which means that it’s also time for colleges to treat online education as a sensible consumer proposition with all the convenience that implies. This is especially true given the economic imperatives facing colleges of all shapes and sizes.

Or perhaps imperatives is the wrong word. Perhaps the word is opportunities. The Atlantic describes a program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando that does remove the barriers. Here, students can take a courseload divided between online and on-campus classes. The result is not just a more fluid and flexible experience for students with jobs, hectic home lives, parenting responsibilities, or financial pressures, but a scenario that saves the college considerably on the costs of learning facilities, physical resources, and instructors. In other words, once you bring that barrier down, the money savings follow.

Among the most important economic imperatives pushing this change is the erasing of the line between online and in-person experiences, both in the work world and the “real.“ Employers expect and desire graduates who don’t so much travel between the physical and virtual spheres but who exist in both spheres simultaneously.

If indeed one purpose of higher education is to better prepare us for real life, its preeminent goal should be to create an educational experience that mirrors the seamless movement between the world and the web.

All of life is blended, but in too many cases, the online and on-campus trails never meet. It is incumbent upon traditional colleges and online colleges alike to find ways to tear down the remaining fence dividing these trails.

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