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3 myths about online education

October 15, 2018

In an age of declining or stagnating enrollment, and heightened financial pressure, many institutions look to online and hybrid learning as a silver bullet for these problems. However, despite a growth in both the number of online and hybrid programs and student enrollments, misconceptions about the potential and limitations of these modalities persist.

1. Online learning is less expensive to scale

The scalability myth stems from the advent of new technologies which were seen as a way to make higher education more productive. In traditional learning environments scale is limited by the physical size of the classroom, the operating hours of the institution’s buildings, and the availability of students and instructors. However, many individuals believe that new technology allows institutions to transcend these constraints through asynchronous online courses which can be easily and inexpensively scaled.

Such analyses often ignore some of the additional costs associated with developing new online programs, such as the cost of instructional design support or course development stipends, which can limit their scalability. Additionally, as online and hybrid students expect more from their courses, institutions need to invest in instructor pedagogical training, more interactive and sophisticated course design, and extensive student support services, all of which cost both time and money.

2. Online education is less effective than face-to-face instruction

One of the most enduring stigmas associated with online education is that it is inherently inferior to traditional face-to-face education because it is assumed that the modality does not allow for high-quality interaction with students.

In reality, modality is not a key determining factor of quality. Just as in the case of face-to-face pedagogy, all online courses and programs are not created equal.

Research has found that the key determining factors that separate effective and ineffective face-to-face courses apply to online courses as well. More specifically, in the case of both instructional modalities successful courses facilitate active learning among students, allow for frequent student-instructor interactions, and include individualized student support services. All of these characteristics are possible in online learning environments.

3. Online learning makes geographic boundaries irrelevant


Of online students live in the same state as their institution
Of online students live in the same state as their institution

With the rapid spread of internet access and the ubiquity of smart phones and laptops, many outside of higher education believe that online learning will allow students all over the world to access high quality education. However, few international students opt to pursue an online degree program. In fact, in many cases, a vast majority of exclusively online students are in the same state as their institution.

Recent Learning House data shows that 66% of online students live within 50 miles of their institution, and another 12% are within 100 miles. Moreover, the proportion of students taking exclusively online courses who are in the same state as the institution at which they are enrolled has increased over time, from 50.3% in 2012 to 56.1% in 2016. Similarly, the number of foreign online students has remained fairly flat since 2012.

Between 2012 and 2016, online international students have comprised less than 5% of total international students studying in the United States. One possible concern could be cost. While many online degree programs in the U.S. might be cheaper than comparable face-to-face programs, in many cases they are still significantly more expensive than programs at regional and local institutions. Moreover, in many countries, governments do not even recognize online degrees because of quality concerns and perceptions of rampant fraud.

As institutions investigate developing and expanding their online education portfolio, it is important to recognize the true potential and limitations of the modality. In the case of each myth, the reality is often more nuanced and a better understanding of the true potential of online learning can help set institutions up for success.

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