Professors, students debate merits of Net-based classes

Some GW graduates earn their degrees without setting foot on any campus.

Known as “distance learning,” the online programs GW offers allow students to take courses using the Internet to gain the same credits as traditional on-campus classes. The programs were designed by GW to reach a wider variety of students, said Sheryl Elliott, an associate professor at the School of Business.

“Online courses create equity in higher education, allowing students who are working, or living in remote places to continue in education pursuits,” Elliott said.

Academics have debated the legitimacy of such degrees.

Last month The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that many employers distrust online degrees. The article stated that many surveys of employers found online degrees are considered less impressive on a resume.

Jonathon Chaves, a professor in the Chinese Department, said that while he has never taught an online course he believes an education comprising solely of online courses “would be a mockery of real education.”

“I consider the face-to-face classroom experience to be an essential part of higher education,” Chaves wrote in an e-mail. “I could see having one or two such classes as part of a larger experience, but for one’s entire education to be conducted this way would represent a real impoverishment of the spirit.”

Elliott, who developed the online course model used at GW, said she found more accountability in the online program than in traditional on-campus classes. She hypothesized that the reason was because the program caters more toward professionals.

“You have a different basket of students who are professional, serious and generally financing the degree themselves (not their parents),” she said. “They want to get their money’s worth.”

Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman said although the course content and learning expectations are the same for both distance and traditional students, there are some additional barriers in taking classes online.

“The pursuit of online education requires the student to be more independent and self-motivated,” Lehman said.

He said GW’s courses are designed to aid distance learning students as much as possible, adding that when done correctly, the results can trump traditional education.

“If an online course is carefully designed for the online medium, it may turn out to be a better course than one given in the normal classroom environment,” Lehman said.

To simulate the classroom experience online, distance learning courses use facilitators and peer groups to keep students motivated. The courses use multimedia lectures, a feature rare in other online course programs. GW officials said these lectures can be costly to create, update and host but help keep distance learning more interactive.

Craig Linebaugh, associate vice president for Academic Planning, stressed the potential a well-designed course might have. He said the University’s creative course designs have the potential to mirror more traditional classes.

“A well-constructed online program which provides for a high level of student-student and student-faculty interaction and enables students to achieve appropriate learning outcomes (like GW’s) can be just as effective as on-campus programs,” Linebaugh said.

Distance learning student Samantha L. Kemp, who chose GW’s online program because it enabled her to stay in her home state of Montana, said she enjoys her experiences with the program. Kemp, 39, said there is no way to equate the Net-based courses with traditional campus education.

“I don’t feel you can compare the two. They are inherently different experiences,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I may not have the close interaction with the professor that the campus students have due to access, but I believe that is the responsibility of the online student to initiate those conversations.”

Kemp said there are definite advantages to taking a course online such as being able to rewind lectures and, in GW’s program, the professors are accessible and encouraging. She admitted there were disadvantages, such as lacking access to resources normally available for traditionally educated students.

Students taking traditional courses in classrooms have expressed concerns over the online approach.

Sophomore Priyam Chokshi said learning on a computer would deprive the student of peer interaction essential to a liberal arts education.

“The most important thing to keep in mind is that going to class can open up new perspectives and ideas students can never gain from a textbook alone,” Chokshi said.

Freshman Devon Kelley, who has taken online courses at other universities, questioned the legitimacy of an online degree.

“It’s ridiculous that someone could take a bunch of online courses in place of learning in the classroom,” Kelley, said. “The experiences are so completely different that both cannot be called the same degree.”

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