Sunday, March 6, 2011

Online Education: A Vital Presence in the Future of Education

Online Education: A Vital Presence in the Future of Education
Education is one of the most important aspects of a progressive world.  As such, there are currently over 8,600 universities in the world, with over 2,000 of them in the United States alone (Klaus, 2011).  Many of these institutions, in an effort to stay competitive and offer the best education available, now have online education degrees.  “The proportion of institutions with fully online programs rises steadily as institutional size increases, and about two-thirds of the very largest institutions have fully online programs, compared to only about one-sixth of the smallest institutions” (Allen, 2006, p. 2).  Online education programs are beneficial to individuals from all walks of life, from young college students looking for that one extra course to those “working full-time, older, married, and/or with children” (Survey, 2011, p. 1).   
In order for the United States to stay competitive in this ever-changing global economy, it is important for education to allow for flexibility and advancement in the workforce.  I posit that online education is vital in the continuation of this pursuit.  However, as it exists, online education has numerous detractions that need to be addressed to ensure its survival.  This paper will address what online education entails, why it is so necessary in the future of learning, what shortcomings it possesses, and what future research can be done for its improvement.

What Does Online Education Entail and What Theories Can Be Applied?
In order to appropriately address this topic, a discussion of certain definitions should be addressed.  Firstly, online education is education in a learning community where “an open and distributed learning environment uses … views of teaching derived from learning theory,… enabled by the Internet and Web-based technologies, to facilitate learning and knowledge building through meaningful action and interaction” (Colorado, 2010, p. 5).  In online education, success is dependent on numerous items, namely instructors, to be discussed in another section, and the cohesion of learning communities.  These learning communities are best described as:
            A group of people who have a shared interest in a topic, task, or problem; respect for the diversity of perspectives; a range of skills and abilities; the opportunity and commitment to work as a team; tools for sharing multiple perspectives; and knowledge production as a shared goal or outcome…Students learn to work in teams…this makes students in a learning community interdependent. (Wallace, 2003, p. 263)

As such, individuals in learning communities gathered in online education virtual classrooms create an environment that includes intellectual, social, and emotional support.
            This interdependence and support makes online education easily addressed through the lens of several communication theories, including communication imperative theory, social cognitive theory, and transactional distance theory.  According to the communication imperative theory, “we’re born to communicate and are driven to maximize our communication satisfaction and interaction.  This means we invariably circumvent any practical or technological obstacles which might otherwise prevent us from having the kind of relational fulfillment we desire” (Thurlow, 2009, p. 51).  Therefore, the interpersonal relationships developed in the learning communities in online education can be examined through the communication imperative theory. 
Furthermore, the learning communities, as well as teacher involvement, can both be viewed within the framework of social cognitive theory.  In social cognitive theory as related to online education, interaction with instructors and fellow students factor into individual motivation, which, in turn, modifies that individual’s social and cognitive behavior (Wallace, 2003).  In other words, having teachers and fellow students that actively participate in online learning, discussion, and thought formation directly affects an individual’s motivation and behavior regarding attitude, willingness and ability to learn. 
Finally, the theory of transactional distance is extremely important in understanding the dynamics of online education. 
            The transaction that we call distance education occurs between teachers and learners in an environment having the special characteristic of separation of teachers from learners.  This separation leads to special patterns of learner and teacher behaviors…With separation there is a psychological and communications space to be crossed, a space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner.  It is this psychological and communications space that is the transactional distance. (Moore, 1997, p. 22)

The theory of transactional distance is directly proportional to discussion and inversely proportional to structure.  In other words, the more dialogue that occurs between learners, as well as their instructor, results in small transactional distance and greater control of a student’s own learning.  Likewise, the more structure placed upon the learning environment will cause greater transactional distance and less control.  For example, peer and instructor discussion in a real time virtual chat room leads to high levels of dialogue and low transactional distance.  On the other hand, courses structured will lecture alone causes less autonomous learning and high transactional distance.  Studies of these theories and others are imperative to the process of online education as they will work to improve the process to ensure its vital continuation for students in the future.

Why is Online Education Vital for the Future of Learning?
The continuance and improvement of online education is necessary for numerous reasons.  To begin with, colleges are simply becoming too expensive.  Tuition at traditional four-year institutions has been steadily increasing at a rate of approximately 9 – 30 percent over the past couple of years.  While small increases in tuition were always normal, the situation is becoming more extreme as states attempt to find ways to climb out of their huge deficit situations (Coast, 2010).  Solutions to this financial problem are including such increases as well as “layoffs, enrollment cuts, and reduced course offerings” (Coast, 2010, p.2).              As such, access to these institutions, as well as community colleges, is also decreasing.  “Enrollment at the nation’s 1,173 community colleges has increased 17% since 2007.  But community colleges are at capacity, and with all the schools struggling through the recession, funding is scarce” (Isaac, 2010, p. 1). 
In addition, due to the reduced course offerings, individuals that could be able to attend these face-to-face institutions cannot due to conflicts in scheduling or location.  Many people that now look to online education do so because they have job and family responsibilities that restrict them to night and evening classes.  With the decrease in courses, as well as degrees, at local universities, individuals that want or need to further their education are now forced to turn to other alternatives.  “Online education provides a level of access to those who would not otherwise be able to attend college on campus” (Allen, 2006, p. 10).
Furthermore, the recession that has hit the colleges and universities is also hitting the average American.  With unemployment rates at about 9 percent in the United States, people are looking to continue, or completely shift, their education (The Employment, 2011).  With the decrease in job availability, companies are becoming more particular on what qualifications they will require in new employees and are “looking to hire highly educated professionals with hands on experience” (Online, 2010, p.1).    Jobs that once existed in certain industries no longer do.  This is leaving individuals either unemployed or with little prospect of job advancement.  After many months looking for possible, or different, employment, many people are signing up for courses to expand their options.  And, as stated above, as these people often have other responsibilities and limited funds, the options, freedom, and flexibility offered to them by online education are attractive for this expansion. 

What are the Shortcomings in Online Education that Need to Be Addressed?
Online education is still an immature delivery method due to the fact that it has had a relatively short shelf life in comparison to face-to-face universities.  The oldest continuously operating degree-granting university in the world is the University of Al-Karaouine, founded in 859 in Fes, Morocco.  In the following 363 years, nine additional universities were founded worldwide in countries such as Egypt, Iran, Italy, France, England, and Spain (Holtz, 2009).  A full 414 years following that, Harvard University, the oldest university in the United States, was founded (History, 2011).  By comparison, online education, with its first class offered in 1981, is still in its infant stages.  As such, it has not had the time to refine, perfect, and establish its presentation methods and widespread support.  Therefore, the following detractions to online education, while understandable, certainly need to be addressed.
One of the most obvious slights against online education is the idea that many students lack the self-discipline required to successfully complete courses.  This lack of discipline is supplemented by a perception of course difficulty or lack of communication between student and instructor (Bejerano, 2008).  While this seems to be a problem that is student specific, steps could be taken by a university with regards to communication and support that can vastly improve the discouragement and increased dropout rates.
Another shortfall in the world of online education is a lack of focus on differing learning styles and higher cognitive learning.  In a 1988 study, Gunawardena and colleagues developed five phases of knowledge construction for online interaction.  They are as follows:
1.     Sharing/comparing of information
2.     Discovery and exploration of dissonance or inconsistency among ideas, concepts, or statements
3.     Negotiation of meaning/co-construction of knowledge
4.     Testing and modification of proposed synthesis or co-construction
5.     Agreement statement(s)/applications of newly constructed meaning (Wallace, 2003, p. 247)

Reaching the last of these phases will result in the highest level of cognitive learning, or the most effective way of acquiring knowledge.  Unfortunately, they found that students in online education courses rarely moved past the second stage, staying primarily in the first.  Students were hesitant to create or address dissonance and simply agreed rather than create disharmony (Wallace, 2003).    This resulted in views remaining unchanged and new meaning remaining uncreated.  Once again, this problem must be addressed and altered for online education to effectively continue.  Part of this alteration will have to include addressing professor uncertainty.
            Many professors find online education classes difficult to lead and, in response, do not participate in the course as much as they should.  “Particularly problematic [with regards to online education] is the role of the teacher once the class begins” (Wallace, 2003, p. 255).  This is a confusing concept for instructors and students alike.  To begin with, online education removes the face-to-face interaction and nonverbal cues “that lets you know when learning is actually occurring” (Vanhorn, 2008, p. 32).  This time-tested interaction is no longer available to allow for comprehension and comfort in the subject.  In addition, professors are faced with the obstacle of technology.  In online education, instructors are now required to have an intimate knowledge of both their subject matter and how to effectively communicate said matter over the Internet without dry erase boards and the nonverbal signs stated earlier.  This can prove exceedingly trying if, for example, an English as a Second Language professor is attempting to teach Calculus.  Odds are that comprehension of this subject would be difficult to achieve in a face-to-face situation; online, that challenge is all but daunting. 
Furthermore, professor presence is required for ascension into the higher stages of cognitive learning. “Stalling of the discussion at the lower levels of the critical inquiry process occurs when there is not adequate teaching presence in the computer conference” (Wallace, 2003, p. 256).  Instructor’s active presence in the online discussion assists in student involvement and the associated positive learning behaviors, in part because
            In CMC the exchange of information is slower than in face-to-face interaction.  Therefore, in comparison to face-to-face communication the construction of interpersonal knowledge is slower.  In the beginning, CMC is more task-oriented than person-oriented and less powerful.  In this phase, the communication style in computer-mediated situations is regarded as more informal but one is also likely to find cues for tension and extremely emotional evaluations of the communication partner or the communicational setting.  (Wallace, 2003, p. 257-258)

Higher teacher presence throughout the online learning process encourages motivation and a willingness to learn.
            Finally, online education and their associated online degrees are still faced with a stigma of not be as appropriate as degrees from face-to-face universities.  Corporations are slow to recognize the rigor of online coursework and there are few organizations and alumni networking systems available to disprove this misconception (Issac, 2010, p. 2).  As a result, only 34% of organizations view online degree applicants as favorably as they view face-to-face degrees.  In addition, 43% of corporations state that online degree applicants are acceptable for entry level positions while only 15% of these organizations agreed with the acceptability for an executive level position (Hiring, 2010).  These pre-conceived notions regarding online education must be abolished if the United States is to continue to be competitive in the global economy.

What Future Research Can Be Done to Alleviate The Above Shortcomings?
As shown above, online education is still in need of refinement to become as effective as possible.   Since it is still in its infancy stages, much research can be conducted in order to improve numerous aspects of its process, presentation, and usefulness.  To begin with, communication researchers need to further examine online education through the lens of the three communication theories and others to structure effective learning environments as well as address the presentation of material through correct learning styles.  In addition, research literature to this point does not address what students are likely to learn past Gunawardena’s first phase of knowledge construction.  “None of these studies has investigated what it would take in terms of course structure or teacher mediation to reliably engage students in discussion that [leads] to a deeper understanding of subject matter” (Wallace, 2003, p. 254).  Furthermore,
            Fruitful areas for fruitful research are the relationship of teacher presence and immediacy to students’ engagement in knowledge construction and to student learning; developing and analyzing other constructs that might better characterize the teacher’s role in online classes; and considering the interplay of the teacher’s role with the particular demands of the subject matter being taught. (Wallace, 2003, p. 260–261)

The role of the instructor must be further examined and understood, for without the instructor, education is meaningless.
            Further research also needs to be conducted regarding student satisfaction.  This can be done, in part, through examination of online education via the transactional distance construct as well as general interviews and analysis.  If students are not satisfied in their learning situation and environment, they will not be motivated to engage in the learning process and continue to further education.  Finally, addressing and remedying the stigma of online education from the viewpoint of the employer is vital to ensure its success.

            The world is continuing to become a more competitive place with regards to education, job fulfillment, politics, and the economy.  In order to continue to be a major player in the world, the United States must focus on education to prepare its citizens for this constantly changing environment.  Online education, while still in its infancy stages, is poised to act as one of the major ways in which individuals can either train, or re-train, themselves to prepare for the future.  However, due to its youth, online education still possesses shortcomings that need to be addressed in order to become the nuanced environment that face-to-face universities have already achieved.  As such, I agree with Mr. Wallace when he states “there is much research to be done to better understand, and invent, what can be done to take advantage of the any time, any place, and, perhaps most important, everybody opportunities that online teaching and learning provide” (Wallace, 2003, p. 275). 

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