How Effective is Online Education?

How Effective is Online Education?

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Abstract: Recently, there has been a rush to create web-based instructional courses. The approach that is being taken to create web-based courses is to create websites that will function as the central distributors of information and materials. Based on the format and content of the course, the student is to go through lesson by lesson to complete courses. In this paper, I address some of the problems inherent in this approach, especially with respect to 18-22 year-old undergraduate education.


Technology has had a large impact on the field of education. The proliferation of multimedia resources and limitless amounts of information available through the Internet has fundamentally affected the learning process. Students no longer search through cards and stacks for magazine articles; almost everything is at the click of a finger. Multimedia resources are increasingly utilized in the classroom to help instruct students. Some professors are making conscious efforts to use new technology, so as to introduce and familiarize their students with it. The significance of technology in education is now being elevated to a new plateau. Education through the Internet, the great equalizer, may make it more widely distributed through the phenomenon of online courses. It is the thesis of this paper that online courses are not an effective means to educate traditional undergraduate college aged students (people from 18-22 years old).

In the undergraduate educational setting, student proficiency and comfort with technology are stressed, but the essential mission of most undergraduate institutions (especially, liberal arts institutions such as Dartmouth) is on the development of the individual. The nurturing and supportive environment of most undergraduate institutions helps students mature and develop. The rave and fad of online undergraduate learning causes students to miss out on too many intangibles of an on-campus education. Our current theory on education hasn’t adequately dealt with the intricacies of a web-based education, and therefore the effectiveness of such is highly questionable.


One of the most essential ingredients to an effective instructional environment is the initiative of the student. For the traditional undergraduate college student, this is one of the areas in which most problems exist [2]. The ‘traditional’ undergraduate college student should be construed as an average male and female between the ages of 18 and 22 who is at a transitional phase in life and learning to deal with independence.

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If a person who already lacks motivation to attend class with real-life professor is told to take a course with a virtual professor, it is a recipe for disaster. The self-paced nature of virtual courses may breed new levels of procrastination for college students. These types of courses are adequate for more mature students whom have learned to pace themselves, and can stay motivated.

Classroom Relationships

The effectiveness of a student’s learning is greatly augmented via the presence of fellow students [8]. The amount of learning that a person can do by working with another student is critical to the level of understanding and mastery that students can achieve. Students are more likely to ask each other questions related to the course materials than they are to ask the professor. The re-interpretation and paraphrasing of the coursework helps cement the understanding of both individuals.

For traditional undergraduates, the experience and growth that occurs from interacting with their peers is an important part of their undergraduate experience. Provided the institution is diverse (a goal of many schools), the student can learn about different countries and cultures via interactions with students of various backgrounds and origins. Learning is therefore transformed into a full-time occupation. At the same time, the student develops a stronger sense of identity and self. The student’s social and communicative skills become refined such that he or she can effectively communicate with people from all backgrounds. A person graduating from an online university would lack these interactive skills that are essential to success in the world today.

The fact that the student-to-teacher interaction is lost is also significant [23]. The personal relationships that students develop with professors are beneficial to their academic and personal development. By interacting with the professors, they can acquire mentors and role models. Their vision of who they are and what they want is affected by the interactions they have in college. By taking an online course, the loss of direct contact with the professor is significant. Students may feel too detached from the work.


The effectiveness of the manner of communication in the classroom is an element that is central to the learning process that students experience [11]. There are a new set of problems that arise due to the elimination of face to face contact that students traditionally experience in the classroom. Different manners of non-verbal communication, such as eye, body, and voice intonation will be lost. These are the ways that some students feel more comfortable communicating, instead of just explicitly stating their thoughts or feelings. Learning technical subject materials becomes tougher, because you can’t always interject to ask questions. Depending on the tools used for the course, it may be a while before a student’s inquiry is addressed. The experience could frustrate some students, while simultaneously slowing the learning of the material. What is further frustrating for both parties is the necessity of explicit detail because of the delayed nature of responses.

It is equally important to find ways of communication with which all the students will feel comfortable. Therefore, designers have to give a lot of thought to the backgrounds and cultures that students bring to the course [2]. Within that context, the professor should also find a way to provide individual attention and care to the students. In the process, he or she could find ways to gauge progress and keep communicating with the students in the class.

One specific example of the way an online course was structured was at University of Idaho in a course titled “Introduction to Educational Technology” [4]. The course was structured using a number of modules focusing on the traditional content for the course. Each module consisted of an overview, web-based instruction, a tutorial activity, and an assignment. The overview provided the student with general information on the module’s content. The instruction for the course was provided through a web-based facility, such as HTML text or web application. To cement the instruction received, the module followed with a step-by-step interactive tutorial. As most traditional classes, the module ended with an assignment to be submitted electronically. The students were encouraged to use modes of communication that included Chat sessions, e-mail, and telephone calls.

Perception and Attitude

One has to keep in mind the need for constant assessment in the development of an Internet based course. The success of the students in the course directly depends on their perceptions and attitude about the course [13]. The motivation and initiative might be there, but if the student doesn’t have a positive attitude and perception of the class, then it is pointless.

A regular, weekly survey should be distributed to the students so as to consistently evaluate the course and the students’ attitudes. The course should utilize the technology to customize the material to the individual’s learning style [22].

Effectiveness and Drawbacks of Technology

The current ways in which university professors have used technology to implement an online classroom is multi-dimensional. The central feature to a course online is the use of web pages through World Wide Web (WWW) as the major method of information distribution. It is a quick and simple way to make course information and factual data available to the class. The drawback is that it lacks any type of interactivity. Interactivity is crucial to the learning process. An active learner will acquire and integrate new knowledge more readily. To allow for interactivity, professors use web bulletin boards and e-mail. These methods are effective in allowing a student to ask any questions at any time, but, unfortunately, they are time consuming and they also lack synchronicity. Synchronicity is the ability to receive immediate responses and feedback. Many professors achieve this through web chat sessions. These sessions are effective in allowing for “real-time” interactions among students and professors, but the lack of face-to-face interactions can lead to impersonal and hard to manage conversations.

The resources mentioned are the basic tools to almost any Internet based course. In addition, some professors add multimedia facilities to help students visualize the course materials (these include video and sound clips). Professors can also create their own multimedia resources through the use of languages such as Java/Javascript and ActiveX/VB Script course [2]. Creating these resources require more time and technical knowledge.

School Web Pages Bulletin Boards Chat Sessions Telephone/E-mail Audio/Video

U of Wisconsin(1) Yes Yes No Yes NA

U of W. Georgia(2) Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

University of Idaho(3) Yes Yes Yes Yes No

UCSF(4) Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes


(1) Schlough & Bhuripanyo, 1998.

(2) Roblyer & Ekhaml, 1999. Model #1.

(3) Davis & et. al, 1999.

(4) DeBourgh, 1999.

It is important that the professors realize that implementing an Internet course will require more time and attention than teaching a regular college course. Using technology may cause many problems and difficulties requiring a large technical support staff.

Effectiveness with Respect to Different Subjects

The effectiveness of an online course lends itself to certain subjects above others. The technical fields: mathematics, the sciences, engineering, and business seem the most suited for instruction online. The visual representations that online classes would allow are a more effective means of teaching the technical fields. For example, a science course could be enhanced through animations and diagram images.

A professor teaching the humanities would have a harder time in adapting to online teaching. The nature of the discipline requires more individualized attention and more discussion oriented sessions. The current technology that is available would make discussions and group sessions much harder. It is important for researchers need to address the social ramifications of having discussions online. It is possible that they may promote more openness in discussions of sensitive and controversial issues, but the current structure of online forums leads to conversations that are impersonal and withdrawn.


An undergraduate education received through the Internet is not a good option for a college-aged student. The effectiveness of the current technology and pedagogy is not appropriately comparable to the effectiveness of physically attending class. The tools at the disposal of both student and teacher are not enough to facilitate communication to its fullest extent. Furthermore, the intangible learning experiences that undergraduates receive cannot be replaced by universities online.

Many schools are currently trying to convert some of their courses to web-based courses. The simple conversion to multimedia, and HTML of the course plan is not sufficient. The basic manner and structure of these courses needs to be affected [8]. The designer needs to think of innovative ways to customize the material. The technology needs to be reactive to slight changes in mood and behavior, such as a counselor or an undergraduate advisor. The designer needs to find ways to gauge the progress and understanding of each student. The psychological impact of physical contact (or lack thereof) should be explored. What kinds of implicit effects does an online education have? What are the sociological implications for the individual?


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