BU Today

Science & Tech

Virtually Yours

Online education at BU is clicking with students. But how far should it go? Illustration by Mark Matcho

Last month, BU Today published a two-part series about online education at Boston University. Part one examines the scope of virtual BU, which has grown from 100 students to about 3,000 in just the past five years. The second part looks into the different models of online learning and asks the “legitimacy” question, which distance education has been dealing with for years. The series drew strong reactions from readers, at BU and across the country. One reader felt we didn’t ask tough enough questions about the University’s online plans, while others defended the worth of online learning — in terms of both pedagogy and social justice. We include a sample of these letters below.

Missed Opportunity

Your articles were informative, thank you, but not nearly investigatory enough. The emphasis by Distance Education leadership is skewed. For example, Susan Kryczka [BU’s director of distance education] wants to be sure we don’t go in the University of Phoenix direction. Yet she pretty much opposes degree programs that combine online courses with campus courses. 

There are many creative possibilities that Distance Education simply ignores. For example, we [at the School of Education] proposed online graduate degree programs wherein courses — particularly appealing to teachers nationwide — can be taken online, part-time, or even full-time during the academic year and then enrollees can come to intensive summer courses at Boston University. 

Moreover, the importance of being in the culturally and intellectually stimulating location of Boston and all it has to offer and of the campus experience were never addressed. “Blended” does not simply refer to specific courses that are both online and in-class experiences, but programs as well can potentially be blended — i.e., with some courses online and others on campus. 

Distance Education, in its mode of being divorced from serving other schools and other ideas of the University, is ignoring this market, unfortunately. Ironically, it is traveling more in a University of Phoenix direction, not less, as it claims. 

Douglas Zook, associate professor of curriculum and teaching
BU School of Education

Of Dollars and Distance

As a professor at a small, senior-division college in north Alabama and a parent of a BU student, I was really interested in this series. (Senior division means we offer junior and senior years to students who have attended community college.)

For our students, who are nontraditional, online seems be the only way to support themselves and their families and receive an education. Many of our students are first-generation college students and are older. They are already in the workforce and are fulfilling a lifelong dream of a college education.

As someone who is struggling as a single parent to pay for BU, I care about the social justice issues in education. I wish that more students could afford the luxury of four years of academic preparation with dorm living and campus life, but it is just not an economic reality for most of the students that attend my college. 

We require field experience in every course in the department of education, which I think is important. That leaves me to make sure that to the best of my ability, my online and blended offerings are of the same quality of those that are face-to-face.

It is an interesting dilemma. I have really appreciated the series.

Melissa Werner, assistant professor of early childhood education
Athens State University

Online Excellence

Those who might doubt the validity of an online university program need to take a course prior to passing judgment. Having been a student both in the traditional classroom and in my online program at BU, I can say with confidence that while they are different in delivery method and style, they are no different in quality. I looked for a long time before choosing BU to pursue my graduate degree, selecting it primarily for its reputation for academic excellence and the fact that it is a well-established university. Boston University holds all students to high standards.

People assume that going to school online means that it is easier, but that is not the case.

By being required to participate in weekly discussions and online chats or lose valuable points off my grade, I was forced to gain a working knowledge of the subject matter in order to debate with my classmates. While I yearned for the interaction with my classmates and teachers that I had at the undergraduate level, this style of learning required me to think harder and apply myself.

Not all relationships suffered because states and sometimes continents separated me from my teachers and classmates. Some of us formed a bond that continued to be strengthened through our time at BU. Though we could not hang out at the GSU or study together at Mugar, we formed study groups and forged friendships nonetheless.

My first trip to Boston was for graduation in May. It was not until I got to
campus that I truly felt “home.” I was also jealous of the students who were able to attend school on campus and got to know BU better. Part of being a distance learner includes being separated not only from our classmates, but from the campus and its resources as well. I only hope that my first trip to Boston will not be my last.

I am proud to be an alumna of Boston University and look forward to getting to know my university better. To those who would suggest that my degree is somehow less than worthy simply because I earned it online I would say: take a look. My degree doesn’t look any different, because we are all Terriers — some of us just have a longer commute than others.

Tracey Dolehite (MET’07)
Dallas, Texas

Fight for Legitimacy

I have recently graduated from American Intercontinental University’s online program for my undergrad and have just started up online classes with BU for graduate work in banking and financial services management. When you are an online student, you constantly feel the stigma that it is not “real school” and feel the constant need to defend the work you do. 

At AIU I was writing one to two papers a week, usually 6 to 14 pages in length, as well as mandatory discussion board submissions and responses. Through the writing of these papers and class lectures (done through a chat forum), I feel I did receive a very good education. However, despite excellent grades, I still had that worry that no employer or grad school would accept my degree as “legit” (even though AIU online is accredited).

BU accepted me into its Banking and Financial Services Master’s Program, providing me with the validation that I needed for my undergrad degree. It has been a learning experience exploring the differences between BU and AIU as far as online education is concerned. The chats are interactive, but all written previously, with extra news video and screens to accentuate the reading, which you click on as you go along. This is a brilliant way to ensure that your mind stays actively involved with the course work. There are team projects, discussion boards, and, yes, exams. The midterm is not proctored, but the final exam is. 

From the beginning of my work with BU, I have not felt at all concerned that I will not be receiving a “real” degree. The course work is intense enough to prove that to me. Plus, being able to attend BU fulfills a dream I’ve had since I was 10, which is to go to the same school my father graduated from (undergrad and law). I never thought that would have been possible from Des Moines, Iowa!

I would like to thank you for your positive take on online education, while at the same time pointing out the potential negatives. The fact of the matter is it has opened up the opportunity to complete schoolwork for people in unique situations. My husband is in a career that requires moving every few years, and I am currently working 10-hour days. To attend traditional school is impractical for me. This allows me to fit the course work and lectures in even if it is at 3 in the morning or 11 at night. I am not doing this because I am lazy or a slacker; I am doing it because I am determined to get this degree.

Beth Butts (MET’09)
Des Moines, Iowa

Where Online Shines

I’m a current student in the online undergraduate degree completion program at BU and will finish up this year. I want to challenge you to explore the positive nature of learning online since I believe there are some educational opportunities that far exceed the potential of classroom learning.

Internet and online learning is all about interaction. In the “water cooler” (a chat room) of Philosophy Through Film (in progress), we recently had a debate about the war in Iraq that included neoconservatives, liberals, a BU professor, and a letter from a soldier in Iraq. This is exciting, even groundbreaking. It’s important to note that this sort of interaction can only be accomplished online.
Jim Stewart (MET’08)
Riverside, California

Readers who would like to share their thoughts about the two-part online education series are invited to send comments to Chris Berdik at cberdik@bu.edu.