DO THEY STACK UP?

Reviewing Face-to Face Classes in the Shadow of Online Success

09/01/2014
HIGHER EDUCATION
Dr. M. Graeme Armstrong

Recent comprehensive data shared by the Babson Survey Research Group in their 2014 report, “Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States” indicated that academic leaders from only 10 percent of colleges fail to see online learning as pivotally entrenched in their strategic plan — from which it might seem reasonable to imply that a lot do. In fact, 90 percent do! It’s not hard to see why; online programs can really help to maximize the drive to bring dropouts back and ultimately positively impact enrollment. The marginal costs are also low once the learning management system is established, and labor costs for full-time faculty to sustain instruction can be low.

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Academic leaders are much more positive about the direction of online enrollment in contrast to faculty who continue to express doubt about the future and direction of American higher education.

Overview of Current Online Success

Nationwide estimates indicate there are over seven million learners taking at least one course online annually. Even with a slowdown in online enrollment, we continually find that the perception of learning outcomes for those students is no different than face-to-face instruction. Furthermore, the majority of online learners enroll at colleges where the reputation of that institution combined with the flexibility of an online class schedule still play significantly into the decision making process.

Academic leaders are much more positive about the direction of online enrollment in contrast to faculty who continue to express doubt about the future and direction of American higher education. Irrespective of which side of the house educators sit, they do seem to be universal and consistent on one point, that there is a high level of confidence in the delivery of truly hybrid courses: those that have both face-to-face and online components. This is important because it underscores the value that face-to-face instruction brings to the educational process.

Student Perceptions of Online
Benefits Versus Face-to-Face Benefits

For many students the choice between a fully face-to-face (F2F) versus hybrid class was not a deciding factor when considering enrollment at a particular institution and the data indicates students have a slight preference for hybrid rather than face-to-face instruction. Recent estimates show that nearly three million learners are studying exclusively online, which leaves nearly four million learners having a preference for a hybrid or blended approach where F2F instruction and study still applies.

It is important to remember the factors that influence these enrollment decisions, because they are grounded in the benefits of online education, namely — flexible study times and affordable tuition stack up there; however they pale compared to the perception of institutional pedigree. That reputation is built on a foundation of quality faculty, accreditation, rankings, admission practices and recommendations. When we dig a little further and look at the reason learners choose not to enroll online, factors such as scheduling, work, finances and academic challenge blend into the equation. Of all of these it is the personal/family challenge that drives people to online rather than face-to-face where the rigidity of weekly meetings undermines getting the work-life balance right.

Critics of online education might question the fact that online learning doesn’t adhere to the face-to-face model or that student interactions from face-to-face experiences develop deeper and longer lasting relationships, or that the interaction occurs at a greater level through face-to-face classes or even the immediacy of feedback and ability to pinpoint challenging learning areas.

Those pedagogical challenges are also opportunities. There is a legitimate counter argument supportive of face-to-face instruction creating superior learning experiences and generating benefits at a higher level. Research indicates material is better understood from face-to-face instruction. Scholars agree that discussions, especially face-to-face discussions are useful tools through which to facilitate learning. There are other significant points; more frequent feedback through regular contact with faculty; easier to make real world connections; a better learning environment to keep focused; lower student dropout rates.

In summary, when we look at course or class performance, it is these factors which influence outcomes and that appear to have a stronger impact on face-to-face students than they do for online students.

The Hybrid Alternative

A truly hybrid program where students not only attend for in-seat instruction, but also have a fully online component, appears to draw from the best in both areas and allows for the integration of technology into the instructional delivery model while also respecting the learners need to meet with and be tutored by faculty. Programs like the Upper Iowa University RN-BSN Nursing (uiu.edu/nursing) program exemplify this approach, allowing learners to develop skills rapidly through a 25 to75 percent blend of in-seat and online learning in a sequential professional program. Recognizing that there are also both types of learners, they also offer this program fully online.

The face-to-face opportunities in these types of hybrid programs enable social interaction and the development of learning communities; they often create an environment where timely feedback is generated and always sets up to facilitate hands-on learning through a planned, fixed meeting schedule.

Let us not forget, merely because questionnaires and survey data indicate that online learners are self-directed, highly motivated, self-disciplined and can manage their time, does not mean the face-to-face learners are lacking in these areas.

Advanced Degrees:
Is There a Difference?

Yes, there most certainly can be. We often find that full-time faculty at an institution do not teach online, in either the undergraduate or graduate format. Notwithstanding the fact that institutions need to hire contingent faculty who are subject matter experts in most areas, the challenge can still become one of keeping the teaching quality consistent across all modalities.

There is an implicit expectancy that graduate students are much more self-sufficient, and that is reinforced in the way we admit them and often times the resources and support services available to them. While they may be more self-sufficient, the majority of our graduate students will find reading, research and study assignments at the graduate level per course will far exceed expectancies of their undergraduate studies. Amongst the online community, finding support services available beyond a traditional daytime model can be doubly challenging. From a student perspective, the oft-held belief is that an online version of a course or program may be easier than the face-to-face one, although as we discussed earlier, the data indicates no change in outcomes.

Summary and Conclusion

In all three areas; online, hybrid and face-to-face we find examples where the instructional delivery method meets the demand. The uniqueness of our learners, especially our non-traditional learners will continue to define what this looks like in the future. For now all appear robust and all meet the needs of learners. Sure, they stack up!

Dr. M. Graeme Armstrong has been with Upper Iowa University since 2007. The Master of Higher Education Administration Program was introduced the following year. He teaches courses in F2F, Online and Hybrid learning modalities in the areas of; Administration and Governance, Higher Education Policy, Student Development Theory, Teaching and Retaining Adult Learners.
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