Michelle Li returns to her home in North Quincy after a long day of work at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and opens her laptop to go to class. She listens to a live lecture taking place some 10 miles away at Boston University’s Metropolitan College. Li, 29, from China, is pursuing a Masters in Computer Information Systems and is enrolled in one of the many online programs being offered by BU.
Like Li, many students in the U.S and around the globe are taking advantage of distance learning. Rapid advances in technology have made distance education possible, and pursuing a master’s degree from a renowned university from the convenience of one’s home, a reality.
The Office of Distance Education at BU launched its first program, Master of Criminal Justice, in 2002 in collaboration with Metropolitan College. From the first batch of 45 students, BU has expanded to offer online graduate programs in Art Education, Music Education, Computer Information Systems, Management and Taxation Law, leading to increased enrollments. Students can opt for either the purely online degrees or the blended format, called eLive, which combines pure distance learning with on campus interaction.
As a testament to its development over the years, BU’s Computer Information Systems online masters’ degree program was ranked second and its online graduate management programs ranked eighth by the 2014 U.S. News & World Report on online programs.
On the other side of the Charles River, Harvard University and MIT collaborated to launch17 courses on edX, a jointly founded platform for delivering massive open online courses, known as MOOCS, from the fall of 2012 to the summer of 2013.
This trend towards the online model is becoming increasingly prevalent in all walks of life, especially in the corporate and education sectors. “Companies allow people to work from home,” said Dr. Eric J. Braude, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at BU, in a telephone conversation. “More and more of the actual real world is in this online mode and so the idea of learning in the online mode is not that hard or strange or, even different.”
Faculty members at BU interact with students asynchronously using Blackboard Vista, a web based learning management system, which incorporates online lectures and notes, lecture transcripts, simulations, video/audio, interactive animations, discussion boards, and, in some cases, scheduled live classroom sessions. Students also have the option of video conference discussions with the instructor.
As a way to break the cyber-space isolation, the Office of Distance Education at BU assigns a facilitator, who is a professional in the subject area, to every 15 students, working with them on a personal level and providing constant feedback.
Assignments, papers and projects are all submitted through the web interface. As for the exams, those students unable to physically attend BU, can take them at convenient proctored exam sites or via ProctorCam, a secure online system.
The flexibility of this mode of learning naturally attracts people like Li, who have to juggle a hectic day job with their family life. “Because of my work and the long commute, I cannot attend classes, so this is really convenient for me,” Li said. Li, like the majority of the students doing the online Masters in Computer Information Systems, is a part time student and takes a maximum of two courses per semester. She is pacing her degree at her own convenience, and could take up to three or four years to complete the work.
In view of the rapidly changing technology, Dr. Tanya Zlateva, who is the Dean Ad Interim of Metropolitan College and Extended Education, talked about the need for new skills and knowledge, which brings working professionals back to school. “Many people like their job, they are in a career, they just feel they need additional credentials and new competencies in order to be promoted,” Dr. Zlateva said, after a seminar at the Metropolitan College conference room.
With an average age of 30 to 35 years, students enrolled in BU’s distance education programs are predominantly U.S citizens or North Americans. For the modest international student population, Dr. Zlateva believes cost is a barrier. “Of course, it’s much less expensive than coming on-campus, residentially, but even so it’s not very cheap for, let’s say, countries like China or India, where the average income is relatively low,” she said.
With distance education so heavily reliant on technology and the Internet, a break in the connection or bad reception could potentially cancel a day’s worth of classes. Li has had similar experiences, when heavy thunderstorms disrupted her signals, stalling her video lectures. But such instances are few and far between, she said.
A 2011 survey conducted by Pew Research found a great divide over the value of online learning. Most college graduates had a negative view of the value of a class taught online as opposed to one taught in a more traditional classroom setting. Of those with a personal experience of online learning, 39 percent said online classes in general provided an equal value when compared with face-to-face interaction. And while 51 percent of college presidents said online classes offered an equal value, 48 percent disagreed.
According to Dr. Zlateva, studies such as the one conducted by Pew Research in 2011 are not conclusive and mostly differ in opinion. Classroom and online learning “can be equally effective,” said Dr. Zlateva. “I do not see that inherent in the medium, it’s actually inherent in how the teaching is done, how the classroom and the virtual environment are used.”
In fact, some professors at BU talked about the value added to the learning through the online set up. “I’ve learned the most amount by actually solving problems and working through them and using all my other resources to help me do that,” said Dr. Braude. “Ultimately, the real learning I have to do myself.”
What is more conducive to learning in an online setting, according to both Dr. Zlateva and Li, is the playback option, which is less likely to happen in a live classroom of 50 students. “If I don’t understand something, I can hit playback, or Google it and find more information to understand what the professor is saying about the topic,” said Li.
BU’s Metropolitan College is looking to expand its online course offerings in the near future. In a recent email, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Metropolitan College, Dr. Lou Chitkushev said “We plan on introducing the online graduate Analytics program, which will cross several academic units and departments, Security and Business Continuity programs as well as expanding our Health Informatics online program.”
As for the future of higher education, experts in a 2012 Pew Research report predicted mass adoption of distance learning and a transition to “hybrid” classes that combine online learning with less frequent on-campus meetings. The online content is, in fact, being incorporated in traditional classroom settings. “This is adding new quality to teaching in general,” said Dr. Zlateva.