The Power, Pitfalls, and Practice of Online Higher Education

by Christina Smiraglia

Colleges have debated and experimented with online education for more than a decade, but digital approaches have recently come to the fore given the necessary physical distancing   measures in place across much of the U.S. – and other countries – in the wake of COVID-19.

In our national study of American higher education, we asked the more than 1000 students, faculty, and administrators what they thought of online learning in the context of a college education.  Although this was asked before the recent required shift to online learning, their responses provide information on drawbacks as well as strengths.  These findings have implications for higher education as it quickly moves into the digital sphere – and then as it moves back on campus. 

I am particularly interested in this topic myself as a university instructor who has taught on-campus, hybrid, and fully online courses and seen firsthand benefits and challenges of online approaches.  I started my teaching in a traditional classroom setting and was initially resistant to recommendations to offer my courses online.  Over time, I have gained insight into the variety of options for online learning, inherent as well as situational challenges of teaching online, and the utility of offering digital learning experiences.  While the findings and implications below are driven by our participants’ responses, my experience as a university instructor provides a lens for interpreting these findings and considering recommendations.

Challenges and Negative Perceptions of Online Higher Education

More than 70% of students, faculty, and administrators mentioned challenges when asked what they thought of digital learning in college.  For students and faculty, the kinds of problems mentioned were overwhelmingly related to asynchronous approaches, where a class is not meeting live at the same time, such as an inability to have discussions or ask questions, static content that becomes outdated, and the ability for students to hide.  This was a concern of mine when I was first urged to consider teaching online, as my courses rely heavily on student discussion and group work.  In many cases, study participants seemed to conflate online learning with asynchronous and even un-facilitated education, even though, as I have learned and many in higher education are now realizing, distance education can involve real-time interaction through approaches like live web-conferencing:

“I think that there’s a certain amount of dialogue I like to have with my students, even if it is a 40 student class where I like to ask them questions, and I like to put questions out, and you can just ask a question to the class and don’t say anything until someone answers. And if someone asks a question, not just answer them but try and get them to think of the answer. And I don’t see how you can do that in a online setting.” (Faculty)

“you can’t Skype with the whole class, I don’t think. That would be chaos, oh my God. But I think that that would be a big loss for a class for learning if people can’t discuss the material and challenge opinions and put their perspective on a situation or on a concept” (Student)

Administrators, too, often mentioned problems specific to asynchronous approaches, although in about equal measure as mentions of the impersonality of online learning, which was the second most common complaint for students and faculty.  Of course, asynchronous approaches often feel impersonal, but such a feeling can also manifest in synchronous approaches as well.  Participants expressed concern about the lack of personal contact, inability to develop or practice interpersonal skills, and people’s different online personas when lamenting the impersonality of distance education.  For example:

“Academically you could get the content, but you absolutely cannot get the experience. You can’t – you won’t learn how to interact with people, you won’t learn how to network, you won’t learn any of the interpersonal skills that a lot of people say is all you really need in life” (Student)

“I think if you think of schools as places where you simply are pouring information into student’s heads, then yes, perhaps college can be swapped out for an internet connection. But if you think about college as a place where you interact with a group of individuals who have your development, as a person, as their prime interest, as a member of society, as a citizen, maybe also as a professional, I think that that’s a critical thing. […] I think we have not found a technology that can replace this human interaction, this human contact.” (Faculty)

“I think for our student population, online is saying, ‘hi, let’s give you a way to fail, again.’ I think that many of our students need a connection with someone. They’re first generation most of them. If they don’t connect with people physically on the campus, they’re not going to succeed.” (Administrator)

In summary, despite coming from different perspectives on the college experience, students, faculty, and administrators were aligned in terms of the two main types of disadvantages they saw to online learning in college: issues around asynchronous approaches in which students and teachers cannot connect in real time, and the lack of personal connections with any type of online approach.  These are valid concerns, some of which can be addressed through thoughtful course design and pedagogy as discussed in the recommendations below.

The Benefits of Online Higher Education

Although more participants mentioned challenges of online education, our respondents also discussed benefits, in varying degrees.  Fewer than one-third of students mentioned positive aspects, while more than half of faculty and administrators offered strengths of online learning.  Of those who discussed benefits, however, participants from all groups agreed on the main value: access.  Responses detailed how online offerings allowed learners with schedule challenges or from different geographic locations to engage in learning that they would not otherwise be able to obtain.  Participants noted that online approaches can draw out students who may be shy or feel marginalized in a traditional classroom setting.  These are benefits that I have seen myself:  my online courses incorporated important international student perspectives, allowed students to pursue a degree who would otherwise not have access, and made students feel more visible and expected to contribute.  In addition, we heard about the benefits for those interested in accessing specialized content that is not offered at most schools, such as rare languages or unusual sub-fields.  A faculty member’s response nicely captured the set of responses discussing the benefit of access:

“Online education can be a really powerful tool if it’s done well. What I mean by that is there are a lot of students who maybe are introverted, maybe they’re shy, maybe they don’t feel empowered to speak, no matter what kind of classroom you have, no matter how the teacher is trying to create that space. In an online environment, a lot of those students will feel more empowered to voice their opinion, and as they start talking, they will feel more confident in the material, because you really can’t learn passively. [… Also] I think it’s really important, because for a lot of students working, for older students, mature students, who are coming back to finish school, this is fabulous for them, because they could do it after work, they could do it when the kids are asleep, etc. etc. So access is a huge thing.” (Faculty)

The recent shift online in response to COVID-19 is all about access, as students, faculty, and staff no longer have access to classrooms and campus resources.  However, our findings demonstrate that access is clearly a benefit even in normal contexts.  While access was the top positive aspect of online learning our participants identified, they also discussed two other categories of benefits: lower costs and online platforms’ unique opportunities. 

Respondents discussed financial benefits for both students, as online degrees can have lower tuition or fees, as well as for institutions, with less space and utilities needed for offices and classrooms.  Although all groups also mentioned that online learning requires novel resource inputs (like technical support staff and technology investments), more participants felt that online learning offered a net financial gain.  As a faculty member noted:

“You’re not paying for overhead. You’re not paying to heat a building; you’re not paying for a building.” (Faculty)

Some participants also tied finances to the issue of student access:

“if there’s somebody in an area who doesn’t have the means to actually go there, be it a physical impairment, be it financial, it’s a nice way to add some equity to education.” (Student)

In addition to expected discussions of cost, respondents mentioned the unique features of online platforms that could provide enhanced learning opportunities.  These affordances of a digital platform included the ability for students to set their own pace or revisit content, more streamlined assignment submission (and, in some cases, correction), easier progress checking, interactivity, and the fact that it is a natural medium for many students.  Examples included:

“Some of the lectures could be online, especially if the lectures are lectures where you really don’t have the opportunity to ask questions until after class. I feel like those could be online, and it could almost be beneficial to have even a video or having the interactive where you’re able to pose questions as you go because you’d be able to stop and review. In a video, at least, if you had a recording of the lecture you could listen to a part of it, go to your textbook, work through things, understand and continue on” (Student)

“You can see right away where everybody is having a problem, who did it, who didn’t, who’s falling behind, which, quite frankly, in class you can’t.” (Faculty)

“The wealth of resources that are available online is also really amazing. So being able to tie into those resources. Plus, that’s where so many young people are; they spend their whole day online, so it makes sense to have their education where they are and connect to what they’re interested in.” (Faculty)

Overall, while not as many participants discussed the benefits of online learning, many still did offer hope about how it could be used to bring value to a college education, especially when used thoughtfully to highlight the inherent strengths of a digital format.  Below, my colleagues and I offer recommendations for how higher education faculty and administrators should consider the implementation of online learning.

Implications & Recommendations

Although these findings were captured before the necessity of many institutions to move to online learning, there are lessons to be learned from the perspectives of these stakeholders, which correspond to what I have found in my own varied teaching.  As higher education shifts to the digital realm – in both the short-term and in general, my colleagues and I recommend that faculty and instructional designers consider the following:

  • Offer synchronous or blended approaches when possible. Many students and faculty raised concerns about issues specific to asynchronous approaches and often did not seem to realize it was even possible to meet live online. However, many courses take advantage of live web-conferencing to unite students and instructors from different locations.  Back-and-forth student discussions and question-and-answer sessions are possible in the digital realm, and breakout rooms allow for smaller conversations or group work.  Once higher education is back on campus, courses with a necessary in-person component, such as field work or lab experiment, could use a hybrid approach where lectures and discussions are online but hands-on activities are still on campus.  Similarly, flipped classrooms can maximize shared in-class time to engage in discussions, raise questions, and work on activities, moving passive components like listening to lectures or reading online during the students’ homework time.
  • Ensure effective communication between instructors and students. A key concern for students was not having timely access to faculty, especially to answer questions. For example, one student noted, “some teachers just put up the material and let you do your own work, and I’ve had some professors that haven’t emailed me back with my questions.”  While live web-conferencing mostly eliminates this problem, all faculty should be responsive to student inquiries; however, it may be useful to set clear expectations about how soon to expect replies and what form of communication is preferred.  This is good practice in general but especially important to consider right now, as everyone struggles to adapt to changed teaching and learning contexts.  Both students and faculty need to exercise patience while communicating transparently about needs and expectations.
  • Build connections between students. In addition to ensuring that faculty and students connect, it is also important to consider interactions between students. Many students mentioned the significance of gaining new perspectives by hearing their classmates’ ideas and questions, which is a natural part of many on-campus – as well as live web-conference – courses.  Consider how to foster digital interactions, which could potentially include discussion boards, real-time discussion sections, shared student videos, course-specific social media channels, or other creative opportunities to connect. 
  • Keep materials updated and dynamic. One frustration students had with online offerings was the tendency of some existing courses to reuse material with little to no updating, including broken links or outdated information. Keep online offerings fresh and up-to-date by regularly reviewing links, readings, and examples to ensure an optimal experience both logistically and conceptually.  To engage students and reduce the burden on faculty, consider involving students in this process by asking them to find new, relevant materials that could be used going forward. 

As college campuses eventually return to normal activities, these findings also suggest considerations for more traditional classrooms as well:

  • Record lectures. Students and faculty alike spoke about the usefulness of recorded lectures for students to revisit content or pause to take notes. Recorded lectures are also particularly useful for students whose first language is not English or who have various kinds of learning difficulties.  In addition to reinforcing and providing further access to content for students, recorded lectures can be useful for faculty to reflect on and improve their teaching practice.  This is not something unique to online learning; recording can – and has been – implemented in regular classrooms. 
  • Provide opportunities to track student progress. Students and faculty also appreciated the opportunity to follow students’ progress online throughout the semester. Students mentioned anxiety about not knowing where they stood in a course, whether because there were very few evaluated assignments or because instructors did not return assignments in a timely manner.  They felt online platforms with grade tracking or more frequent, minor digital assignments allowed them to have a better sense of their standing in the course.  On-campus courses could take advantage of learning management systems, which have become ubiquitous in much of higher education, to allow students – as well as faculty – such opportunities to track progress across the semester.
  • Encourage digital assignment submission and feedback. Learning management systems can also allow students to submit – and receive feedback on – assignments online. This has become very common across much of American higher education, but some students did complain about challenges in printing assignments and getting feedback from instructors.  Digital platforms can streamline the organization of assignments and even automatically grade certain types, making for a smoother experience for both students and faculty.
  • Incorporate multimedia or digital approaches. Beyond logistical benefits such as the ability to revisit content, track progress, and streamline assessment, our participants identified online materials as useful additions to course content. Using a variety of media may be more engaging, offer entry points to learners with different strengths and preferences, and feel more relevant.  Digital approaches also can provide opportunities for students to engage with issues of intellectual discourse on online platforms, allowing them to build critical thinking skills as they analyze others’ arguments and perspectives as well as media content.  Although online approaches may fit more seamlessly into distance education, traditional courses can also take advantage of – and cast a critical lens on – the rich trove of digital resources online.

Of course, these are not completely novel recommendations.  However, the fact that the issues underlying them, particularly related to asynchronous approaches and impersonality, arose in online learning for the students we interviewed signals that pedagogical best practices may not always be translated successfully into digital learning, even in normal times.  It is important to consider a variety of course design elements when transitioning from classroom instruction; effective distance education goes far beyond finding a platform to share the content.  To be sure, online learning cannot replace the museums, laboratories, chance meetings, and other campus-specific elements of college, and Internet access is a challenge for some students.  That said, our findings – and my personal experience – support a cautious hope that online education can continue to be thoughtfully integrated into higher education in creative ways that build on the field’s knowledge of effective teaching.  Online learning may be able to provide greater access to higher education at any time and also be ‘on call’ when in-person learning is not an option.

© Christina Smiraglia 2020

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2 Comments on “The Power, Pitfalls, and Practice of Online Higher Education”

  1. Damian Woetzel April 20, 2020 at 2:00 am #

    So interesting to read at this time, and feel fortunate to have the benefit of your research and recommendations as we look ahead to the return to normal campus life. Many thanks and looking forward to the full study.

    • Christina Smiraglia April 20, 2020 at 3:41 pm #

      Thanks so much for reading; I’m glad you found it interesting. Higher education is facing – and will continue to face – unique challenges in this context. However, the field is fortunate to have existing research and practices in a variety of learning approaches to draw on, and we hope our broader study can help contribute to the conversation. Best wishes for the current moment and the transition back to campus!

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