A Creative Choice: Using Online Instruction to Help Make College Affordable

My daughter graduated from high school last week. She has her whole life ahead of her—a career, family, and hopefully, college. I worry about college. Even though my husband and I are both more affluent than both of our parents, college for my daughter seems almost out of our reach. Not only has college costs skyrocketed, but the job market for graduating college students looks dismal. Making things worse, this week congress worked on a bill that makes college loans variable, an increase in college debt for sure.

In order to help students still obtain a good college education in this waning economy, colleges look at online courses to reach students where they are. With the age of the internet, it is no longer necessary for students to travel to universities to receive a stellar education. Today, students can minimize debt by staying at home to save on dorm costs and other expenses associated with living away from home.

Some institutions and professors worry that the quality of an online course isn’t as good as a face-to-face course. In a Pew Internet study, only 30 percent of the faculty in higher institutions believe online learning is a legitimate method for learning. (Would that be because they have never taken or taught an online course?) On the other hand, a large number of the chief academic officers, almost 70%, think that online learning is critical to their long term strategy. Under the economic hardships students are facing today, I think this strategy displays merit. An online course, designed well, can be just as engaging and promote student learning as well as a face to face class. In fact, a well-thought out online course is often better. I know this to be a fact because I learned so much more in my master’s program, which was fully online, than in my traditional undergraduate education in a brick and mortar school.

Let’s face it, a course can be awful or wonderful, no matter the modality. When I was enrolled in my undergraduate program, I had a professor who read from the book. That was his lecture, no kidding. I also had a teacher make history so alive that I was never bored. My theory stands that the teacher that read from the book would not (or could not) create a course to motivate me in his online class. And the professor that made history exciting in the classroom would find a way to do that online.

The solution to quality online courses lies in institutional administrators and faculty to commit to quality. To promote quality courses, institutions employ instructional designers to help professors build courses that transfer the engagement and quality of a face-to-face class to online courses. (An instructional designer is an expert in course design and pedagogy.) The designer is trained in many technologies and can suggest a variety of ways make an online course more interesting and engaging for the student. There exists a plethora of tools readily available for online content. There are also systems of looking at course design following a set of standards to promote quality courses. One of these systems is called Quality Matters. Quality Matters was developed to review courses for standards of quality backed by research.

My friends all have bachelor’s degrees, most have masters degrees, and many have, or or working on their doctorate. We often talk about our college debt, regretting the money we spent on private institutions, elite schools, dorm life. We think about how much better off financially we would be if we started at community colleges, lived at home, and attended a good state school. I thought of my daughter as she walked across stage. Her next step in the fall begins at an expensive pastry school, but only for a semester. Then her choices need to be less about a traditional college experience and more about how will she be able to meet her career goals without student loans and other debt. She will need to be smarter, perhaps beginning at a community college, miss out on dorm life, choose a school that will not take most of her paycheck when she graduates, and perhaps take some classes online.

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