We Need to End the War Between Traditional and Online Instruction in Higher Education

The percent of students who are taking online classes has exploded in recent years, and it shows no signs of abating. This is perhaps no surprise: online classes offer students a great degree of flexibility. But at the same time, the rise of online classes has led to something of a war between traditional and online instruction in higher education. If you peruse the admissions materials for most online programs, you will notice how careful most are to explain that their degree will not indicate that it was earned online, as if this were a source of shame. But it is time to end the war, for the benefit of all students.

The first step toward ending the war is improving the quality of online education. If online courses were widely regarded as having the same quality as traditional instruction, there would be no cause for conflict. Yet the perception that they are different is what underlies almost all of the conflict. Too many instructors view online classes as an easier teaching assignment, something not worthy of their best efforts.

They may simply post the same videoed lectures and reading assignments to their campus’ learning management system semester after semester and consider that they have fulfilled their obligation to their online students. But as long as the classroom experience is richer, the war between online and traditional education will persist. So, instructors who make their online classes just as rigorous, engaging, and novel as their traditional classes have an important role to play.

Second, universities need to stop viewing online classes as a cash cow. It is, of course, possible to deliver an online class at a lower cost than a traditional class. But as soon as the online students are positioned as the workhorses of the institution—instead of the focal point of the institution—the stage is set to continue the war. Not only that, but disturbing questions about educational equity can arise from such a practice.

Instead, schools should ensure that the same resources are devoted to online instruction as are devoted to traditional classes. This might result in smaller class sizes, improved technology, and improved instructional materials. All of these will make a big difference in the conflict between traditional and online education.

It is true that universities must be prepared for the edtech of the future. This might involve the kind of fundamental rethinking of the structure of a university that has not happened in hundreds of years. But it should result in the end of the war between traditional and online learning—and that will only benefit students and the wider community.


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