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Virtual Learning Meets Hands-On Training

Part two: Online education at BU is growing — but how far should it go?

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Susan Kryczka, BU’s director of distance education. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Boston University is going virtual in a big way. In just the past five years, the number of online BU students has skyrocketed from about 100 to around 3,000, creating an online student body equal to nearly 40 percent of enrollment in the College of Arts and Sciences. Yesterday, we explored the scope of online BU — what programs are offered to whom, and how are they taught? Today, we look at the expansion of virtual BU and ask what parts of the University should stay off-limits to online.

What not to web

The big discussion — what parts of the University, if any, should remain off-line — is fueled by the debate about just how thoroughly the human touch in teaching can be replicated, or even surpassed, with technology.

Scott Geron, a School of Social Work associate professor and director of the online courses in geriatric care offered by SSW, prefers “a more blended model,” one in which Internet-based training of staff in social service agencies is supplemented by face-to-face workshops. “It provides a way for practitioners to talk to each other and talk through the content they’ve received online,” says Geron.

Another type of blended program is the College of Engineering’s master’s in manufacturing engineering, which combines real-time video and Web-based instruction.

David Whittier, a School of Education assistant professor and coordinator of the master’s degree program in educational media and technology, also advocates mixing online and traditional classroom instruction whenever possible. He points out that each semester the line between online and traditional education becomes increasingly fuzzy, as professors put more and more components of their courses — from announcements to assignments to readings — on Web sites. “It almost seems like courses that are only face-to-face will gradually disappear,” he says. And with that in mind, he argues that BU should support more small-scale experiments with Internet pedagogy, rather than simply follow its current path, in which most online offerings are developed only after market research has indicated substantial nationwide consumer demand.

“There are so many possibilities before us to develop different learning experiences and resources, even with the present technology,” says Whittier, “let alone what tomorrow will bring.”

Whatever tomorrow may bring, almost all courses now offered through BU’s Office of Distance Education (ODE), a division of Metropolitan College and Extended Education, are taught completely online. Students at brick-and-mortar BU cannot enroll in online degree courses, and vice versa. The reason, according to Susan Kryczka, ODE’s director of distance education, is that ODE’s offerings have a very specific purpose: to provide postprofessional education to adult learners who are unable to attend classes at BU. She points out that the demands of leading discussions, answering student questions, and grading mean that course enrollment, even in a classroom without walls, is not unlimited.

“The big perk to BU’s program,” notes Jennifer Wojcik (CFA’07), chair of performing arts at the Gunnery, a Connecticut boarding school, who earned an online master’s in music education, “was that I would not have to leave my current teaching post to go back to school.”

For the time being, at least, BU will maintain a distinction between online and on-site course offerings. It will continue to keep bachelor’s degrees on-site, and not online. “Our undergraduate experience is predicated on the whole-campus experience — the experience of being with their peers and working directly with their professors,” says University Provost David Campbell. “Frankly, it’s what they’re paying for.”

In Campbell’s opinion, some face time between students and professors is also vital for doctoral students. “It’s inconceivable for anyone to pursue a Ph.D. entirely online,” he says. In fact, students working toward online doctorates in music education must come to campus for a weeklong dissertation-writing course. Likewise, those finishing up online degrees through Sargent have to spend two days on campus presenting their final projects. Students in the occupational therapy doctoral degree program starting this fall will also visit campus to meet with a faculty advisor before beginning classes.

Fragile reputation

While online education is once again booming, its reputation for quality in general is lagging. Online degrees are still taken less seriously than traditional degrees by many graduate schools and employers, including universities seeking new faculty, according to research by Margaret DeFleur, a former College of Communication professor, who is now an associate dean of graduate studies and research at Louisiana State University, and Jonathan Adams (SED’95), director of interactive and new communication technologies at Florida State University. In a 2006 study, for example, they found that 96 percent of employers evaluating résumés of hypothetical job applicants preferred a traditional degree to a virtual one.

A slightly rosier picture emerged from a 2005 survey by education consultant Eduventures, in which hundreds of employers were asked to compare the value of online education with traditional classroom study. Half of those surveyed found online and face-to-face instruction “equally valuable,” while 10 percent favored online learning and 38 percent preferred traditional education.

Regardless of what employers think, the students and alumni of BU’s online programs appear to value the education they receive. A survey of 885 current and former students conducted earlier this year by ODE found that only 18 percent of current students and 15 percent of alumni believe that online education is inferior to traditional classrooms, while nearly half of all respondents think online is superior.

Thus, as the world becomes more wired, or wireless, as the case may, and more of BU migrates to the Internet, administrators of the University’s online offerings say they will continue to focus on maintaining quality. They stress that the students who are accepted to virtual degree programs must meet the same standards as the traditional students admitted to each of BU’s schools and colleges.

“We don’t want to be perceived as moving in the direction of the University of Phoenix,” says Campbell.

“Those programs that have rigorous academic standards for admission, those that do include a residential component, and those that have some kind of rigorous assessment at the end will be considered of higher quality,” he says, adding, “the proof will come in the quality of the graduates.”

“The upside when it comes to expansion is that BU has a great brand name,” says Kryczka. “The downside is that BU has a great brand name. You’ve got to protect that brand name and make sure that whatever you put out there is quality.”

Vicky Waltz contributed to this story.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu. Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.