Over the last several years, the Internet has become a dominant force in news, commerce and social interaction. Americans love online convenience. They want to use their phones or computers to get their news, pay their bills, buy their clothes and keep in touch with friends. Why not use online communication to earn a university degree?
The tradition of bringing students to campus and meeting with them face to face is strong at a large school like Kansas University, but it’s only smart for KU officials to look at ways to blend — or, in some cases, even replace — the traditional classroom setting with online technology.
The demand already is there. Many smaller colleges, including many private institutions, are going after people who want or need to complete a degree outside a traditional campus setting. In Kansas, Fort Hays State University has been a pioneer in online courses, and its president offered some excellent insights in a story in Tuesday’s Journal-World.
A number of large universities are pursuing massive online courses that are offered free to everyone, but without credit. FHSU President Ed Hammond says that’s not what most students are looking for. They want to establish credentials and further their careers; for that they need to take courses for credit and have those courses lead to a degree. Although online students have some different needs, he said, they also have many of the same needs as traditional students: access to library materials, tutoring and other support services, along with financial aid. Hammond also notes that online teaching requires skills that not all classroom instructors have, and just because students aren’t in a classroom doesn’t mean they don’t need feedback and communication.
The first step for many KU instructors is to use the Internet as a teaching tool, and that already is happening. The next step, however, is to offer not just a course here and there, but full degree programs that can be completed entirely or almost entirely online.
There is much to be said for the traditional campus learning environment, but that model doesn’t work for everyone. In the current economy, many students must work while completing a degree, and that job may not be conveniently located near an appropriate college or university. Although officials say online courses aren’t necessarily less expensive than on-campus courses, it seems that, over time, a decline in a university’s physical plant needs would allow it to reduce tuition costs.
Maintaining their academic integrity while making a shift to more online courses and degrees will pose a challenge, but KU and other universities can’t afford to ignore this trend.