By Sari Wakefield, Manager, Digital Communications, AACSB International
Many of today's business students seek programs with online options, or more so; programs with flexibility. However, there still are many challenges being observed along with the advantages of online education. For instance, in a 2011 New York Times blog posting, "Would You Like to Take a Class Online?," 58 readers commented with perceived advantages and disadvantages of online classes. Of those who commented the primary advantages of online classes included:
• Flexibility in the learning environment, such as not having a specific class time. Readers also noted that it was helpful to be able to learn in a variety of locations.
• Classes are typically less expensive, and the overall money spent for a program is usually less. For example, readers mentioned not paying parking fees, transportation expenses, lab fees, etc.
• Online courses provide access to handicapped individuals who would otherwise have difficulty attending college.
• Corresponding videos and audio recordings of lessons can be replayed and reviewed at any time, making it easier for students to retain concepts.
• Online courses teach students to follow stricter deadlines, as most online software programs require assignments to be submitted by specific dates and times.
• Online learning allows students to develop their own learning methods, and provides new ways to gain knowledge.
The readers also included several valid disadvantages, such as:
• Online classes require a high level of self-discipline and focus to be successful.
• There is a lack of interaction in online classes. For instance, students do not have the same opportunities to meet new people and collaborate with peers. Additionally, readers said that online courses provide fewer opportunities to learn how to interact with different people—which was seen as an important skill set by those who commented.
• Instructors are often difficult to access. For example, individuals reported that it was more difficult to receive help with complex concepts. Overall, readers preferred to take more complex courses in a classroom setting.
• Classes can be boring due to excessive assigned reading.
• Students were generally worried that online degrees may not be recognized or as well received by employers as degrees from physical campuses.
• Curriculum is often unorganized and creates a difficult learning process versus a traditional classroom.
• The lack of dress code and face-to-face interaction creates an environment with less professionalism. For example, individuals discussed problems with cheating and quality of work from classmates.
• Individuals mentioned a fear of taking online classes due to an overall lack of trust in online institutions due to for-profit organizations and others that "just take money."
The challenging part for business school administrators is to create a program that has more advantages than disadvantages for students, but also works with staffing and budgetary resources as well as quality assurance methods. Perhaps it is retaining the flexibility element and altering the curriculum to include more interactive elements (such as video conferencing, chat rooms, and instant-chat options with instructors) and less lengthy reading assignments. Either way you analyze an online course, it will always have limitations just as a face-to-face offering has.
The American Journal of Distance Education had several interesting articles related to online learning. For example, "Student Views on Effective Online Teaching in Higher Education" published in 2006 and "Learning Style and Effectiveness of Online and Face-to-Face Instruction" published in 2002. Although, these are less recent articles, they provided insight into studies that may help your school think through its online education strategy.
Another similar journal, Distance Education, published "Student Barriers to Online Learning: A Factor Analytic Study" in 2005 that discussed challenges students had from technical skills to learner motivation.