For all of its growth, popularity, and improvement over the past decade, a few challenges persist for online courses in higher education.

online-education-hurdlesOnline learning saw massive growth in the early and mid-2000s turn into steady growth over the past couple years. There are now more than 7 million American college students who take at least one web-based class, according to numbers from the Babson Survey Research Group.

It’s not all good news for online learning advocates though.

The rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) since 2012 hasn’t done much for the perception of online education, as rock-bottom retention rates in MOOCs have shined a light on the potential challenges of expanding online learning to such a degree.

The reputation of for-profit colleges have also hurt public perception of online education. High dropout rates and students saddled with debt at popular for-profit institutions have cast a negative light on these schools and their massive online programs.

A subcommittee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently urged the institution to use caution in its approach to online classes, charging that web-based courses had “incomparable value” to traditional face-to-face classes.

There remain three key hurdles to the continued growth of online college courses, however, and the way educators and campus technologists address these issues could determine the future of web-based education as a foundational part of the college experience.

(Next page: Online education’s hurdles)

1. 41 percent of chief academic officers say they agree that retaining students is a greater problem for online courses than for face-to-face classes, a new report said. Only 28 percent of respondents felt this way about retention in 2009, and only 27 percent concurred in 2004, according to a 2013 survey released by Pearson and the Sloan Consortium, along with Babson researchers.

“Comparing the retention in online courses to those in face-to-face courses is not simple or easy,” the report’s authors wrote. “Online courses can attract students who might otherwise have not been able to attend traditional on-campus instruction because of work, family, or other obligations.”

2. Di Xu, a postdoctoral research associate at Teachers College Columbia University, wrote in a recent blog post that the student-instructor connection in web-based classes has been a persistent weak spot in online education. Xu, who pointed out that improving student-teacher connection would require more investment in online learning, wrote that “effective online instructors develop and promote strong interpersonal connections within their course, which requires not only up-front professional development for faculty, but also requires instructors to devote a substantial amount of time throughout the course.”

3. Many colleges have fallen short in producing high-quality online classes that keep students engaged, Xu wrote. Schools, including community colleges, have invested significant resources in creating and maintaining online programs, though “most of these supports are provided on a passive basis, rather than being proactively integrated into the everyday activities of students and faculty.”

Xu wrote that research has shown that many online course instructors say they feel alone in designing and running a class, and that a proactive stance on the part of the institution is necessary to support faculty and produce quality online courses.


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