Guest Post: The Debate Over Online Education: University Professors Weigh In

Guest Post by: Jim Hinton

The debate over online education has been going on for a while now. It has its proponents and its detractors, with good arguments on both sides. One thing that seems to stand out fairly strongly in the debate is that it seems that university professors don’t seem to be on the side of the proponents.

One example is Harry R. Lewis. The former dean of Harvard’s undergraduate college, he believes that online education is seriously lacking in its ability to serve the underlying purpose of education. In an interview with The Atlantic, he expressed concern with the asynchronous nature of online education. “Part of the process of education happens not just through good pedagogy but by having students in places where they see the scholars working and plying their trades.”

Some scholars, however, have certainly started to express favor for the online educational model. Some of these supporters of this new frontier in education are professors at one of America’s oldest institutions of learning, Rutgers University. Rutgers has been using the “virtual world” of Second Life as a platform for nearly a decade.

Naedav Lipkin has been a guest lecturer within that program for Rutger’s School of Communication and Informatics. He ties the online learning environment with the increasingly computerized work space many students will move on to after graduation.

“Second Life is sort of what it sounds like. It’s a second life. It’s a virtual space that looks like a game but in many ways is just a social meeting place,” he explained. “’Self and Society in Virtual Contexts’ has always been a class designed around using Second Life as a platform for experiences in virtual worlds. Anywhere where people are congregating, meeting, doing things online, this class is all about understanding those things and how they can be appropriately integrated into a job.”

Dr. Sharon Stoerger, director of Rutgers’ Information Technology and Informatics program, has spoken in favor of this implementation.

“When virtual worlds are implemented into a course, it provides an instructor the ability to overcome challenges that cannot be met by other technological systems and increases the potential for experiential learning,” she wrote. “In particular, students can meet with each other or other users and through using an array of communication tools, voice chat and text chat, they are able share and gather information, build networks, and perform higher order learning tasks.”

Following its experimentation with using Second Life as a platform to instruct some classes, Rutgers elected to expand to a full online education program for some of its offerings. In 2011 Rutgers began offering several degrees as 100% online options, including 11 Masters degrees ranging from an MBA through to Music Education.

Dr. Antonius Bittmann is the Associate Vice President of the Online Programs Division of Continuing Studies. In discussing the decision Rutgers made to offer some of its degrees through the online format, he expressed enthusiasm for the innovations online education is bringing.

“It means new ways of reaching students,” he explained. “It means new ways of educating students. New ways of defining Rutgers as an educational institution. New ways of teaching students that they are members of a global community. The new technologies are very much part of this innovation and a part of achieving those objectives.”

Dr. Laura Curran agrees. She directs the online Masters of Social Work program. She particularly favors the role of online education in the lives of older, non-traditional students. “You get to work on your own schedule, it’s flexible, it’s easier to combine online with all the other responsibilities that folks who are now returning to school attempt to juggle.”

So far, the results have been overwhelming. Rutgers boasts 65,000 students enrolled in their traditional programs. However, as of 2014, Dr. Bittmann proudly stated that the 100% online programs had 45,000 students. It’s not just all those students who seem convinced either. The Association of American Universities inspected Rutgers and maintained its fully accredited status.

In the end, though, it is the students themselves who are the final arbiter of the success or failure of online education. One of Lipkin’s students summarized her conclusion succinctly. “We are now in this technological age where you might be working with someone that’s not even in the same country as you. So being able to communicate with people and work in groups via the Internet is very, very important.” The professors at Rutgers, it seems, are onto something.

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