Virtual classrooms are gaining importance in traditional education, but expert opinions are mixed.
While the number of schools offering distance learning have soared over recent years, some experts agree that, despite controversy around the effectiveness of online education, the virtual classroom is becoming an important part of higher education.
“Online courses have a place, and they are here to stay,” says Andy Zucker, a senior researcher for Concord Consortium, a nonprofit pioneer in online education.
While Zucker says he believes virtual learning plays an important role in curriculum, he cautions that online education and technology cannot replace in-class activities.
Zucker also believes that studying with other students under the supervision of a teacher is more effective.
The evidence for continued growth of online education is strong. A study conducted by Eduventures, a research and consulting company for higher education, revealed that the number of online only course enrollments tripled in the last eight years in the United States–and it is expected to keep growing.
Online education on the rise
The Pew Research Center found that 50 percent of college presidents surveyed predicted that in 10 years, most of their students will take some classes online.
These predictions may not come as a surprise in a time when digital books, multi-person video chats and the ability to edit documents in groups online are a reality.
Many colleges and organizations are listening and have created digital educational resources to enhance distance learning. Teams of research scientists and software developers have introduced online games and 3-D and social media into the educational process. For example, Concord Consortium offers innovative digital interactive tools that allow students to explore chemical structures, genetic information and examine physics laws through games.
Reservations about Online Education
In spite of the innovations, some have expressed concerns about the effectiveness of online education.
According to Pew, only 29 percent of students surveyed say that the value of online courses is equal to the value of ones taken in a classroom. Pew also found that 71 percent of students who took online classes perceived distance learning as less effective than in-class activities.
“Technology helps and hurts at the same time,” says Wes Fondren, a Coastal Carolina University professor who studies the use of technology in the communication process. Students want a low cost education in time, commitment, energy, efforts, finances, and scheduling, according to Fondren. But the problem is that ‘you get what you put in.’
Another problem in online education is the lack of intellectual stimulus, social development and human aspect, Fondren says.
People who receive most of their education online are “wealthy in information and poor in basic activities.”
They may have difficulties in simple activities like taking notes and working in groups.
Distance Learning Eases Financial Woes
Even though some experts have voiced concerns about online education, the increase in virtual learning doesn’t seem to be slowing down; the number of schools offering degrees entirely through online courses has boomed.
One reason for this may be reduced financial costs of offering classes online versus in person.
A study from Inside Higher Education, an online news agency, found that 75 percent of college presidents named distance learning as the main solution to their financial problems.
According to Fondren, the trend in education is parallel to trends in everyday life.
“Culture is striving for lower costs in time, efforts and money,” he says.