Online Education Promotes Strong Minds

Online Education Promotes Strong Minds

Would you continue to take classes and work on your degree if you found out the degree wouldn’t help you reach your academic and career goals? Doug Lederman, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, discussed issues related to the ability of American colleges to prepare students for the real world in his review of We’re Losing Our Minds. While this is a summary of higher education in general, I believe that online education should not be included because these degree programs have an ability to provide a different outcome, one that promotes development of authentic, relevant, and meaningful learning.

Problems in Higher Education

Lederman begins the article by summarizing ongoing issues related to the increased costs of a college education and the ability of institutions to produce “enough degree and certificate holders with sufficient skills to keep the U.S. economy vibrant and competitive.” In addition, Lederman indicates that “a few analysts are honing in on the quality and rigor of what students are learning (or not) en route to those credentials.”

Increased Costs and Insufficient Skills

This is not the first time that the quality of learning in higher education has been questioned. For example, authors of an blog indicate that issues of costs, retention, graduation rates, and faculty efficiency are important; however, “the fundamental problem – what has brought us to the point of crisis – is the critical deficit in higher learning. To say it as plainly as possible: students do not learn enough in college, period.”

The statements made by Lederman are based upon the book We’re Losing Our Minds and his conversations with the authors included a discussion of these issues:

“No matter what the cost is, higher education is overpriced if it fails to deliver on its most basic promise: learning. Value is low when, as the research shows, too many of our college graduates are not prepared to think critically and creatively, speak and write clearly, solve problems, comprehend complex issues, accept responsibility and accountability, take the perspective of others, or meet the expectations of employers.”

Lack of Rigor

Within Lederman’s article he also refers to the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which concludes that “the main culprit for lack of academic progress of students is a lack of rigor.” The findings are based upon the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) survey taken by 2,300 students and is designed to measure higher order cognitive functions. According to the CLA website, “students’ written responses to the tasks are evaluated to assess their abilities to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and communicate clearly and cogently.” The CLA provides insight that can inform ongoing development of teaching methods.

So what is rigor and how is it related to academic progress? Academically Adrift defines rigor as “educational practices that improve student performance.” Academic rigor is then associated with the number of pages of reading assigned each week of class, along with the number of pages that students are required to write. An example cited indicates that “32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don’t take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester.”

How Online Education May Improve Higher Education

All of these authors bring awareness to the importance of assessing the quality, value, and rigor of degree programs. It can be difficult to measure quality and assess value; however, as a prospective student you should consider how a school encourages students to be involved in the process of learning. Online classes often expect all students to be highly involved and engaged in the class through participation in a discussion board, which provides an opportunity to utilize critical thinking skills. This improves higher education results by creating academic value.

Self-Motivation and Peer-to-Peer Learning

Mark Kassop, a professor at Bergen Community College, noted in Ten Ways Online Education Matches, or Surpasses, Face-to-Face Learning that with an online environment “students are empowered to learn on their own and even to teach one another. Particularly in the discussion group mode, students have the opportunity to explain, share, comment upon, critique, and develop course materials among themselves in a manner rarely seen in the F2F [face –to-face] classroom.” Kassop has taught for over 30 years in a traditional classroom and yet discovered that “online courses may actually surpass traditional F2F classes in quality and rigor.”

Increased Learning Opportunities

In Online Learning and Rigor, a Distance Learning Environment Blog, the authors state that: “online programs increase access to learning opportunities; they don’t reduce academic rigor. Indeed, successful online students must be, if anything, more engaged with the material than are students in traditional classrooms, for although the online teacher still provides guidance and support, students must take greater responsibility for managing their time and completing assignments.” As an instructor for online and traditional schools, I know firsthand that this perspective is accurate. Online students are already encouraged to develop higher cognitive functions through interactive and engaging activities and instructional techniques that promote active learning.

The Debate Continues

There are ongoing discussions about academic rigor and quality among online educators and institutions, and this may be the result of online schools having to continually justify their value and worth. These perceived problems may become non-issues over time as online students demonstrate that learning does occur in this environment. Through the collaborative efforts of instructors, administrators, researchers, and course designers, the methods utilized in online education may reverse the higher education trend and increase the number of well-developed students’ minds.

What is your opinion of academic rigor for traditional and online schools? Share your thoughts via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

Photo © Colin Anderson/Corbis


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